Obama, Colombia and the Lessons of NAFTA
Ursula Rozum

Aracelis shows off potatoes grown at a collective farm founded by the Small Farmer’s Movement of Cajibío. She stewards the farm, which offers land to community members as well as workshops on traditional and organic farming methods. Photo: Ursula Rozum

In 2008, candidate Obama promised to improve relations between the US and Latin America. To the disappointment of many, the Obama administration has continued the neoliberal economic policies that permeate the recent history of US-Latin America relations. Since 2009, the US government has supported a coup in Honduras, stationed warships and over 7,000 Marines in Costa Rica (a country which has no military), and has sought access to seven Colombian military bases.

Obama campaigned against the US-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, citing the high level of human rights abuses against union members in Colombia. Today, a newly empowered right wing in Congress is clamoring for passage of the agreement —better known as the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA)—which has been pending since its introduction by the Bush administration in 2007. Members of Congress and the business community claim that the trade deal would create jobs, playing on high unemployment rates to pressure the US public to accept an agreement that threatens the lives and livelihoods of workers throughout the Americas.

The Colombia FTA would force US workers to compete with workers in a country where demanding fair labor conditions can be a death sentence. Over the last 25 years, more than 2,850 trade unionists (more than 700 of whom were union leaders) have been murdered, and there have been more than 10,000 violent incidents such as kidnappings, cases of torture, assaults, death threats, and disappearances. Human Rights Watch reports that the number of officially identified massacres between January and November 2010 reached 38, the highest level since 2005 and a 41 percent increase over the same period in 2009. US and multinational corporations, including Dole, Chiquita, Del Monte and Nestle, have been linked to the paramilitaries responsible for many of these assassinations. Most unionists’ murders have never even been investigated, leaving the families of victims massacred by Colombian paramilitaries still waiting for justice from the Colombian government.

FTA enthusiasts apparently failed to learn the lessons of the North American Free Trade agreement (NAFTA). The Clinton administration passed NAFTA in 1994, despite strong opposition from US unions. According to the Economic Policy Institute, NAFTA dislocated 879,280 US jobs, largely to Mexico’s maquiladora zone. Meanwhile, the dumping of subsidized US corn led to the impoverishment and displacement of 1.3 million small Mexican farmers, thus leading to a dramatic increase in migration of Mexican workers to the US. Recently, Bill Clinton apologized for NAFTA’s affect on Haiti’s economy, admitting that “it was a mistake…I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else.” We should expect the Colombia FTA would similarly dislocate workers. One likely anticipated impact would be an increased number of Colombians turning to coca production, the Andean crop that fetches high profits on the US market.

US-Colombia FTA proponents, such as Kevin Brady (R-TX), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Trade of the Committee on Ways and Means, acknowledge Colombia’s dismal record of protecting labor rights. He and others pushing the agreement claim a trade deal would somehow compel the Colombian government to change its ways, but so far the agreement includes no mechanism to do so. The Colombian ambassador to the United States has stated that the FTA would be a sign of friendship. Given the status quo of violence with impunity against innocent civilians, do US citizens want to pursue a friendship with the Colombian government?

Systematic Human Rights Violations in the US Client State
Far from promoting human rights in Colombia, US “friendship” to date has fueled the violence by providing billions of dollars of aid to the Colombian military through Plan Colombia, allowing the Colombian government to pursue a military response to internal conflicts rather than diplomacy. The Colombian military has been implicated in numerous human rights violations, including direct support for paramilitary operations. As a result, Colombia now has the largest population of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. A report by the Colombian human rights group CODHES (Council on Human Rights and Displacement) notes that half of the 5.2 million IDPs were displaced during the presidential term of Álvaro Uribe as a direct consequence of his counterinsurgency program–a program funded extensively by the US.

A disproportionate number of the displaced are Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples, driven from their lands by paramilitaries hired by multinational companies seeking access to their resource-rich, communally-owned territories. Large-scale mining and/or cultivation of oil palm and biofuels often follow such displacement campaigns. It appears that the “counterinsurgency program” has succeeded in making Colombia safe for multi-national exploitation but not for the Colombian people. The Colombia FTA would privilege the very sectors of industry largely benefiting from this illegal displacement, such as palm oil production. Around half of palm oil companies are owned and controlled by paramilitary groups, meaning that the FTA will directly aid illegal paramilitary organizations, according to a detailed article in the June 2009 edition of The Nation.

Paramilitary Threats to CNY’s Sister Community
In 2005, Central New Yorkers established a sister-community relationship with Cajibío, a community in the southwestern Colombian province of Cauca. In 2001, paramilitaries carried out two massacres in Cajibío, accusing those killed of being FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerillas. Despite numerous appeals to the government by the community demanding an investigation of the murders, nothing has been done. At the same time, Cajibío farmers struggle with the presence of the multinational paper company Smurfit-Cartón Colombia. The company has been acquiring fertile lands throughout Cauca for the cultivation of non-native, fast-growing pine used for various paper products, including cardboard (cardboard which is used for shipping boxes by Amazon.com). The Small Farmers Movement in Cajibío has spoken out against Smurfit’s back door deals to increase their land holdings and the negative environmental impacts of non-native pine plantations. In recent months, paramilitaries have returned to terrorize Cajibío, making baseless accusations of leaders of social organizations of collaborating with guerillas. Residents believe that the paramilitaries are hired by Smurfit to scare campesinos off their lands.

The Small Farmers Movement of Cajibío is one of many social movement organizations opposed to free trade agreements. Colombian workers know that free trade only benefits the multinationals seeking to exploit their land and labor. The experience of NAFTA demonstrated that free trade agreements do not create jobs but rather disrupt local economies. Any perceived economic advantages of a US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement are outweighed by the endemic violence against workers and civilians in that country. The Colombian Government is lobbying relentlessly for the passage of the US-Colombia FTA. US people need to let the White House and Congress know that we’re sick of economic policies that only benefit ruthless elites. We need to work in solidarity with those across the Americas who are resisting the old neoliberal order and creating societies where are all people can live and work in peace and dignity.


Ursula, SPC staff organizer and off-the-clock Green Party activist, is committed to challenging neoliberalism at home and abroad. She hopes you’ll join the struggle for a just and peaceful planet.