By Mark Weisbrot
A May 22 news report in The Washington Post summed up Colombia's ever-widening scandal: "Top paramilitary commanders have in recent days confirmed what human rights groups and others have long alleged: some of Colombia's most influential political, military and business figures helped build a powerful anti-guerrilla movement that operated with impunity, killed civilians and shipped cocaine to U.S. cities."
Yet the Bush administration wants to sign a "free trade" agreement with Colombia, which is the Bush administration's closest ally in Latin America and receives $700 million annually in mostly military aid. Congress is threatening to block the agreement, and they should.
The word "paramilitary" is a euphemism. In the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was supporting the mass murder of tens of thousands of civilians in countries like Guatemala and El Salvador, these organizations were called "death squads."
The Colombian death squads -- which are classified as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department -- were mostly demobilized in recent years under an agreement that allows lenient sentences for the murderers in exchange for telling the truth about their crimes. But the truth has shown increasingly close ties between the death squads and high-ranking allies of President Alvaro Uribe. More than a dozen legislators, mostly Uribe allies, have been arrested, and his foreign minister has resigned. As the investigation progresses, including to President Uribe's home state, it is becoming clear that the death squads have been an integral part of the government.
One of the most sinister revelations has been the government's role in the murder of trade unionists, which continues despite the incomplete demobilization. Last year 72 trade unionists were killed, making Colombia the most dangerous place in the world by far for a union activist. According to witnesses cooperating with the Colombian Attorney General's office, the government's intelligence services provided names and security details of union activists to the death squads. The former chief of the intelligence service -- who managed Uribe's 2002 presidential campaign in the state of Magdalena -- has been arrested and charged with conspiring with the death squads to kill union leaders and others.
Over the past three decades the United States has greatly expanded trade with -- and moved factories to -- countries where workers have limited rights to form unions or bargain collectively. One of the main purposes of such commercial agreements as the NAFTA and the WTO has been to reduce wages here by throwing U.S. workers into competition with their much lower-paid counterparts throughout the world. Partly as a result of these policies, the average real wage in the United States has hardly moved over the last 30 years, despite productivity increases every year. These "free trade" agreements have therefore become increasingly unpopular, and this issue helped tip the balance of Congress to the Democrats in the 2006 election.
These agreements have also lost popularity in Latin America, where the governments of Ecuador and Bolivia -- accountable to their voters -- cannot sign the kind of agreement that Colombia and Peru are willing to accept. All four countries currently have access to U.S. markets under the ATPDEA (Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act). But some Republicans in Congress are threatening that duty-free access in order to punish Ecuador and Bolivia for not signing a "free trade" agreement, and for not being sufficiently subservient to foreign investors. This kind of bullying will not force these governments to ignore their electoral mandates and will only increase resentment against the United States in the region.
Congress should allow a two-year extension of the current ATPDEA, and reject the agreements with Colombia and Peru. Approving the Colombian agreement would send an especially chilling message to the world that Washington is seeking access to cheap and repressed labor -- and doesn't care how much violence is used to terrorize workers into submission.
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