For five years, the proposed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiated between the administrations of George Bush and Colombian president Alvaro Uribe was stalled in the US Congress because of violence against Colombian workers, including 51 union leaders assassinated in 2010 alone.
On April 7, President Obama and current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced they had reached an agreement that would smooth the way for passage. Under this plan, actions that violate labor rights would be criminalized (as though assassination isn’t already criminal); investigators would be assigned to look into abuses, and leaders could request protection. I do wonder how Colombia will be able to provide this protection given the extent of the violence. In the past months, I’ve received word almost every week of new murders: not only union organizers but small farmers and the honest judges who hear these cases, while the perpetrators too often are members of or linked to the security forces.
The attack on labor matters, of course, but the US Congress needs to understand it’s not the only problem with the FTA. Nothing stands in the way of our countries negotiating specific trade deals while the plan for so-called “free trade” actually restricts the parties’ freedom, taking away the freedom to negotiate and the freedom to set national economic policy.
To consider just a few troubling provisions:
What’s “free” about delaying the introduction and production of generic drugs in order to protect the profits of Big Pharma in Colombia where at least 50% of the people live in poverty?
What’s “free” about the US being allowed to continue our generous subsidies to agribusiness while Colombia would not be allowed to assist its own farmers. Instead, Colombia’s role would be to export biofuels and specific plantation-grown products, such as bananas — exactly the products that have led to some of the worst human rights abuses in the country. Today, 5 million Colombians — mostly rural people with limited education and no urban skills–are internally displaced, driven from their land and homes by killings and threats of violence. Over ten million acres of productive land are now in the hands of drug traffickers, paramilitary groups and their wealthy allies who plant African palm and yuca, creating huge monoculture agribusiness plantations to grow food for machines instead of for people.
The FTA will therefore increase violence and income inequality in a country where the two most secure founts of income for the masses are the drug trade and the armed conflict — both of which the US is engaged in fighting at the cost so far of $6 billion. The FARC guerrilla army today is largely composed of young teens who join without any ideological indoctrination but in search of regular meals.
In a positive development, both the Colombian courts and the Inter-American Court for Human Rights have ordered stolen lands returned to displaced communities. The US has even provided some financial assistance to implement return, but these communities face continued violence. In past months, because of the banana export business, communities in the Urabá region of Chocó have faced the invasion of their territory. Contractors working in concert with paramilitaries and Colombian soldiers, lure desperate people to the area where they are tricked into illegally occupying land in order to grow bananas for multinational Banacol. The situation is already fraught with danger and injustice and can only be exacerbated by passage of the FTA.
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