U.S.-Colombian FTA: Will it Be A Victory for Continuity over Change?

•Summit exchanges reveal Obama’s keenness to advance free trade discussions with Bogotá ahead of President Uribe’s June 29 visit to Washington.
•Free trade agreement with Colombia has been stalled in U.S. Congress since 2007, but key Democrats signal movement is imminent
•Let House majority leader Steny Hoyer prove his blind claim that “remarkable progress” has been made on violence against trade unionists in Colombia
•Uribe administration’s myriad of other transgressions inexplicably overlooked on Capitol Hill
•Free trade harms workers in U.S. as well as abroad, irrespective of the conditions applied by Washington

The election of President Barack Obama was celebrated by much of the leadership throughout Latin America as the precursor to vastly improved relations between their long-ignored or exploited region and the United States. Indeed, as he travels to Washington on June 29, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe will no doubt be more than satisfied with developments under the new U.S. administration. However, Obama’s record to date must surely be sowing the seeds of disappointment in the minds of many others. With one Summit of the Americas (SOA), and the 100-day yardstick of his presidency behind him, it is striking that thus far one of the most significant developments to occur in Washington’s Latin America policy under Obama reflects the continuation of contentious Bush-era politics rather than the sweeping change he promised upon assuming office. The Obama administration’s compelling rhetoric, along with some movement on a number of contentious issues – notably relations with Cuba and drug-related violence in Mexico – seemed enough to enrapture many regional leaders, including former president Bush’s outspoken adversary Hugo Chávez at April’s Summit of the Americas. However, the real story to emerge from that meeting was Obama’s apparent eagerness to revive one of his predecessor’s most cherished projects: the pending U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

While other U.S. leaders have experienced hostility, Obama found cooperation at the SOA summit in Trinidad by appearing to abandon previous presidents’ attempts to fashion a hemisphere-wide free trade bloc. However, his administration sent a clear signal at the summit that Washington continues to see bilateral trade agreements as a key feature of its future relations with Latin America. Obama’s move, a significant change in tack from his stance only a year ago, will rightly raise fresh questions on Capitol Hill about the human rights record of Álvaro Uribe’s government in Colombia. As his administration comes under closer scrutiny, it will likely further expose deep rifts within the Democratic Party over the subject. However, the invocation of the superficial standards which U.S. politicians are using to assess Colombia’s progress could obscure a more fundamental debate about the real impact of free trade, which will inevitably harm already vulnerable workers both in the U.S. and in Colombia. Many, including COHA, have conjectured that free trade with Colombia would bring welcome economic benefits to both sides. While this may well be the case and is almost certainly the motivation, the human cost of these benefits is too often overlooked. In the case of Colombia, that cost currently seems far too high.

Congress Blocks Progress
The U.S.-Colombia FTA was signed in Washington by trade representatives of both countries in November 2006, and was passed by the Colombian Congress the following year. However, thus far it has failed to clear the U.S. Congress since it was sent for approval by President Bush in April 2007. While there is also a protectionist concern about the potential impact of the FTA on domestic U.S. industry, Congressional Democrats typically justify their refusal to sanction the agreement by citing the murder of trade unionists that has been rife in Colombia. Indeed, during his presidential campaign, Obama himself condemned the violence against workers with which the Uribe administration has been so closely identified. Speaking in April 2008, Obama explained his opposition to an FTA with Colombia by saying, “the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.” This remark sparked an angry reaction from Uribe himself, who was subsequently reported by El Tiempo as saying, “I deplore that Senator Obama, aspiring to be president of the U.S., ignores Colombia’s efforts.”

