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Free Trade, Cocaine, and Civil War

The proposed Free Trade Agreement between the US and Colombia stalled in Congress this spring very rightly due to Colombia’s abysmal human rights record. But with civilians still being killed by the military and with a record 42 union leaders assassinated this year, the Bush and Uribe administrations brought 80 supporters to the US in September to lobby for passage. This effort stalled, too, due to the financial bailout crisis, but it will now be revived. The FTA is one more ill-advised economic scheme. It should not be allowed to pass.


The proposed agreement works against the interests of both countries, not only because of human rights and questions about food security, but for pragmatic reasons as well. The US and Colombia are already trading partners. 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.

The Colombian government would permanently lose the power to set any conditions on foreign investment. This means, for example, no environmental safeguards for the mining or oil extraction industries, no means of requiring reinvestment of some profits in the country, and no ability to set standards for local hiring in a nation where 65% of the population lives in poverty and where only 25 of every 100 people seeking work has secure employment. Government procurement contracts could not be used to boost local economies or develop national industry by favoring homegrown enterprises. Public utilities, such as water and electric power, would be privatized. The introduction of generic drugs would be delayed.

If the effects on Colombia are so negative, it’s fair to ask why the Colombian Congress—unlike its US counterpart—voted to approve the agreement. As I write this, more than 70 Colombian legislators are under investigation for their links to drug trafficking and to rightwing paramilitary death squads. More than 30 have already been sent to jail. And so it’s also fair to ask whether these lawmakers had their nation’s best interests at heart.

But why should the United States care about job creation and the development of industry in Colombia?
The US priority in Colombia, as evidenced by the billions of tax dollars poured into Plan Colombia, mostly for military aid, since 2000, has been the war on drugs and suppression of the FARC guerrilla movement which is now largely financed by cocaine profits. Today the cocaine industry provides jobs for 1-1/2 million Colombians, and the FARC is able to recruit young people without any sort of ideological indoctrination, merely by offering meals and wages. Forty percent of the guerrilla fighters are now 15 years old or younger, with the average recruitment age a shocking 12 years old. Illegal paramilitary armies continue to sow terror with impunity while the vast majority of Colombia’s State employees now work in security.

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Given this context, what would free trade mean in a country where disappearances, assassinations, death threats, and the forced displacement of civilians continue?

The proposed FTA would inevitably exacerbate the conditions that have already made the narcotics industry and the armed conflict the two most reliable founts of employment in Colombia. That can’t be good for either of our countries.

diane lefer

Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist whose most recent book, California Transit, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories, novels, and nonfiction often address social issues and draw on such experiences as going to jail for civil disobedience and her volunteer work as a legal assistant/interpreter for immigrants in detention. She collaborated with exiled Colombian theatre artist Hector Aristizábal on "Nightwind," about his arrest and torture by the US-supported military in Colombia, a play that has toured theatres, campuses, conferences, and houses of worship throughout the US and Canada. Other recent work for the stage includes "Majikan," a Ciona Taylor Production in New York's Central Park, about an orangutan and the War on Terror. She has picked potatoes, typed autopsy reports, surveyed parolees and drug addicts about their sex lives, and taught creative writing to gangbangers as well as, for twenty years, to graduate students in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. She received the 2006-07 COLA (City of Los Angeles) literary arts fellowship in support of Phantom Heart, her novel-in-progress set in and around a beautiful Southern California nuclear waste site. She lives in Los Angeles and has never written a screenplay.

Diane Lefer traveled to Colombia in August with a Witness for Peace delegation.

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