The new President-elect Barack Obama has completed what so many believed to be the impossible. He has become the first African-American President of the United States. He has promised an abundance of change and offered a new sense of pride and hope that has resonated throughout America and the world. Sadly, in the shadow of this ray of light, may be a very important promise that he cannot keep: the promise to maintain a hard stance against the Colombian Free Trade Agreement. During the dramatic presidential campaign, Barack Obama very clearly stated that trade agreements with Colombia, known for its abysmal human rights violations against unionists, would go no further. In the last presidential debate, Obama took a very hard stance against the passage of the CFTA due to Colombia’s continued targeting of trade unionists for assassination and the government’s continued failure to prosecute the crimes.
The position was naturally well received; however, to maintain that position and block passage of the CFTA may prove to be an impossible mission for the Obama administration. The ties between the U.S. and Colombia are strong and the tariffs that would be lifted by the CFTA would only benefit our hurting economy. To put this dilemma in perspective, according to an October 2008 report from Office of the United States Trade Representative, 90% of Colombian imports into the United States were duty-free based on current trade arrangements and its position as a most favored nation. Presently, we do not enjoy such perks, but if the CFTA were to pass, 80% of all U.S. exports to Colombia would gain immediate duty-free access. This would be a clear relief to our struggling economy.
In addition to the benefits of tariff relief is the strong trade relationship between the United States and Colombia. Again, we must look at just how tight the trade ties are between these two countries. At 40% of its exports and 26.6% of its imports in 2006, the United States is Colombia’s largest trade partner. In turn, Colombia is the 5th largest export market in the Western Hemisphere (behind only the NAFTA countries, Brazil, and Venezuela) as well as the largest agricultural export market in the hemisphere after only the NAFTA countries. In 2006 U.S. exports to Colombia were $6.9 billion, imports were $9.6 billion. These numbers are tough to counter considering that the U.S.-Peru Trade Promotions Agreement passed in 2007 with much lower numbers. At almost half the level of Colombia, 23% of Peru’s exports enter into the U.S. and only 16% of the import market is U.S. goods. To compare actual dollars, in 2006 U.S. imports from Peru were $2.9 billion; from Colombia they were $9.6 billion. These numbers can only lead to one conclusion, we pay more for goods for which we have a higher demand, and do not have to if the CFTA were to pass.
These numbers have been making a strong argument for the CFTA, but the lower prices that the United States market will enjoy come at the price of Colombian life. Peru had a history of fundamental labor reforms. The ILO has classified Peru under its “Cases in Progress” and publically commends its recent improvement in labor reforms. In contrast, the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers’ October 24, 2006 Report to U.S. Ambassador Susan C. Schwab states that Colombia does not meet the ILO’s criteria for compliance with core labor standards. Additionally, it reports that the weak and insufficient labor rights protections in this agreement will allow for deficiencies in Colombia’s labor laws to continue. The John F. Henning Center for Labor Relations reports that over 3800 Union leaders and activists have been killed since the 1980’s, over 100 in the first six months of 2002. These unionists struggle to obtain comparable minimum wages, health insurance and maternity leave.
The end result in this scenario remains to be seen. It is still in the hands of the decision-makers in Washington. To complicate the matter, the United States also has a long and complicated history of military support to the Colombian government. Colombia still remains third in the list of military assistance from the United States. That does not look like a situation that will change in the near future with the global war on terror expanding and the FARC’s relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez growing. The dynamic follows as such: the FARC remains a left-wing terrorist organization that holds Colombian citizens and its government captive with violence and militancy. The United States, a staunch enemy of leftist paramilitaries and terrorist organizations, funds the Colombian government to combat those forces that hold the country prisoner. However, that government is not as honorable with those funds as the U.S. might hope. The Colombian government has known ties to the right-wing paramilitaries that fight the FARC. The government uses these militias to maintain power and oppress its own labor force. This oppression comes in the form of torture and murder to anyone who dares organize unions and demand a fair wage or fair benefits.
As a nation we all are aware of the desperate economic position in which we live. Any relief would be a much needed and welcomed breath of fresh air to those who are struggling to pay their mortgage, feed their families, and keep their jobs. However, we are also a nation of people soon to be led by a new administration that has promised to put people before profit; to put Main Street before Wall Street. We can only pray for the workers of Colombia that philosophy will translate into practice throughout barrios as well.
Office of the United States Trade Representative: www.ustr.gov
International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers: www.goiam.org
John F. Henning Center for International Labor Relations: http://henningcenter.berkeley.edu/