Bush introduces Colombia FTA amid political hoo-hah

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 RodrĂ­guez, 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 JosĂ© 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)

See our last posts on Colombia, the FTA and paramilitary terror.

  1. House kills “fast track” on FTA
    This April 10 report from Ben Pershing’s Capitol Briefing blog in the Washington Post says much about who really weilds influence on the Hill:

    Keeping Score on the Colombia Trade Pact
    The House voted today to “stop the clock” on the Colombia free trade agreement, passing a rule change allowing the chamber to ignore the traditional 90-day timeframe under which Congress must vote on trade bills.

    The 224-195 vote in favor of the rule change broke down mostly along party lines, with just 10 Democrats voting no and six Republicans voting yes. Such partisan unity is to be expected on a procedural vote, but this one was different — it was “scored.”

    What does scoring a bill mean? A variety of lobbying groups issue congressional scorecards on the topics that interest them most. The League of Conservation Voters rates members for their votes on key environmental bills, the Family Research Council scores votes on abortion and other social issues, and so on.

    In the case of today’s Colombia vote, the roll call was scored — after an encouraging nudge from Hill Republicans — by dozens of pro-trade and pro-business groups, including heavyweights like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. That’s bad news for many moderate and conservative Democrats, who had to weigh their desires to maintain a good rating from these groups against the importance of backing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on a key issue. Members are typically given a relatively free pass to vote how they want on trade bills, but on procedural votes, leaders want them to toe the line.

  2. Open letter to US Congress from Colombian indigenous leaders
    From the Association of Indigenous Authorities of Northern Cauca (ACIN), via Upside Down World, April 17:

    “Three years later, like us, you said no to the Colombia-US Free Trade Agreement.”

    Dear Representative Pelosi and Congress of the United States of America:

    First, we would like to express our joy and gratitude for the decision made April 10, 2008, in the United States Congress. With 224 votes in favor and 195 against, the House of Representatives, over which you preside, decided to indefinitely freeze the Free Trade Agreement between Colombia and the US. We know that this is but one step on a long path, but the result is profoundly meaningful for our peoples, and it opens a window through which we can breathe with strength and rejuvenated spirits. With this letter, beyond expressing our recognition and appreciation as peoples, we seek to open a space for communication between us, because we feel that we deserve the right to be heard and respected. It is long overdue that Democratic Party members of Congress under your leadership should become aware of our democratic decision and analyses, all of which are rooted in dignity and respect for life.

    Little more than three years ago, on Sunday March 6, 2005, the first Popular Consultation on the US-Colombia FTA was carried out through a referendum held in six municipalities in the Department of Cauca, Colombia. In that free, open and transparent referendum, monitored by national and international observers and bound by strict electoral regulations, there was a level of participation that had been unprecedented in the history of our municipalities. Ninety-eight percent of the people responded NO to the following question: “Are you in favor of the FTA between Colombia and the United States?” The people expressed their sovereign and conscious decision. Since that first consultation, others have been carried out throughout Colombia, all with the same result.

    On February 1, 2005, we had made public a proclamation in which we called for a national popular referendum on the FTA. We invite you to examine this document, which we reaffirm, and whose clarity and eloquence remain relevant today, even more so given the most recent decision of the US Congress. In order that you may understand our motives and perspectives, we believe it is our right to respectfully express this to you, as peoples reacting to a trade agreement that would deeply affect our lives. Through you, Rep. Pelosi, we invite the Congress and the people of the United States to read this proclamation and to treat its content with the respect and consideration that it deserves [http://www.en-camino.org/node/34], recognizing the sovereign and democratic decision of our peoples.

    It is important for you to know that from the moment of our carrying out the consultation to today, information on the FTA and its consequences made available to the people of Colombia through the government and the mass media has been absurdly distorted and entirely in favor of those interested in winning approval of the agreement. This has effectively closed any spaces for debate and discussion among diverse perspectives, which would be necessary for Colombian citizens to understand the issue and to take a substantive position on it. In the proclamation of our consultation, we asked: “If the FTA is so good, why is the population being misinformed, and why is the government so afraid of a popular consultation and a conscious and democratic decision?”

