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U.S. "Free Trade": Death, Drugs and Despair in Colombia

In our name, our government is pushing to sign death warrants for Colombians in the guise of a so-called "free trade" agreement between our two countries.
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Pedro Arenas is not a person that most of the elites in the U.S.--in the mainstream media, inside the Beltway think-tanks, and in elected positions on Congress--would meet in order to understand the real crime of so-called "free trade." For the elites, so-called "free trade" is an unassailable concept, something that is as natural and obvious as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. But, for hundreds of thousands of Colombians like Arenas, so-called "free trade" is a question of life and death. And, in our name, our government--Republicans and potentially key Democrats--is pushing to sign death warrants for Colombians in the guise of a so-called "free trade" agreement between our two countries.

This might strike some as a bit hyperbolic. But, the proposed deal would, at the very least, push thousands of farmers off their lands. And, as likely, empower the paramilitary death squads that have flourished, in part through the U.S. financing of the "war on drugs, but also via the strengthening of the powerful business interests who fund some of the most violent political forces in Colombia. Here is the tale, in relative brevity, of the intersection between so-called "free trade," political violence, economic violence and drug cultivation.

Background: In 2003, President Bush announced negotiations for something called the Andean Free Trade Agreement, which was supposed to be negotiated with Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. But, new, populist governments in Ecuador and Bolivia ( in November 2006, Ecuadorans elected Rafael Correa as their new president; Evo Morales was chosen to lead Bolivia in December 2005), rejected any further NAFTA/CAFTA-style, so-called "free trade" agreements. So, Colombia and Peru forged ahead on their own. Bush signed the deal with Colombia last November--just two weeks after the elections in which dozens of new Democratic members of Congress were elected, partly on economic platforms that rejected NAFTA-type so-called "free trade."

Colombia is the most dangerous place to live if you are a union leader, activist or member: 3,000 have been murdered since 1985, according to an annual survey of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

But, as Pedro Arenas demonstrated to me when I met him in my office in New York, you don't have to be a trade unionist to be targeted for death. Arenas isn't a union member but he has been hounded by the para-military death squads a number of times over the past decade. Why? He has worked for many years organizing peasants in the south-central Guaviare region of Colombia--he hails from the town of San Jose, which is at the frontier of the Amazon. He has been at the forefront of the criticism of U.S. military policy in Colombia. He was elected to the San Jose City Council as an independent in 1992, ran and was elected to regional assembly in 1995 and, then in 2002, was elected to Colombia's National Congress.

But, he is not running for re-election. Why? Because of the threats from the para-military right wing. He simply does not want to endanger his wife and child. It is the only time in our long conversation that his shoulders dropped, he looked down at the table and his voice changed from firm and animated to weary and solemn.

The Colombia Free Trade Agreement. What would it do? The FTA's grant of duty-free U.S. access for flowers and certain other commercial-scale agri-export crops will certainly put pressure on Colombia to expand agribusiness plantations for such exports. These plantations have been a disaster for the regular farmer. Indeed, under pressure in the 1990s from international lending organizations, Colombia implemented a program of "economic openness," which unleashed a tide of traditional cereals, rice and oats pouring into the country. As a result, 1.1 million hectares of cultivated land were lost. Arenas says that 300,000 farmers, then, turned to cultivating coca. "So, now, with FTA, they want to lower every tariff to zero which will devastate every farmer and make them grow coca," says Arenas.

Foreign investor rights--a typical pro-corporate, so-called "free trade," measure--would tighten the grip that large corporations have on the country's natural resources and launch a large-scale plundering of those resources such as timber and minerals. Without a government willing to nationalize such resources or, at the very least, make sure that the benefits of the commercial exploitation are widely spread, you can be sure that huge riches will flow to a handful of people, while most of the population is left with pennies.

The upshot: the so-called "free trade" deal would likely displace hundreds of thousands of poor rural Colombians from their lands, sending them into far deeper economic despair--and forcing many of them to work for the very groups that violently displaced them from their lands. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs conducted a study of the effects of the 1990s economic "liberalization" and concluded that such a move led to a 35 per cent drop in employment. You can be sure that the proposed so-called "free trade" deal will wreak similar havoc.

