While Colombian representatives lobby the Democratic and Republican conventions in support of the Bush administration’s Colombia Free Trade Act, the U.S. labor movement continues its opposition to the pact, signed in November 2006 but put on hold by Congress last April. Labor’s concerns are shared by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, UN agencies, the European Union and International Criminal Court.
According to the AFL-CIO, 2,283 unionists have been murdered in Colombia since 1991. No perpetrators were charged or convicted in 97 percent of the cases. While 326 unionists were killed there between 2003 and 2006, the toll in the rest of the world was 201.
Leo Gerard, president of the United Steel Workers union which has long campaigned in solidarity with Colombian unionists, puts it this way: “No one wants a deal with a corrupt regime that continues to rule over the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a trade unionist.”
The death toll of union members so far this year is 32. Six murders followed union-organized demonstrations March 6 against paramilitary violence. Bogota union leader Guillermo Rivera, supporter of the left coalition Alternative Democratic Pole and a communist, was abducted April 22. Video monitors showed four police cars hovering nearby. His tortured body was found almost three months later.
As the Colombian People’s Permanent Tribunal was documenting corporate abuse of human rights and complicity with murder last month in Bogota, steelworkers, other unionists and community activists demonstrated in support of the Tribunal July 22 at Occidental Petroleum in Los Angeles, at Chiquita in Cincinnati and Coca Cola in Atlanta. All three corporations are active in Colombia.
The trade agreement would give a boost to transnational corporations. After a recent trip to Colombia for Trade Justice New York, Leonard Morin traced corporate ascendancy there. Bogota now hosts 500 branch offices of foreign companies. Annual foreign investments grew from $3.8 billion in 1997 to $6.5 billion last year. Colombia’s economy is expanding at a 7 percent annual rate.
As a result of the Colombian government’s reign of fear, imposed by the military, police and right-wing paramilitaries, unionization fell from 9.3 percent of workers in 1984 to 4.6 percent in 2005. Workers covered by collective bargaining fell from 260,000 to 60,000 in 10 years.
Fearing for their survival, over four million peasants and indigenous people have abandoned land to corporate entities for “macro projects” like mining, forest industries, agribusiness, and oil. In fact, Morin asks, “Will the land belong to the poor who have traditionally populated and cultivated it or to the multinational corporations?” Colombia’s poverty rate is now 47 percent, 0.3 percent of the population owns half the agricultural land and 13 percent experience daily hunger.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama told a Chilean newspaper, “I am for a free trade agreement with Peru, but oppose that of Colombia, until I am certain they are not killing union leaders. We must stop this kind of paramilitary activity.” Following the Bush line, his Republican opponent, John McCain, backs the trade plan.