Free Trade Agreement Ignores Colombian History of Violence Against Trade Unions

President Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

President Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

On May 15, the United States and its traditionally close ally Colombia took further measures to promote free trade in the region. The negotiations that took place in 2006 under the Bush Administration are finally being implemented, after more than five years of being held up in congress. The Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is designed to lower tariffs, increase competition, and bolster trade mobility in both regions. BBC reports that “the pact means a wide variety of goods, including machinery, raw materials and agricultural products, can be traded without import tariffs needing to be paid.” The United States International Trade Commission in its report, U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement: Potential Economy-wide and Selected Sectoral Effects, touts the benefits of the new agreement, announcing “U.S. exports to Colombia may be higher by approximately $1.1 billion, U.S. imports from Colombia may be higher by $487 million, and U.S. GDP higher by about $2.5 billion, representing an increase of less than 0.05 percent of U.S. GDP.”

Although this may seem like a step in the right direction for trade, the deal has attracted criticism from Democratic congress-members, human rights activists, and Latin America policy experts who have critiqued the policy for not addressing the “record of violence against trade union leaders.” These various parties are all concerned with Colombia’s problematic relationship with trade unions.

Human rights activists and Latin American policy experts have raised concerns over Colombia’s ongoing hostility towards trade union leaders. With almost 3,000 murders of trade unionists since 1986, Colombia is widely regarded as the world’s most dangerous place to be a trade unionist. Impunity for anti-union crimes is widespread and remains a tremendous concern for people who object to the FTA. Human Rights Watch Report 2012 reports that trade union deaths in Colombia are greater than in any other country in the world. According to the National Labor School (ENS), Colombia’s leading NGO monitoring labor rights, 51 trade unionists were murdered in 2008, 47 in 2009, 51 in 2010, and 26 from January to November 15, 2011.

When Colombian vice-president Angelino Garzon was asked by Al-Jazeera about trade unions and worker rights, he rejected claims that Colombia was anti-trade union, stating, “In this country there is no institutional violence against workers. We protect workers and we protect people who own companies. We protect unions and all the workers and the institutions of democracy, and we give people the right to get into the unions and organise collectively.”

Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) disagrees. “What Colombia has done is change the rhetoric,” she writes. “They don’t attack trade unions, accuse them of being terrorists anymore. They say wonderful things about them. However, what they say and what is actually happening on the ground is completely contradictory.”

Although the majority of Republican congress-members such as John Boehner and Mitch McConnell support the FTA, Democratic Party members Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are finding themselves at odds with the president’s new stance on Latin American trade policy. Both Pelosi and Reid expressed concern that the new FTA would not encourage much-needed domestic job growth and does not address the human rights violations against Colombian trade unionists.

Talking to The Hill, Pelosi “added her skepticism about the number of jobs that could be created by the trade deals…Pelosi called it ‘debatable’ that the trade deals would have created jobs if passed when President George W. Bush pressed Congress to take them up several years ago.” Reid and Pelosi have also been skeptical that the Colombian government has taken effective measures to combat anti-union and anti-democratic labor positions with the country.

In spite of the anti-union activity in Colombia, the Obama administration has decided to push forward with the trade agreement. In a joint speech delivered by Presidents Obama and Santos in Bogota a month before the FTA’s implementation, the Obama administration heralded the “significant progress” that had been made by the Colombian legislature and executive toward more democratic activity, and affirmed that “Colombia will continue to have a strong partner in the United States.” This democratic progress seems minimal if any, according to a study conducted by the Washington Office on Latin America: “Since Presidents Santos and Obama signed an action plan to ensure the protection of labor rights a year ago on April 7, 2011 over 28 trade unionist had been killed, 2 have been disappeared, and there have been more than 500 death threats.”

Melissa Moskowitz is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

For more on the free trade agreement with Colombia, see Michael Busch’s recent Focal Points post, Free-Trade Deal May Prove Greater Obstacle to Colombian Peace Than FARC.