With all that happened at the Summit of the Americas, it was easy to miss a significant about-face by the Obama administration.
No, it wasn’t the administration’s supposedly softer stance toward Cuba. Nor was it Venezuela’s well-received offer (by Chávez-basher Hillary Clinton no less) to re-exchange ambassadors with Washington. Obama won’t read the Spanish edition of The Open Veins of Latin America, a gift from Chávez, so that can be dismissed, too.
The about-face came when Barack Obama promised Colombian President Álvaro Uribe that the White House would work toward helping pass the stalled "free trade" agreement between the two countries.
During Obama’s presidential campaign, his opposition to the trade deal was one of the few concrete policy stances he took on Latin America. The trade pact came up in a debate with John McCain, who tried to ridicule Obama by suggesting that he did not understand what was at stake with the Colombia trade deal.
In stating his opposition, Obama shot back: "Actually, I understand it pretty well, the history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis, and there have not been prosecutions."
Obama added, "The trade agreement itself does have labor and environmental protections, but we have to stand for human rights, and we have to make sure that violence isn’t being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights."
Apparently, Obama had a change of heart over lunch with Uribe. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs explained, "The President has asked our Trade Representative, Ambassador Kirk, to work with the Colombians to work through our remaining concerns, the President’s remaining concerns, about violence against labor leaders in Colombia."
At the same meal, where Uribe and Obama spoke for 45 minutes, they agreed to set a meeting in Washington to discuss the trade deal and Plan Colombia. (Many analysts predict Plan Colombia, a multi-year military assistance package aimed at fighting rebels and the drug trade, will face cuts in the next foreign appropriations bill.)
At the lunch, Uribe reportedly showed Obama statistics that claim a drop in the murder of unionists and an increase in arrests of the perpetrators. The Colombian president is known to have a way with numbers, having a Fidel Castro-like knack for citing statistics in his speeches.
The devil is, of course, in the details.
The Colombia-based National Labor School, a watchdog group, notes (PDF) that nearly 2,700 unionists have been killed in the country since 1986, mostly by murderous right-wing paramilitary groups, with only 90 convictions – a 97 percent rate of impunity. The overall number of labor activists killed in recent years has decreased – mainly due to the much-criticized demobilization of paramilitaries under Uribe’s amnesty program. But killings of unionists spiked last year to 49, compared to 39 labor leaders killed in 2007.
At a U.S. congressional hearing in February, José Luciano Sanín of the National Labor School testified (PDF), “More than 60 percent of the all murdered unionists in the world are Colombians. The murder rate of unionists in Colombia is five times that of the rest of the countries of the world, including those countries with dictatorships that have banned union activity.”
Uribe probably suggested to Obama that under his administration more murderers of these peaceful activists were brought to trial than under any previous government. Again, the facts don’t corroborate this assertion.
Uribe’s amnesty program required paramilitary commanders to confess all their crimes in exchange for light sentences as short as five years – a pittance for charges including crimes against humanity.
But Uribe singlehandedly undermined even this minimal punishment scheme.
Take, for instance, the case of José Ever Veloza García, a paramilitary leader also known as "H.H." His paramilitary bloc was active in the 1990s in the northwest region of Urabá – a center of operations for Chiquita, the banana company. At last count, H.H. confessed to at least 1,200 murders, including the brutal killing of workers belonging to the region’s banana unions.
H.H. admitted, "During that time the unions were really strong and there were a lot of strikes. What we did, and it was our duty, was to force the workers to go back to work at the plantations . Those who disobeyed and didn’t go work, knew what they had coming."
One of H.H.’s close collaborators in Urabá was a banana magnate-turned-paramilitary named Raúl Hasbún. In a recent interview with the Miami Herald, Hasbún coldly admitted, "I killed a lot of union members."
H.H. was one of the few paramilitary leaders who willingly confessed most of his crimes – some 3,000 in all. Some of his confessions implicated high-ranking politicians in Uribe’s governing coalition. One of the politicians forced to resign due to his links with H.H. was Colombian ambassador to the Dominican Republic Juan José Chaux Mosquera – an Uribe appointment.
As H.H. was in the process of revealing the extent of his crimes, which continued implicating government allies, Uribe abruptly extradited him to the United States on drug trafficking charges.
The family members of H.H.’s victims in Colombia criticized the extradition saying it violates their right to know the full truth about what happened to their loved ones.
Let’s hope, for the sake of slain unionists and their families in Colombia, that President Obama does not forget his own campaign promise and his suggestion at the Trinidad Summit that "true security only comes with liberty and justice."
Teo Ballvé, NACLA’s web editor, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Colombia. His Web site is www.TeoBallve.com.