Just last week, President Obama met with Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos to solidify plans to enter into the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Fruit of the G. W. Bush administration, the agreement proposes to phase out all tariffs on exports between the countries, and aims to increase U.S. exports to Colombia by up to $1 billion per year. In the past, U.S. lawmakers have objected to the plan, due to grave labor issues in Colombia, including rampant killings of union leaders. Unwilling to condone such blatant human rights violations, the U.S. Congress has been reluctant to allow unbridled exchange with Colombia.
During the most recent discussions between Presidents Obama and Santos, however, the Colombian government has apparently promised to do more to protect the lives of union leaders. At least 150 unionists have been murdered in the past three years alone, as reported by the Colombian labor rights organization, Escuela Nacional Sindical, so this promise from President Santos is certainly a step in the right direction. And many U.S. farmers see the deal as a window of opportunity into a wider, global market. Still, there are serious issues to consider before Congress moves forward with ratification.
First, Colombia must step-up its human rights commitment, and guarantee fair and consistent wages for all agricultural workers. Currently, it is not uncommon for primary school-aged children, particularly in areas dependent on agriculture, to drop out of school in order to work to support their families. This precludes meaningful economic advancement, and denies these families their full entitlement to basic human rights. Protection of union leaders and guaranteed fair wages would ensure rights beyond those belonging to workers themselves.
Second, the U.S. must pledge to take a harder stance against U.S. corporations that have been complicit in operations by Colombia’s illegal armed forces. Leftist guerillas and the right-wing paramiltaries are responsible for countless murders, disappearances, and forced displacements of Colombian civilians. Rather than allowing U.S. corporations to quietly shimmy out of the limelight with little more than a slap on the wrist, the United States must demonstrate complete intolerance of any corporate meddling with the illegal forces that continue to commit atrocities against Colombian civilians.
Finally, it is desirable but perhaps implausible to consider how this arrangement is going to be different from and more ecumenical than other “free trade” agreements. The U.S.-Mexico free trade agreement, for example, has destroyed the livelihood of Mexican small farmers, and may ultimately hurt other important sectors of the Mexican economy. Colombians are already fearful that their U.S. agreement will destroy small farmers’ abilities to compete, and will force average Colombian consumers to buy foreign goods, that could easily be produced at home, for inflated prices. For many who struggle in this conflict-ridden country, incremental cost inflation could literally threaten survival.
How, one must ask, is the agreement with Colombia going to be different? And who, Mr. Presidents, will really benefit from the deal? What will be the cost to the Columbian agricultural workers and their families?