Free Trade Prospects with Colombia Fade

The recent media coverage of para-politics in Colombia may be the final nail in the coffin for a proposed U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement that is widely unpopular on both sides of the border.

Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, Bush’s strongest ally in the region, not only has an administration filled with people conspiring with right-wing death squads, but allegations are surfacing that his family members housed paramilitary groups on their land in the 1990’s. Colombia’s paramilitary state has made the South American nation the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists.

"The Uribe government’s support of the paramilitary preserves a situation of misery, exploitation and exclusion, which, on a daily basis, tramples upon labor rights and robs the Colombian people of freedom," wrote Jorge Enrique Gamboa, President of the Colombian Oil Workers Union (USO) in a letter to the U.S. Congress in February.

As many as 77 trade unionists were murdered in Colombia last year, and many of those who escaped death were often threatened, attacked or kidnapped.

According to the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report on Colombia, "Violence against union members and antiunion discrimination discouraged workers from joining unions and engaging in trade union activities, and the number of unions and union members continued to decline."

"You cannot put together a free-trade agreement when there isn’t freedom for workers in terms of their basic international rights," said Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade.

One argument free traders in the Bush Administration and private sector will often use to disqualify human rights concerns is that opening foreign markets to U.S. businesses will help build and spread freedom and democracy.

"I’m convinced the best way to help workers in each of these countries is to provide better economic opportunities," which the free trade pacts would do, said Deputy U.S. Trade Representative John Veroneau in an interview at the Reuters Latin American Investment Summit.

But more and more rational people are realizing that those types of arguments are bananas. The recent revelation that Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International, Inc. was paying off right-wing paramilitary groups shows that transnational corporations lobby to open markets in developing nations not to promote human rights, but to take advantage of the weak human rights structures in order to turn a higher profit. And Chiquita is not some kind of anomaly. Alabama’s Drummond Coal and Coca-Cola have also come under scrutiny for alleged ties to right-wing death squads.