In the Recent Free Trade Deals, What About Colombian Workers?

In the Recent Free Trade Deals, What About Colombian Workers?

In the Recent Free Trade Deals, What About Colombian Workers?

Promises made during the recent debate over a free trade deal with Colombia aren’t likely to be kept. 


This post was written by The Nation’s DC intern, Cal Colgan.

Earlier this week, Congress passed trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, and the president will undoubtedly sign them into law. The Obama administration claims the agreements will increase exports by $13 billion and support tens of thousands of US jobs. The deals were stalled in Congress for five years over concerns they would hurt American jobs, but many centrist Dems lent their support when the House proposed a bill to protect workers hurt by foreign competition.

But for all rhetoric about protecting American workers, most mainstream media outlets only had passing mention of the Colombia deal’s actual effect on that country’s labor movement. A few paltry sentences in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN were all the non-savvy news consumer got about the issue.

The truth is that despite the claims of Angelino Garzón, the former Communist Party leader-turned-vice president, there have not been many improvements in the Colombian government’s treatment of union activists.

True, if one were to measure the carnage by Colombian standards, the murders of union activists have dropped significantly, as the Miami Herald reports:

During the first nine months of the year, there were 22 union-member assassinations in Colombia. In 2010, there were 51 murders. While it’s still a global record, it’s down dramatically from 1996 and 2002, when there were 281 and 201 union-member homicides, respectively.

 But twenty-two assassinations is still a large number for a country that—in the words of Garzón—claims to be making “tremendous progress in defending human rights and in protecting and working with unions.”

Historically, as the Herald also notes, Colombian officials investigate a pathetically small amount of union-related homicides that do occur:

Human Rights Watch recently pointed out that of the 2,886 union-member murders registered since 1986, the government’s conviction rate is less than 10 percent.

In 2007, a special unit was created in the prosecutors’ office to deal with crimes against union leaders. Since its inception, there have been 195 union-member homicides and only six convictions, Human Rights Watch said.    

Garzón and President Juan Manuel Santos are being fairly naïve when they claim that the new trade agreement with the United States will allow American authorities to monitor their country’s labor and human rights policies. That ignores the fact that the United States has at times played an indirect role in the abuses—right along with the Colombian government itself.

In September, Columbia’s Supreme Court sentenced Jose Noguera, the former director of Administrative Department of Security (DAS) to twenty-five years in prison for colluding with right-wing militias. During Alvaro Uribe’s presidency, Noguera gave the death squads lists of left-wing activists and union leaders, many of whom were later killed.

Also, during Uribe’s presidency DAS-controlled groups received US government supplies and CIA training to monitor Uribe’s opponents, including union members:

Another unit that operated for eight months in 2005, the Group to Analyze Terrorist Organization Media, assembled dossiers on labor leaders, broke into their offices and videotaped union activists. The United States provided equipment and tens of thousands of dollars, according to an internal DAS report, and the unit’s members regularly met with an embassy official they remembered as “Chris Sullivan.”

Some strong opposition still remains in Congress, though it’s too late now. Democratic Representative Maxine Waters said that she found it “deeply disturbing that the United States Congress is even considering a free trade agreement with a country that holds the world record for assassinations of trade unionists.”

But when the US government provided $6 billion in aid during Uribe’s presidency and the Obama administration gave Santos’ government half a billion in combined aid this year, is it any surprise?

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