A Day of Defeat: Colombia Free Trade Agreement Passes with Great Majority

Source: Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America

Yesterday, on October 12, 2011, the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), along with similar trade pacts with both Panama and Korea, was passed by both the House and the Senate by a great majority, drawing an end to a five-year struggle to enact the trade measure.  Fervently pursuing their own political agendas while turning a blind eye to the human rights situation in Colombia, both Republicans and Democrats all but ignored, the many Americans who were extremely vocal during the free trade debate. During the House and Senate debates which occurred on October 12, 2011, those who opposed the FTA adamantly pointed to statistics regarding various reports of human rights violations by numerous government offices and private agencies. Although President Obama, the once-promising leader for renovating U.S-Latin American ties, has framed the Colombian FTA to the American public as a pact which will bring jobs to the United States, his critics argue differently. In their view, this new legislation is a bid to improve the president’s popularity among his conservative opponents and increase his chances for re-election in 2012. While the President’s focus seems to be on continued occupation of the White House, human rights abuses continually occur against labor unionists in Colombia and similar criminal gangs that are simply mutants of former paramilitaries who have continued to commit atrocities against the nation’s civilians.

Of the many U.S. representatives that chose to voice their opinions, only a handful expressed their strong disapproval of the FTA’s ratification. One representative from Ohio noted how only six percent of those who had committed human rights abuses towards labor unionists in Colombia have actually been convicted, while granting the meager improvement of human rights abuses since 2010. Other members of the House of Representatives discussed the labor repercussions that would occur as a result of the advent of the FTA. Making fifteen cents an hour, Colombian workers cannot compete with those in the U.S., who normally make nine dollars an hour. In addition, a California representative argued that the ratification of the FTA would actually decrease employment within the small business sector. Due to the strong appeal for the cheap labor offered in Colombia, U.S. producers could actually witness a major outsourcing of jobs to the Latin American country. Other politicians also have voiced their concerns over U.S. job security. The Democratic House Leader and close ally of President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, disagrees with the now passed FTA legislation, arguing that the main focus instead be oriented toward the China currency bill which would combat the country’s undervalued currency. Due to China’s currency manipulation, 1.6 million jobs already have been lost, and Pelosi, taking a somewhat careful stance, noted that although the Colombia FTA would create seven thousand jobs, failure to pass the China currency bill would create a net loss in American jobs.

The other side of the political spectrum continued to make a strong argument for the passage of the Colombia-FTA, not only because of job creation in the United States, but because Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has made significant strides in improving its human rights record. Those in favor of the FTA argued how after five years when the Colombia-FTA was first signed, it would be “unjust” for the United States to fail to reach a positive consensus on the pending legislation. Supporters also argued that failure to pass the FTA would be a poor political move for the U.S. to make, since the two countries have been the closest of allies for several years. Furthermore, Colombia would surely seek different trading partners in the future if an agreement would not be reached.

Now that the Colombia-FTA has passed, the White House will insist that the U.S. continue to be a human rights advocate, promising to provide “liberty and justice for all.”  In reality, the human rights situation in Colombia is not noticeably improving, and there has been no comprehensive action plan included in the FTA legislation that would focus on monitoring the implementation of the trade agreement. Passing this legislation is essentially a political move by President Obama and his followers, and it is appalling that Colombian labor unionists have to worry about paying the price for ongoing human rights violations, while U.S. workers take on the role as the winners and reap the benefits of free trade from Colombian workers.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Candiss Shumate.