A federal government insider tells me we should soon expect the Obama administration to push Congress to ratify the stalled Colombia Free Trade Agreement, a treaty strongly opposed by unions and human rights activists, in both the United States and Colombia. Obama inherited three such pending treaties—Colombia, Korea and Panama—and he could back all three as a package, less to make the United States more “competitive” than to signal his new “business-friendly” bipartisan posture. The White House, says this source, “seems to be primarily interested in doing right by his contributors and the Chamber of Commerce.”

At stake in the Colombian Free Trade Agreement is the viability of the so-called “readiness criteria”—that is, what standards a country should have to meet before the United States ties its economy to it through a treaty such as this one. If Colombia—hands down the most lethal country for labor organizing in the world—is acceptable, it means there is no such thing as “readiness criteria.” The Obama administration will be saying: we’ll sign these free-trade agreements with anyone, we don’t care how repressed or terrorized their population may be. Bring it on. Talk about grade inflation: Colombia consistently bests, with more than twice as many homicides, the second-most-lethal country for labor activism, Guatemala. More than 3,000 trade unionists have been killed in the past twenty-five years, with around 97 percent of the murders not prosecuted. In addition to murders, the respected Escuela Nacional Sindical, based in Colombia, has documented 4,826 death threats, 1,696 forced displacements, 211 disappearances, 165 kidnappings, 274 attempted murders, 631 arbitrary detentions, eighty-two cases of torture and forty-nine illegal break-ins between 1986 and 2010. And that’s just against trade unionists, and doesn’t include the violence directed an indigenous and afro-Colombians, human rights activists and other reformers. The vast majority of these crimes weren’t even formally investigated, much less prosecuted. 

The personnel that staff the Office of the US Trade Representative, responsible for advancing the trade treaty, are largely holdovers from the Bush administration. The assistant USTR for the Americas, Everett Eissenstat, is a Bush appointee, as is Eissenstat’s deputy for Latin America. The trade representatives in charge of labor issues, Lewis Karesh and Carlos Romero, and environmental policy, Mark Linscott, also got their jobs from Bush.  And the source tells me that they often seem to be reading from the same set of talking points as their Colombian counterparts: confronted with the sky-high homicide rate of trade unionists, representatives from both countries say that no one can really say they were killed because of their activism. Sex, apparently, always sells: “Maybe they were in a lovers’ dispute, killed in a crime of passion,” is a common refrain, says this source, of Colombian and US officials alike. US officials say things have improved with the election of Colombia’s new president, Manuel Santos: only forty-seven trade unionists were murdered last year, four fewer than in 2009. But these very same officials were also the ones who helped negotiate the treaty and pushed for its ratification in 2006, when the year before seventy-three unionists were either killed or disappeared.

For years,Colombia has been asking the United States what it needs to do to move the trade agreement forward. A free-trade treaty with Washington is the gold ring for Colombian politicians, and setting serious conditions on the treaty is the most powerful leverage that anyone could exercise to make fundamental improvements in the country’s labor and human rights situation. The United States could demand, for instance, that the backlog of union murders must first be prosecuted—going after not only those who pulled the trigger but also the higher-ups who ordered the hit; or that all land seized by paramilitaries has to be returned; that unions destroyed by violence must be restored; and a host of other changes—all of which would likely be embraced by the Colombian government if they were cast as the price of increased trade. Yet the Obama White House, like the previous Bush administration, refuses to take advantage of this leverage to demand real changes. 

Consider Guatemala. In order to demonstrate its “readiness criteria,” Guatemala, the year before Washington ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement, brought its homicide rate of trade unionists down to zero. Yet as soon as the treaty went into force in July 2006, violence against labor activists shot up.  By March 2008, Guatemalan trade unionists suffered eight murders, one attempted murder, two drive-by shootings and one gang rape. Since then, repression against labor and other activists has only increased. We can expect the same surge when the Colombian Free Trade Treaty is ratified (and of course, there is nothing really “free trade” about these treaties, but that’s another matter: see Kevin Gallagher’s good work on the topic at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute).

When Obama was running for office, then-adviser, now-chief of the National Economic Council Austan Goolsbee famously reassured the Canadian government that his candidate was not serious when he told the public that he would insist on renegotiating NAFTA as part of crafting a fundamentally new trade policy from that of the Bush administration. It looks now like Goolsbee was more right than anyone could have known.

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