As Public Citizen notes: "Increased Drug Production is Linked to Past NAFTA-style Agricultural Trade Policies on Which the Peru and Colombia FTAs are Based: We do not need to rely on experts' opinions regarding how the proposed FTAs will lead to increases in drug production. Unfortunately, there is a factual record demonstrating the phenomena. After NAFTA drove down commodity prices in Mexico and eventually 1.3 million Mexican campesinos were driven out of the business of growing corn and beans, many Mexican farmers turned to illegal drugs to compensate for lost income. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office reports that in NAFTA's first decade, marijuana seizures doubled at the U.S.-Mexico border."

Let's not forget the drug companies. Pharmaceutical companies will get exclusive patent rights, getting 20-year monopoly rights to market drugs in Colombia--the very kind of provisions that have driven up drug prices in the U.S. Generic drugs will effectively be banned for ten years--putting tremendous economic pressure on the health care system in Colombia.

Put simply, the deal would benefit business and political interests tied to the paramilitary forces. If you have any doubts about the links between the government and these right-wing paramilitary forces, check this out. In November 2006, two powerful senators and two members of Congress--allies of President Uribe - resigned because of evidence they had conspired with paramilitary groups. The Uribe government was rocked this past Monday when its foreign minister resigned:

The foreign minister of Colombia resigned Monday as the government of President Álvaro Uribe, the Bush administration's closest ally in South America, struggled with a scandal that has disclosed ties between paramilitary cocaine-trafficking squads and some of Mr. Uribe's most prominent political supporters.

The resignation of Foreign Minister María Consuelo Araújo came days after Mr. Uribe expressed support for her. But fallout from the arrest last week of five politicians, including her brother, Senator Álvaro Araújo, on charges of working with paramilitary squads in a kidnapping case related to the scandal, made her presence in the cabinet untenable.

Hours after the resignation, the president appointed Fernando Araújo, who recently escaped after six years in rebel captivity, to replace Ms. Araújo. The two are not related.

This corruption is clearly a threat to the FTA, as well as additional U.S. military support for Colombia.

But the support for Mr. Uribe's government is coming under fresh scrutiny as the United States Congress weighs approval of a trade agreement and a request from the Bush administration for $3.9 billion in military and antinarcotics assistance for Colombia, which is the largest recipient of American aid outside of the Middle East and Afghanistan.

The State of Play: since the November elections, there has been a sense that the Colombia deal was in some trouble, partly due to the Uribe government's growing scandal regarding ties to drug traffickers and partly due to the election of many new U.S. Democratic Party members who are skeptical of so-called "free trade." In a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab that focused mostly on the lack of labor standards in the pending so-called "free trade" deal with Peru, a number of House and Senator members also said that, "Our concerns apply to the Columbia agreement as well." Human rights organizations believe that the Colombia so-called "free trade" deal will worsen the plight of already besieged citizens.

The opposition also comes from Afro-Colombian representatives, who wrote to Rep. Charles Rangel:

In Colombia, the problems associated with trade go far beyond labor rights. As the Washington Post recently reported, members of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's own political party have been arrested for coordinating massacres of rural communities with illegal armed paramilitary groups. These massacres are directly related to trade. In many cases, these deeds have served to accelerate the concentration of ownership of the best lands in the hands of paramilitary leaders or their front groups and to significantly weaken land rights, facilitate natural resource exploitation, weaken our communities' environmental rights and facilitate the advance of development projects into our territories.

In the Colombian context, politically powerful export industries such as "African" palm oil, timber, mining and oil interests are directly benefiting from, and undoubtedly funding and coordinating, the systematic use of violent force to displace Afro-Colombian communities from their traditional territories in order to expand their exports to the U.S. Side agreements on labor will not protect us from these abuses.

If the U.S.-Colombia trade agreement were to be ratified without a complete overhaul, including the renegotiation of the agriculture and investment sections, the situation will deteriorate even more rapidly. The investment provisions would embolden export-oriented natural resource extraction corporations, while the agricultural rules would undermine rural economies. This lethal combination would result in the displacement of millions of poor rural Colombians from their lands, worsening their
economic and social conditions and leaving them with no option other than to work for those groups that have violently displaced them from their lands and appropriated their natural resources, or to become involved in the informal or even illegal economic sectors. We must break this cycle.

