Free Trade, the Good Cop, and Other Myths

Canada's role in the hemisphere is often portrayed by its officials as that of an understanding, well-intentioned partner. But Ottawa's aggressive pursuit of a free trade deal with the government of Colombia shows its policies toward Latin America run parallel to those of Washington, showing the same disregard for human rights and democratic accountability. In Latin America, Canada plays "good cop" to Washington's bullying.

December 22, 2008

Since the late 1980s, the government of Canada has been a staunch proponent of bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements with various hemispheric partners. Despite changes in government from Conservative to Liberal, and recently back to Conservatives, an overall commitment to the unbridled free market principles of the Washington Consensus has been consistently bipartisan.

During the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings held in Lima, Peru in November, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government signed a free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe. The Conservative minority government began negotiating the pact in June 2007 completing the talks at breakneck speed. Canada’s government has been at pains to paint its foreign policy as independent from the United States in its relations with Latin America.

However, the determination with which the Canadian government approached the deal reveals its policies towards Latin America run parallel to those of Washington, showing the same disregard for human rights and democratic accountability. Nevertheless, while Canada may be towing the same line as the United States in Latin America, it is doing so in no small part for its own economic interests.

A Victory for Canadian Capital

Canadian progressive and nationalist circles have a tendency to write-off regressive Canadian foreign policy as a product of U.S. dominance. The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), for instance, one of the most vocal opponents to the FTA, published a report in February 2008 titled, "Under the Umbrella of U.S. Hegemony: Canada and Colombia Head Toward a Trade Deal."

The report argues the deal shows that the Harper government is acting as a proxy for Washington in general—and George W. Bush in particular. Writing before the deal was signed, the authors write: "To understand why Canada is about to announce this deal, we must actually focus more on Canada’s relationship with the United States, than on its new bilateral interests in Colombia."

The CLC suggests the Canadian FTA is an attempt to undermine opposition in the U.S. Congress to the stalled FTA between the United States and Colombia. However, the Canadian government has made no secret of the fact that this agreement is in large part motivated by the interests of Canadian transnational capital.

"The government of Canada is delivering on its commitment to open up opportunities for Canadian business in the Americas and around the world," boasted David Emerson, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade upon conclusion of the trade negotiations. "The free trade agreement will expand Canada-Colombia trade and investment."

Trade with Colombia is already among the highest for Canada in the region. In 2007, bilateral trade totaled $1.14 billion, with a trade surplus of over $188 million for Canada—its largest trade surplus with any Latin American country, according to Industry Canada, the government's business promotion agency. Canadian direct investment in Colombia last year totaled $739 million.

The agreement represents a significant coup for Canadian businesses, with the elimination tariffs on such industrial products (such as paper, machinery and equipment, and certain chemicals), textiles and apparel, and agricultural exports (such as wheat, barley, peas and lentils). Some agricultural products will have no tariffs within specified quantities, while others with have tariffs gradually eliminated.

As far as "benefits" for Colombia, a backgrounder for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade claims that as a "developing nation … many of [Colombia’s] products already enter Canada duty-free.” Despite the demonstrable failure of similar trade deals to provide jobs and prosperity, the governments of Canada and Colombia appear determined to stay the course on failed economic policies.

Besides the inherent economic problems in the agreement, critics of the deal have aimed their opposition toward the deal's flimsy obligations and safeguards on labor and human rights as well as environmental concerns. In response to these criticisms, the two governments crafted three distinct side agreements two of which were direct responses to criticisms from human rights and environmental organizations. But a closer look at the side deals reveals why human rights and environmental activists' have well-founded reasons to denounce them as hollow window-dressing.

