Colombia: national mobilization against trade deal

On Nov. 9, thousands of workers, students, campesinos and indigenous people marched in Colombian cities and towns to protest the economic and social policies of rightwing president Alvaro Uribe Velez. The protesters specifically blasted a free trade treaty (commonly referred to by its initials in Spanish, TLC) currently being negotiated with the US, as well as the planned privatization of 20% of the state oil company, Ecopetrol, and a proposed tax reform being considered by Congress. Marchers also demanded an end to the killing of unionists; the International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that nearly 800 Colombian labor leaders have been killed since 2000. The Unitary Workers Federation (CUT) called the national day of action, but two other labor federations joined it: the Colombian Workers Confederation (CTC) and the General Confederation of Workers (CGT). (El Diario-La Prensa, NY, Nov. 10)

The day of action also included a work stoppage by state workers; organizers said about 70% of the country’s 500,000 public employees observed the strike, with participation strongest among teachers and health workers. About 80% of the 280,000 members of the Colombian Educators Federation (Fecode) participated in the strike, according to union representative Witney Chavez. (El Universal, Venezuela, Nov. 9; AP, Nov. 9)

According to AP, about 5,000 people marched in Bogota. (AP, Nov. 9) The CUT said some 40,000 people took part in two marches that met at Bogota’s Plaza de Bolivar. The CUT reported 15,000 marchers in Medellin; 15,000 in Barranquilla (Atlantico), including many teachers and other protesters from nearby Cartagena, capital of Bolivar department, where a march was held the previous day; more than 10,000 in Cali; and 8,000 in Bucaramanga (Santander). Protesters traveled from nearby areas to the larger marches in those five cities. More than 6,000 people reportedly marched in Ibague (Tolima), and marches were also held in Pereira (Risaralda) and Manizales (Caldas), in the coffee-growing region of central Colombia. In the town of Rumichaca on the Ecuadoran border, Colombian teachers joined their Ecuadoran counterparts in a demonstration that was attacked by police. (Message posted by Hector Franco of Semanario Voz on Colombia Indymedia, Nov. 15) According to CUT vice president Fabio Arias, protests took place in all the departmental capitals. (ED-LP, Nov. 10)

In Bucaramanga, protest organizers reported that the Mobile Anti- Riot Squad (ESMAD) of the National Police acted with violence against the marchers. Agents beat and arrested two students, and fired some type of fragmentation grenades which injured a number of people. (Communique, Nov. 10 from Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Santander, Asamblea Permanente de la Sociedad Civil por la Paz, Fundacion Comite de Solidaridad con los Presos Politicos, Coordinacion Colombia – Europa – Estados Unidos]

President Uribe arrived in Washington on Nov. 13 for a hastily planned visit, hoping to win support from Democratic members of Congress for the trade deal. The administration of US president George W. Bush has pledged to push for swift passage of trade pacts negotiated this year with Peru and Colombia, but approval is now in the hands of the Democrats, who take control of the House and Senate in January after having routed the Republicans in national elections on Nov. 7. Under “fast-track” rules currently in effect, Congress can only ratify or reject trade deals without modifying them. The fast-track authority is set to expire in July, and is unlikely to be renewed.

Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, in line to be the next chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, would not comment on his Nov. 14 meeting with Uribe. As Uribe looked on–visibly tense–Rangel said it was up to the new Congress to “review” the Bush administration’s trade deal with Colombia. “Everything is possible,” Rangel said. House and Senate staff members say Democrats are concerned about the pact’s potential impact on US jobs, and about the Colombian government’s failure to protect trade unionists. Rangel confirmed that he raised the issue of Colombia’s labor record with Uribe, although he declined to provide further details. According to AP, Colombia may have to settle for unilateral trade preferences instead of the original deal, which would permanently remove tariffs on $14.3 billion in annual trade. (Miami Herald, Nov. 15)

La Guajira: unionist killed

Union activist Douglas Alonso Mejia Pinto was shot to death in his vehicle on Oct. 18 in the city of Riohacha, in the northeastern Colombian department of La Guajira. He was hit with 11 bullets just after dropping off his children at school. Mejia had been a court worker for 15 years and was secretary of the leadership board for the Guajira section of Asonal Judicial, a union representing court employees. Mejia was also the secretary of the recently-created First Administrative Court of Riohacha. The motives for the crime are unknown; he had not faced any threats to his life, according to the national leadership board of Asonal Judicial. (Asonal Judicial Oct. 30 via Colombia Indymedia)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 19

See our last post on Colombia.

  1. Trade agreement signed
    From Public Citizen, Nov. 22:

    By Signing Colombia Free Trade Agreement Without Addressing Democrats’ Concerns, Bush Administration Signals It Would Rather Play Partisan Political Games Than Pass a Trade Agreement

    Statement of Lori M. Wallach, Director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch

    By signing today a Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) based on NAFTA after ignoring congressional Democrats’ longstanding demands for changes that would allow some Democrats to support the deal, the Bush administration made clear it is more interested in picking fights with Democrats than passing new trade agreements. The midterm elections ended the era of Congress approving NAFTA-style trade pacts. This signing was a snub to Democrats, but more importantly it revealed to U.S. trading partners that the administration’s stubbornness and ideological rigidity take priority over its commitment to expanding trade.