A coalition of Colombian organizations--the Colombian Action Network in Opposition to Free Trade and FTAA or Recalca) also wrote to Rangel in January making clear that, "The pitfalls of the agreement cannot be remedied merely by the incorporation of "side letters" or by a partial renegotiation. We have indicated, and continue to insist, that we oppose seeking competitiveness in world markets at the expense of the deterioration of labor standards and environmental degradation, as the Colombian government is proposing."

As chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Rangel plays a central role in the fate of trade deals. To his credit, he has pushed Schwab for stronger labor rights provisions. They agreed to have their staff try to work out an agreement by February 19th--but, according to Inside U.S. Trade (a very pricey subscription-only newsletter), the negotiations collapsed.

But here is where this gets tricky. Rangel (FWIW, he's my Congressman) also made clear, according to Inside U.S. Trade that, "he sought language on labor rights that would not "damage" the existing U.S. trade agreements, and would set minimal standards to show the United States wants to protect the rights of minors and women. Beyond that general comment, Rangel did not specify what he would consider an acceptable compromise on labor, but he made it clear it would have to be between the positions staked out by business and labor groups."

In my opinion, Rangel is seeking a middle position for a situation that does not warrant compromise. You can not make this so-called "free trade" agreement--or any similar past agreement--better by tinkering around the edges. Pedro Arenas says, "we have to completely reopen the negotiations of the agreement." Arenas views the deal with Colombia as much worse than NAFTA or the Central American Free Trade Agreement because it is far more sweeping in the invasion of the country's sovereignty, as I've detailed above.

Is Colombia an extreme example? Advocates of so-called "free trade" will no doubt say, "well, we don't support death squads but Colombia is not typical." The problem is that Colombia's conditions can simply be plotted on a spectrum of bad to worse when it comes to the consequences of so-called "free trade." There may not be roving paramilitary death squads in Mexico (though political violence is still a fact of life there, too), Guatemala, Honduras, or other countries. But, the underlying dynamic for so-called "free trade" is corrosive: driving down wages and seeking the lowest cost, compliant labor pool possible. Period. And, so, it is troubling that Rangel would be arguing for an approach that does not "damage" existing U.S. trade deals. These are damaged deals--if you are one of the millions of workers here and abroad who have suffered the loss of jobs, declining wages and a work environment where all the power rests with corporations.

It's the reason that, as Democrats, we need to drive a stake through so-called "free trade" and engage in a totally different trade policy. Don't be fooled by the nonsense of the marketing phrases like "free trade" (it doesn't exist) and "global economy" or the attacks by the economic elites against "protectionists."

There is nothing new about trade--we've traded among countries and civilizations for the entire course of human history, sometimes by delivering goods that took weeks and months to reach their destination, whereas today such trade can happen in the blink of an eye. What the economic, political and media elites want us to believe is that somehow something magical has happened requiring that we accede to economic realities that are natural and unavoidable.

But, that is utter nonsense. Economics is not nature. It's a question of power and politics. And the central question is: what are the rules under which trade takes place? This is not difficult to figure out, if you accept, as I do, two basic principles:

1. The ultimate goal for trade is to improve the lives of communities around the world.

2. If you believe in #1, then, any trade agreement should have at its core, not as after thoughts and "side letters," the principals of democracy, safe and fair-waged work and the preservation of the environment--for the people of all the countries involved in the deal. Once those principles are laid down as the underpinning of a trade deal, then, we ask how do corporations fulfill those goals. Right now, it's the exact opposite.

I do not minimize how difficult it will be to reverse the current economic rules. But, if you take a look at what happened in our elections in 2006 and, then, look at the election of many populist leaders in Central and South America who were chosen, in large part, in response to the economic plundering, poverty and inequality that so-called "free trade" and "liberalization" leads to, I am optimistic that we are making some progress in reshaping the debate.

That is why we must oppose the Colombia so-called "free trade" pact and push for Democrats to scuttle the deal. Not just for the sake of our country's citizens but in defense of our brethren in Colombia.

(cross-posted at Daily Kos and Working Life)

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