Obama Changes Course, Pushes for Agreement

The spectacle of Obama’s apparent insistence on sitting next to Uribe while 34 of the hemisphere’s leaders dined at the SOA in Port of Spain in April demonstrated that the relations between the two men have improved over the past year, and that a remarkable change in approach from the U.S. president has driven this rapprochement. Speaking during the Summit of the Americas on April 18, the White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, “The president has asked our trade representative, Ambassador Kirk, to work with the Colombians to work through … the president’s remaining concerns about violence against labor leaders in Colombia.” Obama was also reported to have arranged a meeting with Uribe in Washington to discuss the FTA and Plan Colombia – a meeting we now know will take place this coming Monday, June 29. The fact that Ron Kirk met with Uribe and other members of the Colombian delegation on the fringes of the very same summit suggests that passing the FTA has become a priority in U.S. policy in a way which could hardly have been envisaged during Obama’s campaign. Indeed, Kirk met again with his Colombian counterpart, Luis Guillermo Plata, a mere two weeks after the Trinidad summit, and has praised Colombia’s “remarkable progress” in addressing violence against trade unionists. It seems that Mr. Kirk and President Obama are either spectacularly naïve, or they are unconcerned about the implications of doing business with one of the most blatant human rights violators in the hemisphere.

While April’s summit represented the Obama administration’s first public embrace of the FTA, the call for its implementation was voiced by some within the Democratic party months ago. The most persistent advocate is Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who serves as the leader of the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Along with other prominent Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Hoyer asserted when the FTA was first negotiated in 2007 that he could not back the agreement while violence continued in Colombia. However, the staunchly pro-free trade representative has since changed his tune. In an interview with the Colombian national newsweekly Semana in January, he said, “Colombia has made significant progress in reducing violence, and we are encouraged by the commitment of the Uribe government to continue these efforts,” before adding in March that he was “hopeful” that the FTA would be submitted to Congress in 2009, ultimately stating “I’m for it.”

Dissent Unlikely to Derail Agreement
Despite the changed approach of the leadership, there remains a group of Democratic congressmen intent on thwarting any move towards ratification and Hoyer has received some harsh criticism from within his own party. Representative Mike Michaud (D-ME) spoke of his colleague’s attempts to advance the FTA, “As a Democratic leader, I don’t think it’s helpful to vulnerable Members to ask them to support a Bush-negotiated trade deal. As a Democratic leader, [Hoyer] should not be encouraging the White House to move forward on this.” Another skeptic, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told a gathering of the Washington International Trade Association at George Washington University, on April 22, “I just don’t want to see us engage in this trade fight for trade agreements that continue a failed policy.” Brown pledged to introduce legislation to the Senate that would continue to slow the progress of the FTA by ordering that a review of current U.S. trade policy be carried out before any new agreements can be approved.

Michaud heads a group in Congress that has dubbed itself the House Trade Working Group (HTWG), whose aim is “to fight for fairer trade deals.” Under the auspices of the HTWG, 54 Democratic congressmen sent a letter to President Obama on February 26, in which they declared, “We oppose the FTAs with Colombia, Panama, and Korea, which represent the ‘more-of-the-same’ trade-agreement model promoted by the previous administration.” This group, which according to Michaud was previously “successful in working with the congressional leadership to put a halt to the Colombian Free Trade Agreement,” now seems to have lost the support of that same leadership. Indeed, the backing which the FTA has now gathered at the highest levels of both the Obama administration and the Democratic Party machinery indicates that the process’ advancement is inevitable, despite the efforts of these well-intentioned representatives.

‘Concrete and Sustained’ Progress?

The HTWG represents what appears to be the last bastion of representatives in Congress prepared to challenge the now widespread belief that violence in Colombia has diminished to an apparently acceptable level. As its members pointed out to President Obama: “More than 460 unionists have been murdered in Colombia since President Álvaro Uribe took office in August 2002, including 49 in 2008 alone. This is a twenty-five percent increase from 2007, even as Colombia faced high levels of scrutiny related to the FTA,” and this was even at a time when the Colombian authorities were anxious to put their best foot forward. Towards the end of 2008, Human Rights Watch wrote to key Democratic Congressmen with a similar message. As well as highlighting the continued killings – and noting that these account for more than half of the murders of unionists worldwide – HRW raised concerns about the continued involvement of paramilitaries in these murders and the impunity enjoyed by many perpetrators.

