In a recent BC article, it was argued that the free trade agreement between the United States and Colombia should be rejected. I disagree. As I understand the article, the agreement would be good for the U.S. economy but bad for the Colombian people, particularly the much abused trade unionists. However, the article provides scant support for the latter proposition, citing murders of trade unionists from the 1980s through the first six months of 2002:
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.
However, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe was not elected president until 26 May 2002. To blame his government for murders prior to his assumption of office is not a useful exercise; it would be a very poor reason to abandon the free trade agreement.
One thing which should be examined is the significant reduction in violence against trade unionists since 2002. Reliable numbers are difficult to find, and are frequently "massaged" for political and ideological purposes. However, according to a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times,
All sides agree that trade-union murders in Colombia, like all violence, have declined drastically in recent years. The Colombian unions’ own research center says killings dropped to 39 last year from a high of 275 in 1996.
Moreover, it seems that about a third of the murders were historically attributable to the FARC, with most of the rest attributable to various paramilitary organizations. According to the same op-ed piece, demobilization of most paramilitary groups, prosecutions, and government protection of union leaders have substantially reduced the numbers of murders. As suggested below, union activists have not suffered uniquely in Colombia, nor have they benefited uniquely from governmental efforts to ameliorate problems of crime and violence. Much of the change for the better has come under the presidency of Álvaro Uribe.
President Uribe doubtless has flaws, but he was elected to his first term of office with fifty-three percent of the popular vote (one point above President Elect Obama's fifty-two percent). He was reelected on May 28, 2006, receiving about sixty-two percent of the vote (ten points above President Elect Obama's fifty-two percent). According to observers from the Organization of American States, the election occurred in "an atmosphere of freedom, transparency and normalcy," despite incidents "related to the use of indelible ink, voter substitution and the accreditation of electoral witnesses, though these have no effect on the electoral process as a whole" and "developments in northern Santander province that took the lives of army personnel and left others injured in an ambush carried out by subversive groups."
President Uribe is very popular in Colombia, maintaining one of the highest approval ratings of any Latin American president. His ratings have been around seventy to eighty percent, attributed primarily to improvements in security, continuous social programs and sustained economic growth. In June of 2008, President Uribe's approval rate rose to an unprecedented 91.47%.
The murder of unionists is bad, but the numbers are diminishing substantially. Colombia had, and continues to have, other serious problems as well, which are also diminishing substantially. Some might agree that the other problems were at least as troublesome. Colombia was, until recently, the kidnapping center of the world, but kidnappings have also decreased quite dramatically. There were 3,572 in the year 2000, and "only" 521 in 2007, an eighty-five percent percent reduction over an eight year period. Perhaps the figures for 2008 will improve on that. Many of the kidnappings were of children, whose ransoms went to support guerrilla activities.
Roughly seven hundred hostages remained under FARC control in 2007. In that year, millions of Colombians protested the kidnappings. Similarly, in 2008, Colombians again gathered throughout the country to protest kidnappings, principally by FARC. Even the former President of Cuba, Fidel Castro, "lashed out at the guerrillas and said their kidnappings served no revolutionary purpose."
The kidnappings in Colombia have resulted in a very popular, albeit unique to Colombia, radio program, Voices of Kidnapping, which permits relatives of those held prisoner to send messages to them. One such prisoner, Ingrid Betancourt, a former candidate for President in Colombia, was freed from the FARC after six years of captivity. Upon her release, she stated that the words read over the airwaves helped her fend off suicide.
During the program, transmitted by Caracol Radio from midnight to 6 a.m. each Sunday, Hoyos [the program host] takes hundreds of calls from Colombians who hope their kidnapped relatives are listening. Betancourt's mother, husband, son and daughter called regularly.
Captors hand out radios to keep up the morale of the hostages and discourage them from committing suicide. Hoyos calls the program a "cruel mutual need."