    Democratic Ways and Means and Finance committee members wrote to the administration this week warning that signing the Colombia FTA would only create unnecessary difficulties, given that aspects of the Colombia and Peru FTAs must be renegotiated to garner the Democratic support necessary for approval. Large blocs in Congress have repeatedly issued demandsto add real labor and environmental standards to FTAs’ core texts enforceable identically to commercial terms; remove ‘data exclusivity’ patent terms that drive up medicine prices; eliminate new foreign investor rights to establish U.S. landside port operations; tweak FTA government procurement rules to safeguard prevailing wage laws and green and anti-sweatshop policies; review mandatory service privatization and deregulation rules touching water, social security and other sensitive sectors; and review farm rules predicted to displace millions of peasant farmers.

    The Colombia FTA has faced serious opposition in Colombia over the very same problems Democrats demanded be fixed, including the extreme drug patent rules and agricultural terms that the Colombian Ministry of Agriculture has said will lead to increased drug production, trafficking and illegal armed groups. The emerging scandal revealed in Saturday’s Washington Post regarding extensive links between civilian massacres by terrorist paramilitary groups and Colombian President Uribe’s ruling party should have provided another reason for President Bush to pause before signing such a controversial pact with Uribe.

    The midterm elections guarantee that the NAFTA-style Peru and Colombia FTAs, whose fate was unclear pre-elections, certainly cannot be passed as written in the new Congress. Given the trade positions of the incoming Congress – with 29 anti-fair trade representatives replaced with fair traders, neither the CAFTA (2005 vote of 217-215) nor Oman FTA (2006 vote of 221-205) would have been approved if submitted to the new Congress. CAFTA (2005 vote of 55-45) also would fail in the new Senate where seven seats flipped to pro-fair trade.

    To re-negotiate the necessary provisions of the Peru FTA – and now, thanks to today’s signing – also the Colombia FTA text, the administration must give notice-of-intent-to-enter-into-negotiations on the two pacts no later than the end of December to comply with Fast Track deadlines. Had President Bush not signed the Colombia FTA, this notice would not be necessary. A second notice, of intent-to-sign the re-negotiated pacts must be given by April 1, 2007 to meet the Fast Track rules. Fast Track sunsets on June 30, 2007.

    See also WW4 REPORT #126.

  2. Impacts on indigenous peoples
    From the Fellowship of Reconciliation Colombia Program Monthly Update, December 2006:

    “Free Trade” – or a New Deal?: Free Trade Agreement Update

    In September we asked you to take action to oppose the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which the White House had indicated it would sign and forward to Congress for approval.

    True to its word, the Administration signed the FTA on November 22, but Congress has not been as compliant as the White House would like. Representatives Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Sander Levin (D-MI), who will chair key committees on trade in the incoming Democratic-majority Congress, have called for renegotiation of the FTA, citing insufficient Colombian labor protections as a major sticking point.

    This is good news. But Rangel and Levin’s calls for change to the Agreement have been based almost solely on labor objections. They will need to hear from constituents besides labor so that all the problems with the FTA – environmental, agricultural, and more – are also addressed.

    Those problems include:

    * Increased ability for multinational corporations to avoid or change Colombian laws protecting Afro-descendent and indigenous peoples and their land. Mining projects such as the massive Cerrejon Norte coal mine in Colombia, owned by a consortium including an Exxon-Mobil subsidiary, have resulted in the forced internal displacement of entire communities of Afro-descendant peoples. Many of these projects are also polluting rivers, lakes, and rainforests of the Amazon.

    * Rules on intellectual property, privatization and deregulation of essential services like water, health care, and education that would lead to increased costs and reduced access for the poor. For example, these rules will cause a nearly $900 million annual increase in the price of medicines, according to a study by the Pan American Health Organization, leading to increased illnesses and death among Colombians.

    * Lowered tariffs on agricultural products, making the country vulnerable to overwhelmingly subsidized imports from the U.S. and severely undermining local farmers. This very thing has happened in Mexico since NAFTA was implemented 12 years ago, where more than 1.3 million farmers have been displaced.

    As a recent letter from more than 40 Afro-Colombian organizations to the U.S. Congress opposing the FTA states:
    Rather than undermining our local markets, we need increased access to credit and technical assistance for small farmers, we need to improve the systems for transportation and distribution, we need to improve land use and ownership policies, and we need fairer prices for the commodities we produce.

    We must work to assure that Congress either rejects this raw deal, or brings about its renegotiation. If renegotiation happens it must involve a complete reworking of the agreement to fully respect human dignity and environmental sustainability. Next month we will ask you to join us in communicating these concerns to your representative in the new Congress.