Monday, April 21, 2008

Colombia Free Trade Pact: Endorsing Death Squad Economics

As an article from the McClatchy newspapers notes:

An empowered Democratic Party has taken command of U.S. policy toward Latin America, stalling a free-trade agreement and taking aim at military aid programs for Colombia and Mexico.

This assertiveness began after Democrats took control of Congress in early 2007, but it took a dramatic turn in recent weeks, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi derailing an effort by President Bush to force a vote on a free-trade agreement with Colombia.....

On the other hand Canada after his visit to Colombia last summer has fast-tracked a free trade agreement with Colombia in spite of concerns about the country's human rights and labor record. In the Canadian press the issue seems to have fallen off the radar of the main stream press but here is an article from January in the dominionpaper.

January 8, 2008

Endorsing Death Squad Economics
Canada's Lightning Speed Trade Negotiations with Colombia
by Jennifer Moore

The Dominion -

Marie Clarke Walker, representing the Canadian Labour Congress, speaks at a labour rally held in Toronto on November 29th in opposition of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. See more photos. Photo: Rick Arnold/Common Frontiers Canada
“Why is it ridiculous to ask that human rights be respected in order to do free trade with Colombia?” asked award-winning Colombian journalist Hollman Morris during an interview on national public radio in Canada a couple of weeks ago.

Morris was reflecting on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments made in Bogotá this past July where he announced the launch of three-way free trade negotiations with Colombia and Peru.

During a press conference with President Alvaro Uribe, Harper said that Canada is prepared to negotiate with Colombia despite being facing the worst humanitarian disaster in the hemisphere according to the UN. Alluding to US Democrats currently blocking approval of the US-Colombia free trade agreement, he stated, “We are not going to say, 'Fix all your social, political and human-rights problems and only then will we engage in trade relations with you.'” His negotiating team has proved its determination to sign a deal and may have wrapped up fast track talks in Lima this week. The negotiations between Colombia and the US took 21 months.

“Prime Minister Harper’s statement is quite offensive,” said Morris, pointing out that “Colombia is the country in which trade unionists are the most endangered in the world [and] in the last couple of years there has been a phenomenon of the dismantlement of trade unions. I’m wondering, is it ridiculous to protect them?”

In 2006, there were 72 reported killings of trade unionists. Over the course of the Uribe administration, four hundred union officers and rank-and-file members have been murdered and of these crimes there have been only seven convictions, says a statement released this month by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

Morris added that Uribe also continues attacks on the press. He says that he has recently “delegitimized journalists [such that] a number have left the country within the last month.” Morris himself has previously been accused by Uribe of having ties to left-wing guerrillas, comments later revoked, but which still put Morris’ life in jeopardy.

Harper’s comments are a strong endorsement for Uribe at a time when his administration faces a grave crisis of legitimacy. The “para-politics scandal” has shaken even his key alliance with the US as a substantial block of US Congress holds up approval of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Forty congress people, including senators, governors and mayors representing the President’s political coalition, are under investigation for alleged relationships with paramilitary chiefs and collusion in elections fraud. Seventeen are already in jail including the former head of secret services under Uribe. As well, marked failures in Uribe’s paramilitary demobilization program have been demonstrated as paramilitaries are observed to be reorganizing, also sustaining their political influence following recent local elections.

Considering what might be motivating the Canadian Government’s lack of concern for the deep rooted corruption, human rights abuses and impunity in Colombia, Morris proposed, “I think what Canada is trying to do is to put pressure on the democrats in the US to support the FTA with Colombia, which fortunately won’t be signed during the Bush administration and we are very happy for this.”

In fact, the Harper Index reported in late November that President Bush has indeed been taking advantage of Harper’s policy toward Colombia. Speaking with the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce in October, the Harper Index quotes Bush as having stated, “As Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada said, if the United States turns its back on its friends in Colombia, this will set back our cause far more than any Latin American dictator could hope to achieve. By its bold actions, Colombia has proved itself worthy of America's support – and I urge Congress to pass this vital agreement as soon as possible.”