My wife and I were in Colombia during much of the year 2002, when it was considered unsafe to leave Cartagena (a reasonably safe place) and travel inland. Riding a bus from Cartagena to Bogotá was considered highly imprudent. As I recall, there were even one or two hijackings of commercial airliners. Things were sufficiently bad that on 15 April 2002, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch wrote to the Commander of FARC:
Commander Marulanda, it is imperative that you take immediate action to stop the kidnapping of all civilians in Colombia, including politicians and elected officials, by the FARC-EP forces under your command. We urge you in the strongest possible terms to order the unconditional release of all kidnapped persons currently held by FARC-EP forces, and to take all steps to ensure the safety of those held hostage by your forces.
The persistent hostage-taking by the FARC-EP is a serious violation of the fundamental protections of international humanitarian law. These protections may not be waived under any condition. As the senior commander of the FARC-EP, you are accountable for the ongoing pattern of human rights violations committed by FARC-EP forces in Colombia. You have the foremost responsibility to ensure that the requirements of international humanitarian laws meant to protect civilians from kidnapping are embraced fully by your forces without condition or further delay.
The FARC-EP's practice of hostage-taking is a serious violation of fundamental humanitarian law protections. We urge you, Commander Marulanda, to make a clear, public commitment to this effect.
The popularity of a country for tourists is probably a decent index of fear. The prospect of being kidnapped can discourage even "adventure tourism." I understand that with the dramatic decline in kidnappings, tourism has increased proportionately. In 2006, tourism officials anticipated approximately 1.5 million tourist visits to Colombia, an increase of about 50% from the previous year. Lonely Planet, a world travel publisher, selected Colombia as one of its top 10 world destinations for 2006. The "pucker factor" involved in traveling in most parts of Colombia is much reduced from 2002.
Substantial human rights progress has been made, although more is needed. I can't offhand think of many countries which have made comparable progress. This appears to be the case even though Colombia has experienced difficulties not experienced in most countries. Draining a swamp full of alligators is a difficult task. Focusing on dissuading an alligator from removing one's arm while others are attempting to remove one's legs can make resolution of other problems more difficult. Colombia has experienced those alligators in spades. Nevertheless, the FARC has lost substantial power during President Uribe's time in office, and the same is true of the Paras, despite the best efforts of Venezuelan President Chavez to destabilize Colombia. Murders and kidnappings have diminished substantially, and it is hoped that they will continue to diminish.
An editorial in the Los Angeles Times recognized the progress made in Colombia, noting:
Democrats have held up the agreement on the grounds that Colombia is an extraordinarily dangerous place for union organizers. They say that encouraging trade in a country where workers have few protections and organizers are routinely threatened and killed would be a disastrous setback to labor rights. This is a valid concern, and Colombia has taken it seriously, strengthening protections for organizers and stepping up prosecution of their attackers.
Colombia remains a violent country where left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and even the military and national police commit human rights abuses and atrocities, but its progress is undeniable. It's time to stop playing games with a trade pact whose economic and political benefits are good for both nations.
I recognize the reality that the U.S. President-elect and the new U.S. Congress have substantial ties to labor organizations, and are in their debt. I hope, however, that recognition will be given to the fact that Colombia has been making excellent strides to overcome her problems for the past six years or so, and that the best interests of the U.S., of Colombia, and of U.S. relations in Latin America in general, will be considered sufficiently important to mandate approval of the free trade agreement. I don't know whether approval of the agreement can reasonably be considered a reward for Colombia's efforts thus far, but rejection would, quite properly, be viewed as a significant slap in the face. It is high time for the agreement to be approved, and the delay has damaged U.S. relations not only with Colombia, but with her neighbor, Panama, whose free trade agreement is tied to Colombia's; ostensibly because the agreement with Colombia was signed first.
My left-leaning friends often argue that the United States should refrain from imposing its ways on other countries. I agree that we should not impose our ways, but feel that we should encourage those states which try to practice them and which try hard, and with notable success, to deal with human rights violations. Colombia is doing an imperfect, but nevertheless good job in that regard. To slap Colombia in the face to placate a substantial Democratic Party constituency on ideological grounds, while simultaneously causing harm to the U.S. economy and to our relations with Latin America, would be an inauspicious start to the Obama presidency.Powered by Sidelines