Colombian President Álvaro Uribe visited Washington on June 29 with the hope of cementing Obama's support for the pending U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Early in his presidential bid last year Obama said, “The violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.” But following the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago last April, Obama directed U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to resolve any "remaining issues" holding up the trade deal. Then, at the recent White House meeting Obama congratulated Uribe "on the progress that has been made in human rights in Colombia."
Obama's softening of his position on the FTA does not reflect the facts on the ground in Colombia. Recent reports indicate that Colombia’s human rights crisis continues to escalate and that its scope and depth extend far beyond the murder of trade unionists once condemned by Obama.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) released its annual report on human rights violations against unionists last month. And Colombia again registered the greatest number of assassinations than any other country last year with 49 – more than the rest of the world combined. The ITUC also notes that 10 more unionists were slaughtered in 2008 than in 2007.
Meanwhile, the Colombian military, which receives hundreds of millions in U.S. taxpayer dollars every year, is mired in scandal over politically motivated illegal executions. On June 17, U.N. Special Investigator Philip Alston confirmed that the Colombian military’s practice of killing innocent civilians and dressing them up as rebel combatants to inflate enemy body counts was a “more or less systematic” practice organized by “significant elements within the military.”
Noting that soldiers received bonuses and promotions for the killings, Alston characterized the scandal as the “cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit.” The government says it is currently investigating over 1,600 accusations of such executions, known locally as “false positives.”
Another facet of Colombia’s human rights catastrophe that has received much less attention is the country’s continuing refugee crisis. In its annual “Global Trends” study released in June, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that Colombia now has the largest internal refugee population in the world, surpassing countries like Iraq, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Besides the obvious human toll of violent displacement, a report by CODHES, a Colombian organization monitoring displacement, shows that the violent expulsion of innocent campesinos also has a heavy economic cost. The lost agricultural production of the 5.5 million hectares stolen from campesino families, says CODHES, amounts to an equivalent of almost 12 percent of Colombia's GDP. “These lands passed to other hands in a de facto expropriation that continues to occur throughout the country,” the study concludes.
What's worse, the U.S. government appears to be funding the land expropriation by subsidizing palm oil companies linked to paramilitaries and drug traffickers, according to an investigative report by Teo Ballvé for The Nation. The companies use these stolen lands to produce palm oil for biofuels. Despite the environmental – and human – destruction caused by Colombia's booming biofuels industry, Obama promised to work with Uribe on these so-called "clean energy" initiatives.
For his part, Uribe claims that free trade agreements such as those pending in the U.S. and Canadian legislatures would help Colombia “overcome poverty, build equity, have a dynamic economy and integrate the country to the largest economies of the world.”
But the barrage of bad news coming out of Colombia belies Uribe's claim and the U.S. congress seems to have taken notice. Uribe and his entourage were reportedly bothered by concerns and criticism aired by U.S. lawmakers about human rights. "I see this as an indicator that they just don't get it," one anonymous congressional aide told the Washington Post.
Congress seems to be taking a more prudent turn on the issue of foreign trade. More than 100 congressional representatives introduced the TRADE Act to Congress on June 24. Lori Wallach, a trade analyst with Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, calls the new legislation "amazing" and that its passage would be a "remedy to NAFTA and the WTO." The legislation specifically calls for a review of the economic impact of current trade deals and mandates that labor standards and human rights protections, among several other requirements, be included in both existing and future trade deals.
The TRADE Act and a faltering economy do not bode well for Uribe’s lobbying efforts for the FTA. In Canada, Uribe's recent pitch for a nearly identical bilateral trade deal – including an appearance by Uribe before Canada’s Parliament and the open endorsement of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper – has also fallen flat. Canadian lawmakers are also concerned about Colombia’s continuing human rights crisis.
Although Obama has expressed support for the Colombia trade deal, the administration seems unwilling to jeopardize its stacked domestic agenda by spending finite political capital on a trade agreement – particularly, during a recession. Nonetheless, Obama should not ignore Colombia's human rights record – the worst in the hemisphere – and stick to his original campaign promise.
Roque Planas is a NACLA Research Associate and blogs at Dispatches from the Americas.