Indeed, it seems that despite Bogotá’s establishment of a group of special prosecutors to investigate a backlog of scores of murders and thousands of threats against unionists, the vast majority of these cases will remain unaddressed. In the two years prior to November 2008, only 96 people, mainly paramilitaries, were convicted of crimes against unionists. This figure barely covers the number of new cases being reported and leaves upwards of 6,000 cases unsolved. Moreover, HRW reports that many of those successful convictions came about as a result of admissions before Justice and Peace hearings. This process is the result of a deeply flawed Uribe initiative approved in June 2005 by the Colombian Congress, and ostensibly invites those who committed crimes during the civil war to confess and renounce their misdeeds publicly before sentencing. However, despite revisions made by the Constitutional Court in June 2006, the law has ensured that the exact details of murders need not always be revealed. Furthermore, the perpetrators were given vastly reduced sentences and immunity from extradition to the U.S. in exchange for their cooperation. The end of this process, as HRW has also pointed out, will likely see the rate of convictions fall further.

As COHA reported last February, Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos visited Washington in an attempt to secure progress on the FTA and the continued flow of anti-narcotics aid under Plan Colombia. At this very moment, Obama was receiving information from his own colleagues in the HTWG that contradicted the Colombian government’s fanciful version of events. It seems that Colombia’s public relations offensive has paid off royally for the Uribe administration, whose lobbying has influenced even the upper reaches of the White House, despite clear evidence that hostile and dangerous conditions – for unionists and human rights activists in particular – continue to prevail in Colombia and that President Uribe is perhaps the greatest regional violator of human rights. The “concrete and sustained” progress that Pelosi called for from Colombia in 2007 is certainly nowhere to be seen. Given that Washington is dealing with a man who has labeled human rights activists and unionists as “politickers for terrorism,” “communists in disguise,” and “a bunch of criminals dressed up as unionists,” the prospects for improvement are questionable at best. Uribe and his cronies have successfully convinced much of Capitol Hill otherwise, which calls into question the new administration’s true dedication to labor and human rights in Colombia.

The Tip of an Iceberg

However, the case against the Colombian FTA goes far beyond arguments about how to define the government’s progress on the single, albeit significant, issue of violence against unionists. Only by stepping back from the way the FTA debate is being framed in Washington is it possible to see what should be glaringly obvious to anyone who pays even cursory attention to events in Colombia: that the Uribe administration continues to run, by means of a spectacularly corrupt government, a country so wracked by problems of impunity and often state-supported violence, that it can hardly be described as a democracy. In short, Bogotá’s rap sheet under Uribe is exhaustive, and consequently Uribe is hardly a leader that any U.S. president with a conscience and any kind of accurate information on the situation could support.

Since his election nearly seven years ago, Uribe’s presidency has been characterized by a wide array of corruption scandals. Most recently, in February, Semana exposed the extensive wiretapping of opposition politicians, Supreme Court justices, prosecutors and journalists by the Colombian security service, the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS). DAS agents would reportedly sell the information gathered by means of the wiretaps “to the highest bidder,” typically criminal groups. This is by no means the first time DAS has come under fire; its corrupt practices have long been well-documented. Incidentally, its former director, Jorge Noguera, was arrested in 2007 in relation to the murder of trade unionists and human rights activists in whose deaths DAS was constantly implicated. Noguera, formally charged with murder only last month, was accused of putting the entire security organization at the service of paramilitary groups by providing information to them and allowing their members to infiltrate DAS, with the knowledge that they wanted to kill victims like labor leader Adam Pacheco and human rights activist Alfredo Correa D’Andreis.