    Today, in light of the decision you have made, we reiterate the relevance of that question. In spite of the barrage of propaganda in favor of the FTA and the manner in which fear was used to assure people that rejecting the FTA would be equivalent to the United States’ abandoning Colombia in backwardness, those who participated in the referendum understood that quite to the contrary, approval of the FTA on these terms and under these conditions would be equivalent to pushing Colombia toward an abyss of backwardness, impoverishment, inequality, and war. We understand that the people of the United States also suffer negative consequences from these kinds of trade agreements, but it is ultimately up to you and the people of the United States to analyze and make decisions on these agreements and their consequences. Rep. Pelosi, the Colombian government was opposed and remains opposed to allowing the Colombian people to understand the real impacts of the FTA that has been presented to Congress; it has closed the spaces of democratic debate and ignored the results of the Popular Consultation. We therefore urge you to examine the Consultation of March 2005, our motives and arguments, the democratic decision of the peoples, and the consequences and implications of this decision. We also invite you to support the right of peoples to understand and decide. With respect to the FTA, this is a right that the Colombian government has not respected.

    The Colombian government attempted to discredit the decision of the consultation, alleging that we do not understand the benefits of the FTA and that terrorists and other nefarious forces had manipulated the population. Our response to this disturbing and unfounded accusation is found in the text of the proclamation and in the reality of facts that speak for themselves. The position of the government is racist insofar as it still considers us primitive beings incapable of understanding and consciously deciding for ourselves. Moreover, it seriously threatens our lives and integrity by falsely claiming links with terrorists, claims that easily become death sentences in this country.

    Read our arguments and see for yourselves if we can be accused of not understanding. In contrast with the Colombian government’s reaction, read and respond with ideas, arguments, and substance. As we said in the proclamation calling for the consultation, we are opposed to neither free trade nor an agreement with the United States. We are opposed to this particular agreement, and we have reasons based fundamentally on substance.

    Rep. Pelosi, Members of Congress, and people of the United States, three years after our proclamation and call to carry out a public referendum on the FTA, three years after our people said NO, in spite of the closing of spaces for debate and democratic decision-making, more than 60% of arable lands in Colombia remain in the hands of 15,000 families, less than 0.4% of the population of the country. This immense concentration of land is nonproductive in that the food that we consume comes from the poor, small producers; the large property owners do not produce food. Furthermore, the influx of subsidized agricultural products condemns peasants, indigenous peoples, and rural producers to ruin and hunger, as they face the impossibility of competing with less expensive products and artificially reduced prices. Free trade is making the production of crops for illicit use necessary for survival and for the attainment of basic economic resources. You are well aware that we are being displaced and forced off our lands through violence and war, which serves to open the countryside to the megaprojects of transnational corporations. This eviction has displaced 4 million of our compatriots to the cities, where they live in miserable conditions. This promotes only social and political violence and hatred, thereby perpetuating war and misery.

    The agreement would place the price of life-saving medications beyond reach for the majority of Colombia’s people and would permit the patenting of life-forms and our ancestral knowledge. The FTA, which you have decided to not consider for now, would back a government whose president, during a “community council” held on March 15, 2008, offered bounties on the lives of indigenous peoples who are struggling to recover the lands from which we have been displaced, lands to which we have a right in accordance with agreements with the very state that now criminalizes our struggles to access its own commitments. Agrarian reform has been transformed into a crime in order to protect particular interests that would benefit from the FTA. In the midst of war, misery, displacement, terror, and deception, there can be prosperity for no one. That is why we have rejected this FTA.

    Rep. Pelosi and Members of Congress, we want a trade agreement that is actually an agreement, one that is negotiated among sectors that really represent the interests of peoples—not only among a few who act exclusively in the interests of big capital. We want an agreement that is free and not imposed unilaterally through propaganda, without debate or open and democratic consultation. We want an agreement that has real trade as its content, trade that guarantees reciprocal opportunity, so that the well-being of peoples is realized in a manner that is autonomous and sovereign and protects nature and life. The FTA that you have decided not to debate for the moment promotes displacement, legalizes injustice, condemns us to permanent war, and leaves us behind.

    We celebrate the decision that you have taken, and we thank you. This means nothing more or less than respecting our lives. Receive our expression of immense gratitude to your people, and accept our invitation to understand the motives of the decision we made democratically three years ago.


    Association of Indigenous Authorities of Northern Cauca

    See our last post on the struggle in Cauca.