Last week, President Obama submitted the proposed trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea to Congress. Congress is expect to vote by this Wednesday. This free trade "package deal" is championed by President Obama and many members of Congress as something that will be good for the American economy and enhance American competitiveness in the global market. As he announced the submission to Congress, President Obama stated: "These agreements will support tens of thousands of jobs across the country for workers making products stamped with three proud words: Made in America."
But when it comes to the free trade agreement with Colombia, will there really be anything to be proud of?
The vote on these Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) comes at an interesting time, when Congress is simultaneously discussing the Jobs Bill and while thousands across the country protest in solidarity with the "Occupy Wall Street" movement. Several members of Congress that are against the proposed trio of FTAs have expressed their constituents' concerns about the effects the deals will have on American workers. Most cite history as a guide, asking, has the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or the 2004 Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) or any other FTA we have (with Australia, Bahrain, Chile, Peru, Israel, Morocco, Singapore, Oman, Jordan...17 countries total) helped American workers? Their main concern is whether or not new FTAs would further outsource jobs.
Some of the anti-FTA voices have gone beyond concern for only American workers and expressed concern for labor rights in Colombia. In 2010, more trade unionists were killed in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined. This year to date there have been 22 murders specifically of trade unionists. To make matters worse, the vast majority of these cases remain uninvestigated and unresolved.
What concerns me the most, however, is that there is virtually no discussion on Capitol Hill or within mainstream media of Colombia's internally displaced persons (IDPs), and whether or not an FTA with Colombia would lead to more IDPs. One exeception I found was in Representative Jan Schakowsky's speech from this past summer on the floor of Congress:
The most recent estimate of the number of IDPs in Colombia is 5.2 million people, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) and the Colombian NGO, Consultoria para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES). This is out of a population of 45.7 million (in other words, approximately 11% of the population) and currently ranks as the highest number of IDPs of any country in the world.
Why is a discussion of Colombia's displaced (IDPs) relevant to the U.S.-Colombia FTA?
Colombia and the U.S. have more links than is widely known. The U.S. has been extensively involved with Colombia for decades. In fact, Colombia is the #1 recipient of U.S. military aid in the Western Hemisphere. There is an increasing awareness of some of the links between this U.S. military aid and displacement (military human rights abuses, aerial fumigation, illegal surveillance). The following reasons are interconnected:
- Land & Small-scale farming:
While I'm not going to go into the long and complex history of land issues that Colombia faces (as do most countries in the world), the ongoing conflict in Colombia since the 1960s has been largely about control of land and has therefore had a huge impact on the way land is currenlty distributed. IDPs are displaced because they were either forced from their land or fled from it feeling threatened. Some large landowners today, making profits from the resources that piece of land has to offer (see "conflict resources"), actually aquired their land through illegal means (see illegal armed groups below). The current Colombian President Santos has recognized this and developed a land restitution program. These new laws, however, will take time to implement--especially considering the conflict in rural areas of Colombia is not over. This becomes evident when despite the new laws, many people today still fear returning to their lands.
Think of it this way, we are promoting an increase in trade (largely involving agriculture, land) with a country in which 11% of the population has been forced off their land.
In addition, according to the U.S. Office on Colombia:
"The poverty rate in rural areas of Colombia is already over 50% and as a 2009 study shows, small-scale farmers would see their net income fall by a further 16 percent due to the FTA. Even worse, 30% of these farmers whose corn, bean and wheat crops most heavily compete with subsidized US exports would see a staggering 48-70% net loss in their income after implementation of the FTA."
Video: Impact of the FTA with Colombia on Small-scale farmers
- "Conflict Resources" & Illegal Armed Groups
"Colombia has conflict gold, conflict coal, conflict oil, conflict cattle ranching, conflict ports, conflict dams and conflict African palm plantations for biofuel. Paramilitary groups use violence to push people off their lands for these projects, or businessmen pay paramilitaries to do it for them**. This is one reason Colombia is a world leader in internal displacement, with over five million people living in desperate conditions after being forced to flee their resource-rich lands. As the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities predict in the video below, this trade deal will favor these kinds of investment. Unless paramilitary and other criminal networks are dismantled before the deal is sealed, the FTA will escalate the violence."
**One business that has been investigated and found guilty of this is Chiquita Brands International, a Cincinati based company that had banana plantations in Colombia. See: "Chiquita fined $25M for Terror Ties"
Yes, the situation in Colombia has improved since the all too recent horrors of the conflict over the past few decades. At the same time, no, the conflict is not over. Moreover, a U.S.-Colombia FTA is likely to worsen conditions in Colombia, particularly for its most vulnerable population--the 5.2 milion IDPs.
Hundreds of individuals and NGOs in the U.S. and Colombia have spoken out against the U.S.-Colombia FTA, along with a couple of government officials. These voices, however, are not heard in the mainstream media. It's time to think about who really gains from this FTA and who loses, and whether that's something to be proud of.