Uribe is being drawn inexorably into the plot. As recently as May 17, the Washington Post revealed that the latest round of the DAS wiretapping scandal is moving closer and closer to the president himself. The newspaper reported that DAS’ former director of counterintelligence, Jorge Alberto Lagos, told investigators that some of the information that the organization’s illegal practices had yielded had been passed to two of Uribe’s most senior aides, Bernardo Moreno and José Obdulio Gaviria. The charging of Noguera has been celebrated in some quarters as evidence that progress was being made regarding the existence of impunity and corruption in Colombia. Unfortunately it came mere weeks after DAS and the Colombian government had once again demonstrated that the political system under Uribe is thoroughly rotten.

This latest evidence of the state’s use of underhand intelligence-gathering tactics has come hard on the heels of more damaging revelations concerning Uribe. The ‘False Positives’ scandal that emerged last autumn unearthed proof that Colombian state security forces, under pressure from the government to reach targets for the number of FARC combatants they capture and kill, have murdered innocent civilians in an attempt to improve their statistics. According to a report released by the human rights network, Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination (CCEEU), 535 civilians were killed by security forces between January 2007 and June 2008. On the other hand, an April 2009 article released by the Center for International Policy (CIP) reported that Defense Minister Santos has claimed that no new cases have been reported since October 2008. However, despite the November 4 resignation of General Mario Montoya, the commander of Colombia’s army, CIP shed doubt on Santos’ claims, repeating the CCEEU’s arguments that soldiers had merely become more diligent in covering their tracks. A second NGO, the Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular (CINEP), had identified three possible new cases in the last three months of 2008. Typically, soldiers convince vulnerable young men to come with them by promising employment, and afterwards kill them, hide their bodies, and chalk them up as more neutralized FARC guerrillas.

‘Teflon’ Uribe Marches On
Uribe continues to enjoy his status as the ‘Teflon President,’ a man whose repeated deplorable actions never seem to tarnish him in the eyes of voters, let alone the international community. A May 2009 Gallup poll for Semana found that 68 percent of Colombians hold a favorable opinion of Uribe, compared to 24 percent whose view is unfavorable. His popularity is such that 84 percent of voters are currently in favor of allowing him to run for re-election in 2010. While he remains notably quiet on the issue, he looks set to stroll through a constitutional referendum and consequent election for an unprecedented third term.

Uribe derives a great deal of support from those who celebrate the removal of the FARC from Colombia’s towns and cities, a feat which the president was able to achieve largely through the massive military aid granted to him by the U.S.’s Plan Colombia, as well as by playing fast and easy with the nation’s constitutional norms. Nevertheless, while this offensive has consistently earned him astounding approval ratings, many of its elements have been, and continue to be, very damaging for much of the country. Not the least among these is the heavy-handed tactic of crop fumigation which, aside from failing in its aim to eradicate cocaine production, has contributed significantly towards forcing legitimate farmers and other civilians to leave their land and migrate from their homes. As a consequence, Colombia recently assumed the dubious mantle previously held by Sudan, of being home to the world’s largest displaced population. Some 4.6 million Colombians have been uprooted since 1985, and 380,000 were displaced in 2008 alone, a 25 percent increase from the previous year.

Continued paramilitary violence in Colombia is adding to the country’s displacement problem. Uribe claims to have eradicated paramilitary groups from Colombia after a demobilization process in 2006 saw scores of their leaders confess to crimes and receive jail terms and fines, and thousands of their members surrender their arms. However, while the president chooses to label them something different, it is clear that the paramilitaries and the violence associated with them are emerging once again. A December 2008 Los Angeles Times article cited a report released by the Bogotá peace activists, the New Rainbow Coalition, stating: “More than 100 new [paramilitary] gangs have been formed, including as many as 10,000 fighters, and have a presence in one out of five Colombian counties, mostly rural ones.” The activities they engage in, vying with the still-present guerrillas and drug traffickers for control of coca producing land, are the same as ever, and their activities are forcing yet more people to flee their land, and add to the total number of the displaced. An officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was quoted as saying: “Massive displacements of people began last year [2007], with people leaving the countryside for the cities to escape the combat, and it’s continuing now. It’s the worst since 2002.”

