Colombia: Trade at the Point of a Gun

“Free trade” and an aggressive military policy are central pillars of U.S. foreign policy. Better than any country in the world, Colombia demonstrates the intimate connection between these two aspects of U.S. power and their devastating results.

Teo Ballvé

“Free trade” and an aggressive military policy are central pillars of U.S. foreign policy. Better than any country in the world, Colombia demonstrates the intimate connection between these two aspects of U.S. power and their devastating results.

Colombia has been the recipient of some $5.4 billion in U.S. military aid since 2000. One consequence of the Plan Colombia military assistance package was that the power of paramilitaries grew proportionally to the boost in aid, as did their crimes.

Indeed, more labor leaders are killed annually in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined. Since 2001, the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center reports that a staggering 500 union activists were murdered—overwhelmingly, at the hands of paramilitary forces. These somber statistics led AFL-CIO legislative representative Jeff Vogt to rail against the proposed U.S. “Free Trade Agreement” (FTA) with Colombia, which awaits a congressional vote. “The Bush administration’s decision to sign the FTA now, despite serious human rights abuses and clear evidence of government linkage to death squads demonstrates an utter disregard for human rights and the rule of law,” said Vogt.

Collusion between the Colombian military and paramilitaries was, until recently, the country’s worst kept secret. But an ongoing scandal has implicated top military officials and some of President Álvaro Uribe’s closest advisers of having intimate ties to paramilitary groups.

Drug lords and wealthy landowners created the paramilitary groups in the 1980s to combat kidnappings by leftist guerrillas. Besides killing supposed “subversives”—mostly, innocent students, professors, unionists, campesinos, human rights workers and peaceful activists of all kinds—they soon came to control much of the cocaine trade and used their militias to consolidate their wealth.

Since the early 1990s, paramilitary leaders and their allies have seized entire swaths of the country through the forced displacement of campesinos accused of being guerrilla sympathizers. According to one government report, the paramilitaries now control an estimated two-thirds of the country's arable land. Historian Forrest Hylton calls this the largest "counter-agrarian reform" in the world after China's. But unlike China, notes Hylton, Colombia never had an agrarian reform in the first place.

What does this have to do with free trade? Here’s where activists can gain serious ground in the debate over Colombia’s FTA. The U.S.-Colombian FTA will help the narco-paramilitaries amass more power and wealth.

Senator Gustavo Petro from the ascendant left-wing Democratic Pole party laid it out on a recent visit to Washington. The results of other trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), undeniably show that small farmers are squeezed out by market asymmetries with the United States and the generous subsidies received by U.S. farmers. In Colombia, says Petro, these economically displaced farmers will predictably turn to the only crop in which they have a comparative advantage and a good profit margin: coca, the base ingredient of cocaine.

Moreover, the few profitable crops left for Colombians under a trade deal with the United States require large-scale agriculture and deep pockets. As Colombian specialist Adam Isacson from the Center for International Policy explains, these viable crops—timber, oil palm, rubber, cacao and fruit trees—can take as many as 15 years before they can be harvested, and most small farmers don’t have the money to wait that long. Isacson writes: “Who in Colombia, Petro asked, has both large landholdings and lots of cash? ‘They have a name in Colombia,’ the senator said. ‘The narcotraffickers.’”

The narco-paramilitaries, then, have laundered their money into landholdings they acquired illegally at the point of a gun, and they will use that land to legally profit from the trade deal, while small farmers get the short end of the deal and resort to coca production. The narcos, in turn, will continue to profit from the coca produced by campesinos, while the campesinos continue to suffer the violent brunt of a seemingly endless war.


Teo Ballvé is NACLA’s Web editor. A journalist based in Colombia, he edited, with Vijay Prashad, Dispatches from Latin America: On the Frontlines Against Neoliberalism. A version of this article was first published by the Resource Center of the Americas' bimonthly newsletter.
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