U.S. Policy Toward Colombia Desperately Needs Reassessing

by Teo Ballvé

The Progressive, Op-Ed, Nov 26, 2010

The renewed strength of Republicans in Congress is bad news for human rights in Colombia — and for jobs and safety here at home.

A U.S.-Colombia free trade accord is now more likely to be approved, as is more U.S. military aid to the government there.

The George W. Bush administration negotiated the trade agreement, but Congress never approved it. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama strongly opposed the Colombia trade deal, citing ongoing abuses against organized labor in the South American country.

Politically motivated violence has claimed the lives of some 2,800 labor leaders in Colombia since the 1980s — mostly by death squads with ties to the military. Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a unionist.

Pres. Obama claims Colombia’s government has moved to address past abuses, but the murders of union activists still go unpunished. Thirty-eight have been murdered so far this year.

Nonetheless, Obama has changed his tune, expressing support for the trade agreement. House Republicans are also on board.

With unemployment at 9.6 percent here in the United States, the timing couldn’t be worse, as the agreement would likely drain jobs from our economy, as some of our companies would move down there.

Approval of the trade agreement would also work at cross-purposes with current U.S. drug policy in Colombia.

Heavily subsidized U.S. agricultural products would enter Colombia duty free, threatening thousands of the country’s family farmers. Those farmers would logically turn to the most profitable crop left, and that’s coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

For this reason, Colombian Sen. Gustavo Petro argues, “The free trade agreement would actually make the U.S. drug problem worse.”

Washington’s ratification of the deal would also be rewarding a government with the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere.

Local human rights organizations have documented the military’s execution of more than 3,100 innocent civilians, who were falsely claimed as rebels killed in combat.

U.N. investigator Philip Alston calls the killings “widespread and systematic,” rather than the actions of “individual rogue soldiers or units, or bad apples.”

Colombia remains the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in South America. And the military units implicated in the killings have received generous funding from Washington’s $6 billion anti-drug package known as Plan Colombia, which was started by the Clinton administration in 1999.

The appropriations bill financing Plan Colombia calls for the suspension of aid to Colombian military units credibly implicated in human rights abuses. But the State Department rarely complies with this requirement.

If Obama and House Republicans have their way, the Colombian trade deal and renewed military financing will be pushed through Congress.

Both actions would make Colombia’s already serious problems that much worse. And Washington would be doing with one hand what it undoes with the other.

Meanwhile, the most vulnerable Colombians — as well as drug-torn and economically ravished communities in the United States — would bear the brunt of these fumbling policies.

We need to do better.


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