Part of the U.S. Democratic leadership and the Obama White House want us to believe that they see securing improvement on human rights problems in Colombia as a necessary precursor to the trade deal which they largely see as beneficial to the American economy. They are, however, doing a very bad job of convincing those with knowledge of the damning body of evidence against Uribe. The primary question that we should be asking is, why have those powerful figures in Washington, who now seem intent on passing the FTA with Colombia sooner rather than later, restricted their assessment of Bogotá’s shortcomings to the issue of labor rights? Certainly, this is an important issue that is particularly salient in a discussion of a FTA – not to mention one on which the Uribe administration, despite its and Washington’s claims, still has to answer to a long list of concerns. But the series of recent high-profile scandals that have exposed once again the Uribe administration’s endemic corruption, the reputation for violence within the military and among paramilitaries, and the continuing impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of such violence, seem to have been conveniently ignored by Washington, despite their clear relevance to the debate now going on about providing special benefits to a government with palpable shortcomings in its democratic record. With the arrival of a new administration, it is now time for the U.S. to face up to the fact that the Colombian government is clearly unwilling to change its ways, and has a long and unsavory record of repression and anti-democratic practices that renders it an unfit partner.

After the Agreement, What Benefits?
Despite these arguments, Washington is unlikely to be divorced from its pursuit of free trade as the ultimate goal of its trade strategy. It seems that little more can be hoped for than further intransigence by Congress on the grounds of continued Colombian inaction on a number of the issues outlined above. But even the chances of temporary incompliance in Congress have seemingly subsided. In reality, however, even beefing up the conditions being demanded of Bogotá by Congress would be, to an extent, an ultimately futile exercise, given the negative consequences that the FTA would have on the very stratums of the Colombian population that Washington would ostensibly be attempting to help with any further demands on human rights compliance.

While there are Colombian industries that would benefit from the easier and cheaper trade with the U.S. that an FTA would bring about, it is clear that many Colombian workers would lose out from such an agreement. Small, landowning farmers, many of whom already have been dealt a cruel blow by Uribe’s brutal ‘war on drugs,’ would be set to suffer once again in the face of cheaper imported goods (principally foodstuffs) from more efficient, and in many cases, heavily subsidized, U.S. operations. While Uribe would be quick to cite the apparent overall economic benefit and the creation of jobs in some sectors – particularly export-oriented ones – an FTA would harm a great number of people who are already suffering at the hands of his government, and give yet more farmers only one viable option: to grow coca.

The FTA would also hurt workers in the U.S.: the loss of jobs in the relatively labor-intensive, and already suffering domestic manufacturing sector are unlikely to be offset by increased trade for commodity exporters, a fact which is driving some Democrats’ concerns about approving the FTA. Observe NAFTA, for example. Estimates vary, but one report released in 2003 by Robert E. Scott of the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute suggested that a net figure of almost 900,000 jobs were lost in the U.S. between 1994 and 2002 as a result of the agreement. In addition, for those who remain employed, there are in many cases downward pressures on their wages, and a heightened level of insecurity which has had an impact on their ability to organize and press for recognition of their rights. Why enact an agreement that is detrimental to vulnerable workers both in the U.S. and Colombia? It seems that the U.S. government is content to overlook these human consequences and judge free trade purely on the net economic benefits it provides, largely in the form of increased revenue for exporters, profits for investors, and revenue for the state.

