Workers World | Apr 20, 2008
A temporary victory: Colombian unions campaign against FTA
By Berta Joubert-Ceci
The Bush administration sent the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) it had negotiated with Colombia to Congress in early April for a fast-track vote, which would allow a 90-day period to vote on it with no possibility of making any amendment.
However, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of the House of Representatives is being credited in the media with refusing to put the bill on the floor, thus putting a freeze on it.
The postponement of a vote is just a temporary victory for Colombian workers. It is due primarily to the hard work of many Colombian trade unionists who have risked their lives visiting the United States to expose the crimes and violence against union leaders in their country. They have also hosted delegations of U.S. union leaders, other social activists and members of the U.S. Congress to show them firsthand the conditions in Colombia.
Colombian unionist visits Philadelphia
One of those union leaders is Edgar Páez, international representative of Sinaltrainal, the union of food industry workers in Colombia. The union represents workers in Coca-Cola, Chiquita and other U.S. transnational corporations that have employed deadly paramilitaries against the workers in order to destroy their union and garner more profits.
Páez visited Philadelphia for two days in a speaking tour that is also taking him to Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit, Boston, New York and Washington.
In Philadelphia he was hosted by AFSCME DC 47, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, SEIU BJ 32 and the International Action Center in an evening of solidarity. Cathy Scott, DC 47 president, opened the program at the union hall.
The consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement were discussed by Luis Tlaseca of the Kaolin Workers Union. It represents mostly Mexican workers who toil in the mushroom farms of nearby Kennett Square, where nearly half the commercial mushrooms in the U.S. are grown. Tlaseca explained how NAFTA has enriched U.S. transnational corporations at the expense of the pauperization of small Mexican farmers, who then must emigrate to the U.S. in order to survive.
AFSCME Local 1723 President Paul Dannenfelser, representing workers at Temple University, spoke about his union’s struggle for a fair contract. At a time when tuition has risen along with the university’s profits, benefits for the unionized workers have declined, their health-care costs have increased and they have been working without a contract since last October.
Slaughter of Colombian trade unionists
Páez made it clear he was going to talk not only about the terrible conditions for Colombian workers but also about the initiatives they are developing for a better Colombia.
He described demonstrations held in Colombia and worldwide on March 6 against the crimes of the Colombian state and on behalf of its victims. Twenty-eight demonstrations were held inside Colombia and 70 in 60 other countries, including the U.S.
Four thousand union leaders have been killed in Colombia over the last 20 years-13 this year alone. Since Páez’s talk, four more have been killed. Some 500 union leaders have had to go into exile after threats from paramilitaries.
Four million people, mostly peasants, have been displaced within Colombia. Paramilitaries have stolen 12.5 million acres of land and the new Law of Justice and Peace has made this theft legal.
Afro-Colombian communities have also been displaced, mostly so transnational corporations can plant African oil palms on their land.
Students and women’s organizations have also been severely repressed.
Indigenous peoples are on the verge of being annihilated for the same reason: displacement in order to use their land for the benefit of transnational corporations.
The criminals remain immune because of the inaction of the Colombian government. That is why, Páez explained, the unions have been going to other bodies of justice like courts in the U.S. and the Permanent People’s Tribunal. Suits against Drummond, Coca-Cola, Chiquita and Occidental Petroleum are presently before U.S. courts.
Chiquita, for example, gave $1.7 million as well as 3,000 AK-47 rifles and 5 million bullets to the paramilitaries, who have massacred thousands of workers in Colombia. Páez reminded the audience that all the Colombian bananas we eat in the U.S. are from Chiquita.
He invited everyone to take part in sessions of the Permanent People’s Tribunal in Colombia July 21-23, when it will conduct its concluding session on the role of the transnational corporations.
The following day Páez went to the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO convention, being held that week in Philadelphia. Thanks to the intervention of Kathy Black, president of Philadelphia CLUW, Páez was introduced during a session and received a standing ovation. He was preceded by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who stated he was opposed to the FTA with Colombia because of the violence against union leaders.
Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America, spoke about his experiences in Colombia and his admiration and respect for Colombian workers. Last February, Cohen went with an AFL-CIO delegation to Bogotá to assess the conditions for workers there, and met Páez.
Colombian FTA and Clinton connection
Hillary Clinton, who had addressed the convention a day earlier, did not raise Colombia. Her chief campaign strategist, Mark J. Penn, had met privately the week before with Colombian Ambassador Carolina Barco to further the FTA. It turns out that Penn’s firm, Burson-Marsteller, had been hired by the Colombian government for $300,000 a year to push the FTA in Congress.
Another Clinton-related firm is also involved: the Glover Park Group, which was established by former aides in the Clinton administration. However, in campaign speeches, Clinton has stated that she disagrees with Bill Clinton and opposes the FTA. Many unionists see this as a political ploy.
Despite the congressional vote, the Colombia FTA is not really dead, as the Miami-based Latin Business Chronicle pointed out on April 14. It wrote: "Despite the indefinite postponement of a congressional vote, the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement may be approved as early as this year, leading experts say. ‘With a measure of good will among the House leadership, the Bush White House, and the Colombian government, I think there is still time to find sufficient common ground to approve the FTA by year’s end,’ says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue."
President George W. Bush is still pushing the FTA with Colombia in the interest of "national security," putting intense pressure on Congress since it refused to vote. The White House issued a press release praising the "advances" of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, Washington’s closest ally in Latin America at a time when other countries in the region are moving away from U.S. control.
Then there are Nancy Pelosi’s own words. She was for postponing the vote because "If the FTA goes to a vote now, it will lose, and then what message will we be sending?" She leaves open an FTA based on "good-faith negotiations between Democrats and the White House" and met with the Colombian ambassador after the postponement.
Every week, more of Uribe’s closest allies in the Colombian Congress are being charged and imprisoned for close ties with the paramilitaries. So far, 30 are in jail and 21 more are being investigated. An April 12 article in the weekly magazine Semana.com entitled "The Empty Seats" described how the Colombian Congress can’t function because of the absence of the imprisoned legislators and the nervousness of others awaiting indictment.
This is the government that Bush defends as "democratic"-51 legislators accused of crimes against humanity. His kind of people.