'Kill a Unionist, Pay a Fine'

The CLC report points out that over 2,500 trade unionists have been assassinated in Colombia over the last 20 years—more than 400 since Uribe took office. The report also notes that 125 high ranking political leaders—most of them from Uribe's governing coalition—have been linked to paramilitary death squads. Since the report was published early this year, several other scandals have unraveled. One scandal involved the bribing of Senators in an effort to amend the constitutional term limits on Uribe’s presidency. Another ongoing controversy erupted over the army's execution of youth from a poor Bogotá neighborhood who were later passed off as guerrillas downed in combat several hundred miles away.

The controversy forced the government to admit that the use of extrajudicial executions of innocent civilians to beef up the army's guerrilla body count had become widespread among the military. The scandal led to the sacking of 27 soldiers, including 3 generals, 11 colonels, and the resignation of Gen. Mario Montoya, head of the Colombian army.

Still, Harper asserts that Colombia's human rights situation has improved. Despite extensive evidence confirming an appalling human rights record, the Prime Minister described Colombia as “one of South America's most historic democracies.” Government involvement in the violation of human rights in Colombia has been a significant stumbling block for both the Bush and Harper governments, who have tried to paint Colombia as a democratic ally in the region. But persistent rights abuses have caused alarm among Canadian labor groups and even the U.S. Congress.

In an open letter, CLC President Ken Georgetti called on Harper to “step away from a deal with a government that allows the murder of trade unionists to go unpunished.” Georgetti's plea echoed another letter signed by seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives condemning “the human rights situation in the country” and the impunity with which these crimes are being committed. Even President-elect Barack Obama declared to the American Federation of Labor in April that he opposes the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement “because 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.”

The Canadian and Colombian governments conjured up a "Labor Cooperation Agreement," which simply reaffirms most international labor regulations. A Canadian opposition party has criticized the labor provision as the “kill-a-unionist-pay-a-fine” agreement. The deal calls for a ministerial dispute mechanism on issues related to labor compliance, in which the maximum penalty for non-compliance is a yearly $15 million fine.

Moreover, the agreement contains no new regulations and no new mechanisms to enforce them. Complaints regarding labor violations in Colombia must still be made through the woefully inadequate and dysfunctional processes and institutions that already exist.

The second side agreement deals with tax policies, while the third focuses on the environment and purports to commit Canada and Colombia to “pursue high levels of environmental protection” and “help protect and conserve resources in a manner that respects the interests of indigenous peoples and local communities.” Here again, the Colombian government's abysmal track record of repression and failed environmental oversight in areas where extractive industries are active augurs badly for both the environment and indigenous communities.

According to KAIROS, a Canadian Ecumenical alliance, 75 percent of human rights violations and displacements occur in areas of Colombia with resource extraction industries. In some of these areas, indigenous communities—like the U'wa in northeast Colombia—have been violently targeted for their opposition to extractive industries.

Given the widespread dislike within the region of the Bush regime and its policy agenda, Harper has taken up the role of neoliberalism's new hemispheric champion. With the election of Barack Obama, who has publicly opposed the U.S.-Colombia FTA, Harper sees himself as the standard torchbearer. In the process, he hopes to gain new free-market allies and raise Canada's profile in the region for economic gains.

In mid 2007, Harper gave his main policy speech on his government’s hemispheric agenda. The speech was an ideological offensive against the rise of left-leaning governments and the disenchantment with neoliberal policies in the region. While presenting Canada as an alternative to the U.S. government, Harper warned against a “return to the syndrome of economic nationalism, political authoritarianism, and class warfare” to a room of Chilean business people. The CLC describes this posturing as Canada playing the "good cop" routine to the "bad cop" bullying of the United States.

Harper recently followed this up during the APEC summit, maintaining that despite the looming global recession free trade remains the ideal way of generating growth worldwide. The embattled Prime Minister recently overcame a major obstacle by successfully shutting down Canada's parliament to avoid a vote of no confidence. His attempts to successfully redeem neoliberalism in Latin America are unlikely to meet with success beyond a handful of right-leaning governments.

Pablo Vivanco is a NACLA Research Associate.

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