On top of this, there are grounds to doubt President Bush’s assertion that “Approving this agreement is urgent for [the U.S.’s] national security reasons.” As outlined in a White House “fact sheet,” the pact will bolster economic growth in Colombia, and provide “new employment opportunities” as well as increased investment, and will “reinforce democracy by fighting corruption, increasing transparency, and fostering accountability and the rule of law.” On top of this, the FTA will apparently “rebut the [U.S.’s] antagonists in Latin America.” On the contrary, one can present a different scenario that suggests the inevitable increase in Colombia’s impoverished and unemployed rural population is likely to continue to make membership in guerrilla groups like FARC a more attractive prospect for many. Coupled with the persistent activity of paramilitary groups, and a potential rise in coca production as the growing of foodstuffs becomes economically unviable, such a development could well fuel a decades-old conflict in Colombia that Uribe has been able to present recently as being all but extinguished, as a result of the removal of violence from the cities and some high profile military victories against FARC. Far from making Colombia more stable, a FTA will only grant legitimacy to a corrupt government with a record of presiding over a horrific sequence of violence which has proved time and time again that it will not change its ways. Rather than ‘reinforcing democracy,’ the agreement will likely push Colombia further away from this ideal.

Moreover, it is within this context that the enhanced business prospects that the FTA would bring to U.S. multinational companies should be considered. Such prospects raise fresh questions about the past of such institutions. In 2007, the U.S. banana giant Chiquita pleaded guilty to paying $1.7 million to a right-wing death squad, and there were reportedly lawsuits filed against multinational giants Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Drummond in the U.S., alleging that they too employed the ‘protection’ services of paramilitaries. Such groups were used by these companies both to subdue organized labor activities in their companies – thus contributing to the very problem of anti-union activity that U.S. politicians claim to be concerned with resolving – and to defend their factories and other installations, like pipelines, from guerrilla attacks. As was commonly recognized at the time, however, combating FARC and ELN fighters was only one aspect of the work of paramilitaries, who in addition to seizing land from and murdering law-abiding citizens, were a prime factor in the drug trade. The payments they received from those U.S.-based manufacturers thus helped fund not only activities associated with protection, but a whole spectrum of well documented human rights abuses.

Multinational exporters are, of course, among those set to benefit most from the proposed FTA, with the increased trade it promises, as well as its provisions for the increased privatization of the Colombian economy. In the context of the likely onerous impact of free trade on the lives of small rural farmers, there seems to be a good chance that opposition to these companies’ activities may resurface, along with the need for ‘protection’ on the part of the multinational firms. There is no question that such large corporations historically have provided little security or rights to local workers and communities; indeed, their increased presence may well contribute to the country’s move back down the road of desolation, violence and displacement, and away from Washington’s purported ideals.

Betraying Workers at Home and Abroad
The debate in Washington over the U.S.-Colombia FTA has been removed from reality by members of Congress and the White House staff, who have singled out a solitary issue from the veritable web of questionable practices in which the Uribe administration is entangled on which to judge Bogotá’s suitability as a trade partner. By shunning such fundamentally important problems as the Colombian government’s endemic corruption – illustrated in recent months alone by the re-emergence of a massive wiretapping scandal – and the impunity enjoyed by the vast proportion of human rights abusers, and not even bothering to put the military’s targeting of innocent civilians on its agenda as part of the FTA approval process, Washington is tacitly giving Uribe carte blanche to continue to preside over such deplorable practices. Even on the one issue it claims to be monitoring closely – that of anti-unionist violence – the White House, alongside leading Democrats in Congress like Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, seems happy to swallow Uribe’s version of events rather than look at the statistics and listen to other legislators and leading human rights groups, all of which tell a very different story about Bogotá’s transgressions. Obama would do well to open his eyes and ears to advice from sources other than the Colombian PR machine before sitting down with Uribe in the Oval Office on Monday.

But even if Obama were to take an unimaginable leap and demand that Colombia address all of these issues, he would risk making a hypocrite of himself. Why demand improvements of this nature right before implementing an agreement that will only damage the lives of Colombia’s already blighted workers and poor even further? Free trade with Colombia will by no means cure all; instead it will increase the suffering of those who are already losing out. It is time to reframe the debate on Capitol Hill to consider the ramifications of free trade in all directions – both at home and abroad – before forging blindly ahead with a status quo that is flawed to its core.