By John I. Laun
April 2, 2008
There are several reasons why the proposed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Colombia and the United States is a bad idea. First, the proposed Agreement would cause severe harm to Colombian agriculture. The most serious effects of implementation of the FTA would be felt in the Colombian countryside. Permitting the free entry of U.S. agricultural products into Colombia would undermine Colombian peasants by making U.S. food products available at low cost in Colombian markets, thus reducing the available market for Colombian food crops, such as corn, rice and other food staples. As a result, Colombian peasants would either move to the cities, go further into the rainforest areas, or leave for other countries, where they would be undocumented aliens. Some of these latter would undoubtedly come north through Central America and Mexico to the United States; others would go to the neighboring countries of Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Panama, burdening those countries. Those impoverished peasants who stay in Colombia will look to other crops to grow in order to survive. The most economically viable of these is coca, and coca growing would likely expand. The U.S. Government has already exhausted billions of dollars over the past 16 years in fruitless coca eradication programs. The United Nations and Colombia/U.S. Government statistics show that, in spite of the crop-spraying campaign carried out in Colombia, more coca is being grown in the Andean countries today than ever before.
The abandonment of the countryside by destitute peasants would accelerate the conversion of production from food crops for local consumption to large-scale commercial crops, such as African palm. The administration of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has acquiesced in the displacement by paramilitary forces, often with collaboration of the Colombian Army, of peasants, indigenous communities and Afro-Colombian settlements from lands they have owned and inhabited for many years. These lands have been taken by the paramilitaries and their drug-trafficking allies for large-scale export crop projects, which are favored by the Uribe Administration. The extent of this internal displaced is breathtaking—more than 3.8 million persons have been forced from their homes and their lands, more than any other country in the world, except Darfur/Sudan. A question which members of the U.S. Congress should ask is: do they really want to collaborate with a government which has promoted policies resulting in forced displacement of millions of people? In addition, numerous high-ranking officials in the Uribe Administration have been linked to the illegal paramilitaries, and President Uribe has himself has actively supported military officers who collaborated closely with the paramilitaries, most notably General Rito Alejo del Rio, whom he eulogized several years ago at a fancy dinner at the Tequendama Hotel in Bogota. A further concern of the U.S. Congress should be what this country’s cooperation with a government that has failed to protect millions of its citizens from forced displacement or death may signify for our foreign policy. As Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro has observed in meetings with members of the U.S. Congress, the Uribe-supported palm oil export emphasis has in practical terms resulted in control of vast areas in the country by drug-trafficking paramilitaries who are the only persons who have the land and the economic resources to wait several years for the African palm plantations to mature to the point of producing palm oil. Do U.S. policy-makers really wish to promote the activities of cut-throat paramilitaries and cocaine traffickers, which result in cocaine placed on the streets of major U.S. cities?
Another major concern is the treatment of union members in Colombia. For the last decade Colombia has seen more murders of labor organizers and union members than any other country in the world. As a study by the Colombian NGO Recalca (Colombian Action Network in Response to Free Trade and the FTAA) has pointed out, Alvaro Uribe led the legislative assault on unions back when he was a Senator in the Colombian Congress in 1990. He has done little to protect them as President. Although he claims the paramilitaries, at whose hands union members have historically died in large numbers, have been demobilized under the so-called “Justice and Peace Law” his government rammed through the Colombian Congress, in fact the paramilitaries have continued to operate throughout Colombia with their murderous structure still intact. Now calling themselves “Aguilas Negras” (Black Eagles), they have murdered many union leaders and members and recently issued a hit list containing the names of many leading human rights workers and union supporters. And the murders of union leaders have continued with impunity. Some of these have involved multinational corporations, among them the U.S.-based Drummond Coal Company, Coca Cola and Chiquita. And some of these attacks on union leaders have directly involved officials in the Uribe Government. Thus, testimony of Rafael Garcia, a former employee of Colombia’s Administrative Department of Security (DAS), essentially Colombia’s FBI, described a meeting he attended at which officials of Drummond Coal hired a paramilitary leader to kill union members, resulting in the murder of three union leaders. And when allegations were raised about paramilitary collaboration by the head of DAS, Jorge Noguera, instead of calling for his prosecution, President Uribe named his friend Noguera as Colombia’s consul in Milan, Italy. Mr. Noguera is presently incarcerated awaiting trial upon the order of the Colombian Supreme Court, Mr. Uribe’s strong support of him notwithstanding.
Another of the officials of the Colombian Government whose actions promoted paramilitarism and impunity for those committing crimes against union leaders, human rights workers and others, was former Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio, who upon leaving office received appointment to be Colombia’s Ambassador to Mexico from President Uribe as a reward for his efforts. Among the things Osorio had done, he had squelched the prosecution of General Rito Alejo del Rio and dismissed the attorneys in his office who were preparing the case against him. He also associated with paramilitary leaders and did nothing to discourage a hands-off attitude towards them. The Colombia Support Network received evidence ten years ago of the collaboration of General del Rio with illegal paramilitaries, yet Attorney General Osorio cancelled his prosecution and left unpunished military and paramilitary leaders responsible for multiple massacres in CSN’s sister community of Apartado.
Another major way in which Colombia would be prejudiced by passage of the proposed bilateral FTA is in the intellectual property area. When a CSN delegation to Puerto Asis in Putumayo Department met with leaders of the indigenous community there, the first thing these leaders mentioned as a serious concern of theirs was the lack of protection for their access to traditional medicine. They are concerned that intellectual property rights and patents will be established under the aegis of the FTA which will require them to seek permission from the U.S. drug companies to have access to the medicinal plants and herbs they have used for hundreds of years. They are also worried that their traditional lands will be titled fraudulently to the paramilitary drug-traffickers who have forced many of them off their lands. The Afro-Colombian communities along the Pacific Coast and in Colombia’s northern coastal areas also are worried that their traditional lands, from which hundreds of thousands of them have been forced to leave by paramilitaries supported by the Colombian military, will be re-titled fraudulently to the paramilitaries and their allies.
President Uribe is no friend of economic justice for the Colombian people. His support for the proposed FTA springs from favoritism for export producers and those linked to paramilitarism and the drug trade. He and his associates in government have benefited from policies that are destructive of the Colombian countryside, of Colombia’s unions, and of the magnificent biodiversity of the country. The distress that implementation of the FTA would bring to most Colombians would be prejudicial not only to the real interests of that country, but also to the United States. Congress should reject the FTA as contrary to the best interests of both the United States and Colombia.
Written by John I. Laun for the Colombia Support Network