This piece was originally printed in the Huffington Post.
President Obama is being pressed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and corporate interests to advance a free trade agreement with Colombia that he campaigned against when he ran for president. The agreement’s potential economic benefits are uncertain but certainly small, while its importance to U.S. foreign policy is enormous. Passage of the Colombia free trade agreement would mark the administration’s abandonment of concern about human rights and labor rights among our trade partners. In particular, the president would be turning his back on unions here, in Colombia, and around the world.
Unions identify Colombia as the single most dangerous country for union organizing. The Chamber and the office of the U.S. Trade Representative say that things have changed in Colombia. To paraphrase their argument: Trade unionists are still targeted and murdered but in smaller numbers than in the past — so Colombia should be rewarded with increased trade.
The level of anti-union violence in Colombia is only acceptable if you don’t really care about the victims or justice. Last year, 46 unionists were murdered in a country less than one-seventh the size of the United States — a rate that would translate to more than 320 murdered union members and leaders in a country of our size. Would we stand for that here?
Even if the number of murders had fallen to zero last year, it would be far too soon to reward Colombia for an improvement. The violence against unionists in Colombia has been so vicious and overwhelming that there should be no trade deal until years have passed without any further incidents. In addition to the murders of more than 2,850 trade unionists (more than 700 of whom were union leaders) over the last 25 years, there have been more than 10,000 violent incidents such as kidnappings, cases of torture, assaults, death threats, disappearances, etc.
Appalling violence continues in Colombia. Last year’s 46 murders of unionists followed 47 in 2009 and 49 in 2008. Eleven of the 2010 murders occurred during the new Santos presidency, and dozens of death threats are being made against unionists and their leaders month after month. The campaign of terror hasn’t stopped.
Nothing will change until the killings are investigated and the murderers prosecuted.
Most of the unionists’ murders have never even been investigated. The Colombian attorney general is investigating only 800 cases in the union\human rights groups’ database of murdered trade unionists.
Fewer than 10 percent of the unionists’ murders have been successfully prosecuted, and many of them were trials in absentia, where the killer was not in custody and has not been punished.
In most cases, the person who ordered or authorized the killing was not prosecuted. The powers behind the violence largely have been untouched, including the military units responsible for extrajudicial executions.
There is plenty of evidence that the situation in Colombia is getting worse — not better. In December, the government’s National Reparations and Reconciliation Commission acknowledged that there are now at least 6,000 members of paramilitary or successor criminal bands, up from an estimated 4,000 in 2008. Paramilitary or successor criminal bands are present in 151 Colombian municipalities and are “very powerful, very dangerous,” according to Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera. 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.
These paramilitaries are a constant threat to trade unionists. U.S. and multinational corporations, including Dole, Chiquita, Del Monte and Nestle, have been linked to the paramilitaries.
Until the organizations, institutions, and people responsible are brought to justice and sufficient changes have been made to prevent further violence, Colombian unions can’t operate freely. That means that the paramilitaries must be dismantled and outlawed, the military commanders and government officials involved in the killings must be dismissed, and some minimum number of the murderers and their conspirators must be prosecuted and appropriately punished.
We’ve gone down this road before, with disastrous results. Guatemala is the second deadliest country for union organizers. In the two years before passage of the Central America Free Trade Agreement, the murder of unionists in Guatemala fell to zero. Once CAFTA passed, the murders resumed, with 16 unionists killed in 2009.
U.S. workers shouldn’t have to compete against workers whose wages are suppressed by a campaign of terror supported by Colombian government officials, the Colombian business community, and the military. The United States should not reward a corrupt and violent business community.
The Colombia free trade agreement should be conditioned — at a minimum — on demobilization of the paramilitaries, an end to anti-union violence for at least three years, and justice for the union victims of the terror campaign.