Op-ed: U.S. cannot afford trade agreement
Now that the election is over, the talk in Washington has shifted to a possible lame-duck session of Congress and the urgent need to revitalize our economy. Democrats have argued for investing in our crumbling infrastructure and providing relief to the struggling U.S. auto industry. But President George W. Bush has instead insisted on the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, a measure that would only dig us deeper into recession while sending a terrible message to the world about our commitment to basic human rights.
The election of Barack Obama as president did wonders to improve America's reputation in the world, which has been tattered by the policies of the past eight years. So what message would it send if, within two weeks of that historic moment, we approved a trade agreement with a nation where joining a union can literally cost you your life?
Over the past several months, as Americans have been following their own elections, violence has raged in Colombia.
Several poor young men from Bogota's slums have been kidnapped and executed by members of the Colombian Army and falsely listed as "insurgents" killed in combat.
The Colombian Supreme Court recently indicted almost 30 members of the Colombian Congress for colluding with the right-wing Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia paramilitary organization, which the U.S. State Department has officially classified as a foreign terrorist organization. These indictments come on the heels of the arrest of Colombia's former intelligence chief, Jorge Noguera, who helped violent right-wing paramilitaries infiltrate the highest levels of the Colombian government. Noguera's case is particularly troubling since he is accused of compiling lists of union leaders under government protection and giving those lists to the paramilitaries. Several of the union leaders have reportedly been threatened or killed.
At La Maria reservation, police fired upon and killed indigenous protesters who were peacefully demonstrating for recognition of land rights and against the trade agreement.
Sugar cane workers, striking over low wages and abysmal working conditions, were subjected to intimidation, harassment and attacks by the police and armed forces. Rather than mediating the conflict, the Colombian government accused the strikers of being influenced by guerrillas, and backed the sugar mill owners with force. Fortunately, the strike ended on Nov. 12 with a substantial victory for the workers, but their success was achieved in spite of the actions of the government.
Alexander Blanco Rodriguez, a member of the national oil workers group Union Sindical Obrera, was shot to death in August in front of his co-workers as they all left work. His murder marked the 41st labor killing in Colombia in 2008, surpassing the total number of union homicides in all of 2007. Yet President Alvaro Uribe's government and supporters of the Colombia trade deal continue to claim things are moving in the right direction.
These recent events raise serious concerns about the right to organize, the right to strike, the right to assemble and the right to free speech in Colombia.
If any labor action can be fabricated as an insurgent action and therefore suppressed, there is no right to strike.
If union members continue to be intimidated and killed, there is no right to organize.
If protesters are shot and their voices silenced, there is no right to assemble and no right to free speech.
For years, American workers have been competing for jobs with nations that have weaker labor and environmental standards. The last thing we can afford to do is approve a trade agreement with a nation as unsafe as Colombia, one that cannot even enforce its own laws, one whose army intimidates innocent civilians. If joining a union means putting your life on the line, there is no freedom, and there certainly is no fair competition.
Congress should continue to assist Colombia in improving its internal situation. However, with the world finally expressing optimism about America's moral leadership, we cannot condone Colombia's behavior by passing a free trade agreement.