Colombia FTA Rewarding Promises Instead of Performance

Leo Gerard

Tragically, the government of Colombia exhibits the behavior of an addict. And, just as regrettably, the United States is co-dependent, so addicted to so called free trade that it plans to award Colombia an agreement based solely on promises.

Addicts always promise. They’ll stop, they pledge. Their co-dependents desperately want to believe, so they cooperate with the addicts’ demands.

Colombia, the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists, has pledged to try to stop the murders to persuade Congress to approve a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Promises, promises.

And the United States has agreed to accept those promises rather than demand performance before signing an FTA. American’s Wall Street banks and multi-national corporations crave another FTA so badly they will believe anything.

When the Colombia FTA was first proposed, Congress refused to approve it because so many trade unionists are assassinated each year by the Colombian military and paramilitary forces that the murders exceed the number of unionists killed in all other countries of the world combined. In 2007, the year that former President George W. Bush completed the agreement, 39 Colombian unionists were slain.

The Colombian government knew why Congress denied approval. It could have responded four years ago by protecting trade unionists and preserving their lives. It did not.

Instead, the murders increased. In 2008, 52 Colombian trade unionists were assassinated, one a week. In 2009, the number declined by 5 to 47, but it was back up to 52 last year. Six have been slain so far this year, including Hector Orozco and Gilardo Garcia, members of the agricultural union known as Association of Peasant Workers of Tolima, who were threatened by the Colombian military just before they were assassinated. Promises, promises.

In response to the concerns expressed by Congress about the murders, the newly-proposed FTA requires Bogota to improve safeguards for workers by April 22, and to develop a plan by May 20 to enhance the capacity of regional judicial offices because the murders of trade unionists go unpunished by the Colombian government – giving the killers an impunity rate of approximately 95 percent. And by mid-June, the Colombian government promises to increase penalties for threatening workers.

The government of Colombia could have completed all of those steps four years ago. It didn’t bother.

To this point, Congress has taken the moral high ground by refusing to approve the trade deal. It said, basically, as long as Colombia continued to countenance the slaughter of its community and labor leaders, Afro-Colombians and indigenous people, America would not give it special treatment for trade purposes.

In addition, Congress recognized the FTA’s potential to devastate Colombian farmers. The FTA would speed forced displacement of Afro-Colombians and indigenous people by encouraging increased exploitation of their land by business interests, such as palm oil companies, half of which are owned by paramilitary groups. Expelling these farmers from their land would further swell Colombia’s internally-displaced population – the largest in the world at 4.3 million.

Making matters worse for Colombian farmers, the main U.S. beneficiaries of the FTA would be big agricultural companies which would be permitted to dump cheap, subsidized food stuffs into Colombia duty-free. This would result in farmers’ impoverishment and land loss because small growers would not be able to compete with the low-cost American produce. In Haiti and Mexico, domestic food production was wiped out by similar free trade agreements. It’s likely that Colombia would follow the path of Mexico, where, as the ability to grow legitimate crops became economically impossible, farmers turned more and more to producing illicit drugs. Colombia already produces as much as 80 percent of the world’s cocaine.

Business groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, protested the refusal by Congress to approve the FTA, contending that increasing American exports and jobs was more important than protecting Colombian lives and human rights.

The Chamber’s position is not only depraved, it’s based on flawed calculations of exports and jobs. Just like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and granting China entrance to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Colombia FTA will cost America jobs and exacerbate the U.S. trade deficit.

Previous projections by the Chamber and the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) that NAFTA and China’s WTO membership would improve the U.S. economy proved catastrophically off base.

When the U.S. signed NAFTA in 1993, it had a $1.7 billion trade surplus with Mexico. After the agreement, that surplus quickly morphed into a deficit, which ballooned to $64.7 billion in 2008. These annual deficits cost the U.S. 560,000 jobs between 1993 and 2004.

Similarly, the ITC predicted that the tariff reductions China offered when it entered the WTO would result in a trade deficit of $1 billion a year. Instead, between the years of 2001 and 2008, the actual result was deficits of $185 billion, and the loss or displacement of 2.3 million American jobs.

The U.S. already runs a trade deficit with Colombia. It was $1.86 billion in 2009. The Economic Policy Institute calculates that the proposed FTA with Colombia would nearly double that trade deficit by 2015, which would cost the United States another 55,000 jobs.

Frankly, the EPI calculation, which factors in effects on trade like currency manipulation, is far more credible than the ITC and Chamber reports, which ignore these issues.

Bogota wants the FTA because it believes the deal will be good for Colombian business interests. One immediate bonus, for example, is that the FTA would eliminate tariffs on 80 percent of Colombia’s exports to the U.S.

To get what it wants, the Colombian government is willing to say anything. Just like an addict. Promises, promises. The Colombian government’s past performance shows its pledges to protect workers from assassination are empty.

America must reject the role of co-dependent. It must demand the proof of performance before rewarding the government of Colombia with an FTA.

Without proof of performance, the government of Colombia will get away with murder. It will export more of its goods – crude oil, coffee, fruit and flowers — to the U.S. And unwitting Americans will buy more blood red Colombian roses.

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