As to why Harper can get away with such offensive statements despite Canada’s image of itself as a human rights champion, Manuel Rozental says a key reason is that the Canadian public hasn’t really responded. Rozental recently completed a CLC-sponsored, cross-country speaking tour about the trade negotiations, urging Canadians to demand that the deal be stopped until a full debate take place in the Canadian Parliament. In July he commented that “Harper wouldn’t even dare to behave the way that he’s behaving and go to [visit] this regime if there was any political reaction from the majority of Canadian people, but there isn’t.”

Harper’s trip to Bogotá sparked minimal critique within the Canadian press and failed to trigger any response in the streets. However, this is not an indication that Canadians do not mobilize. When the crisis in Burma erupted, the Canadian public was infuriated. Canadian media coverage of the situation was extensive and numerous protests took place.

However, resistance to Canada’s overdrive free trade talks with Colombia and Peru is evident, as several labour and human rights organizations released statements opposed to a Canada-Colombia FTA in late November. The CLC, in addition to their statement, held a march of several hundred in Toronto on November 29th and called for public support of delegates participating in labour conventions across the country at which they will “consider this issue and demand an end to trade negotiations.” The CLC rejects that such negotiations could be remedied by “ineffective labour and environmental side agreements with no teeth on rights or standards will do nothing to improve the situation.”

In defiance of Canadian labour demands, and despite the general secrecy that usually surrounds bilateral free trade negotiations, it appears that the current Canadian negotiating team has been taking special efforts this time to ensure that labour organizations have no say in the process. Rick Arnold, Coordinator of Common Frontiers Canada, reported this month that “A Colombian trade negotiator recently let slip that the Canadian government told Colombian negotiators to keep the draft labour text secret, well away from Canadian unions and non-governmental organizations.”

According to the Harper Index, in order “to inoculate itself against criticism, earlier this month Federal Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn announced $1 million being given to Colombia under the International Program for Professional Labour Administration (IPPLA).” The Index quoted the Minister as saying that “this funding will help the Colombian Government to strengthen and enforce labour laws on behalf of workers here, and will support good governance by building capacity for the effective administration of labour legislation.”

However, a joint statement released in July by the CLC and a national Colombian labour organization, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia (CUT), says that addressing the potential threats of a free trade agreement to workers needs to start before any negotiations take place. They call for a thorough and prior assessment of risks to workers noting in particular the great asymmetry between the Colombian and Canadian economies. They outline additional concrete measures that would help address the systematic dismantlement of Colombian labour. During 2006, just over 60,000 workers, of an economically active population of twenty million, were able to benefit from collective bargaining.

RECALCA, the Colombian Action Network Against Free Trade and the Free Trade Area of the Americas, also points out that Colombia’s negative trade balance with Canada amounted to $225 million dollars in 2006. According to RECALCA, this agreement is likely to reinforce Colombia’s orientation as a producer of tropical and mineral products in exchange for manufactured goods and machinery. They note that the themes being addressed by these trade negotiations are the same as those covered by US-Colombia talks and conclude that an FTA with Canada would “lock Colombia into free trade, paralyzing the state’s capacity to promote development, leading to abandonment basic food staple production in the country, and leaving aside industrialization while integrating Colombia into the global economy through over-exploitation of cheap labour.” Rural livelihoods are already seriously compromised in Colombia with internal displacement at around 3.8 million.

However, much remains to be seen from the Canadian public. If the CLC campaign catches on, their demands for real change in the situation in Colombia also implicate serious changes to the current Canadian model; “An international business deal with Colombia or any other country,” according to the CLC, should “foster “fair-trade”, and not only benefit international investors while worsening widespread conditions of poverty and social exclusion.”

The Harper government, in its rush to complete this free trade deal, is unlikely to do this on its own. A serious and vigorous public debate in Canada is urgently required.

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