President Bush announced April 7 that he is sending the Colombia free trade agreement to Congress, and called for its speedy ratification, saying, “The need for this agreement is too urgent.” Legislators will have 90 business days to approve or reject the FTA. Bush conceded the pact could have some harmful effects at home, but he said the benefits would far outweigh them. The US imports grains, cotton and soybeans from Colombia, much of it duty-free under temporary accords already in place. But US exports to Colombia remain subject to tariffs. “I think it makes sense to remedy this situation,” Bush said. “It’s time to level the playing field.” Trade between the US and Colombia amounted to about $18 billion in 2007. (NYT, April 7)
“Fast track” to repression
Under fast track authority, the House of Representatives has 60 working days and the Senate another 30 to approve or reject the bill, without making any amendments or blocking a vote. This is the first time since fast-track negotiating authority—known as Trade Promotion Authority—was created in 1975 that an administration has introduced a trade bill opposed by the party that controls Congress. Republican candidate John McCain has already declared his support for the FTA.
Addressing human rights concerns about the government of Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, Bush stated: “President Uribe has done everything asked of him… In discussions about the Colombia free trade agreement, some members of Congress have raised concerns about the conditions in Colombia. President Uribe has addressed these issues. He’s addressed violence by demobilizing tens of thousands of paramilitary figures and fighters. He’s addressed attacks on trade unionists by stepping up funding for prosecutions, establishing an independent prosecutors unit, and creating a special program that protects labor activists. He’s made clear that the economic benefits the agreement brings to Colombia would strengthen the fight against drugs and terror, by creating a more hopeful alternative for the people of Colombia. If this isn’t enough to earn America’s support, what is?”
However, despite a drop in the number of kidnappings, 11 trade unionists have been murdered so far this year in Colombia, according to Carlos Rodríguez, president of the country’s Central Workers Union (CUT). In the six years since Uribe first took office, over 400 labor activists have been murdered, according to Colombia’s National Trade Union School (Escuela Nacional Sindical). Since the reign of terror against trade unionists began in the 1980s, only three percent have been clarified. Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world for labor organizers.
Bush failed to mention the findings of the US State Department, which said in its latest annual report that the number of extrajudicial killings of civilians by the Colombian security forces rose last year. Colombian human rights groups have documented 955 murders of civilians by the armed forces since Uribe’s first term began in 2002. The number of such killings was 10% higher in 2007 than in 2006.
Clinton campaign duplicity exposed
Bush made his announcement a day after Hillary Clinton‘s chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, resigned after it was revealed he was working—on the side, as CEO of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller—for the passage of the Colombia FTA, which Clinton ostensibly opposes. The Colombian government had hired Burson-Marsteller for $300,000 a year to lobby US lawmakers to vote in favor of the FTA and continued support for Plan Colombia. Penn stepped from Clinton’s campaign after the Wall Street Journal reported April 4 that he had met with Colombian Ambassador Carolina Barco to discuss pushing the FTA on Capitol Hill. Penn is also an adviser to companies like Coca-Cola, which faces legal action in connection with the murder of trade unionists at its bottling plants in Colombia. When the conflict of interests was revealed, Penn apologised for his meeting with Ambassador Barco, which he called “an error in judgment.” Saying Penn’s reaction showed a “lack of respect” for Colombians, the Colombian administration then terminated its contract with Burson-Marsteller. Over the last year, Ambassador Barco, advised by Burson-Marsteller, has organized all-expenses-paid trips to Colombia for more than 50 US legislators, in an effort to sway them for the FTA. (IPS, April 9)
However, Penn is not the only adviser within the Clinton campaign with financial ties to groups and individuals supporting the passage of the measure. In June 2005, Bill Clinton was paid $800,000 by the Colombia-based trade promotion group Gold Service International to give four speeches throughout Latin America.
The group’s chief operating officer, Andres Franco, said in an interview with the Huffington Post that the group supports the FTA and that Bill Clinton on his speaking tour had expressed similar opinions. “He was supportive of the trade agreement at the time that he came, but that was several years ago. In the present context, I don’t know what his position would be. It is not only about union trade rights. It is about what benefit or damage it can do to the US economy. Events with the Clinton campaign [concerning Mark Penn] are not good at all for the trade agreement… Right now it became a campaign issues and that is sad, because it needs to go through.” (Huffington Post, April 8)
Uribe bashes Obama
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal April 4, Uribe said bashed Barack Obama for his opposition to the FTA, saying: “I deplore that Sen. Obama, apparently because he wants to be president of the US, ignores all that Colombia has achieved.”
Obama responded to the Journal: “I think the president [Uribe] is absolutely wrong on this. You’ve got a government that is under a cloud of potentially having supported violence against unions, against labor, against opposition.” Addressing the human rights situation, Obama said: “That’s not the kind of behavior that we want to reward. I think until we get that straightened out its inappropriate for us to move forward.”
The Journal touted Uribe’s claims that the number of assassinated unionists and teachers had fallen to 26 last year from 205 in 2001.
Obama pointed to his support of the Peru FTA that Congress passed last year as an example of his support for free trade under the right circumstances. “We’ve got to have some sort of standards that we stick to,” he said.
The Journal also recalled that ahead of last month’s Ohio primary, a leaked memo from the Canadian government suggested that an Obama economic adviser had raised doubts with Canadian officials over Obama’s opposition to NAFTA. At the time, Hillary Clinton argued that the press should aggressively pursue the story. “Just ask yourself [what you would do] if some of my advisers had been having private meetings with foreign governments,” she said. (Washington Wire, WSJ blog, April 4)
Rights groups oppose FTA
Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) are circulating a “dear colleague” letter to President Uribe over the attacks on trade unionists in Colombia. The letter recalls that when Colombia’s National Movement for Victims of State Crimes called a March 6 protest against impunity in rights violations, Uribe advisor José Obdulio Gaviria went on national radio to suggest that the campaign was “convened by the FARC.” After these baseless accusations, many rights activists received e-mail death threats from the Black Eagles paramilitary network, and at least four trade unionists were murdered.
The letter calls on the Colombian government to fully investigate these threats and murders and to bring those responsible to justice. The letter also urges Uribe to take concrete actions to ensure government officials stop making comments that put the lives of human rights defenders at risk.
The Latin America Working Group urges constituents to pressure their representative sign the McGovern/Schakowsky letter. The Working Group has also sent its own letter to Uribe urging him to publicly disavow Gaviria’s comments and to express support for the legitimate efforts of human rights defenders. (Latin America Working Group, March 27)