Colombia’s Laboratory of Failure


The New York Times November 18 editorial urging passage of a free-trade agreement with Colombia is factually challenged and wrong-headed – politically, economically and morally – in many ways.  The editorial’s expressed sense of false urgency (“There is no more time to waste”) sounds like the Bush administration beating drums for war in Iraq.  Remember the administration mantra: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”?  There was no smoking gun in Iraq.  And there is no pressing need to pass a free-trade agreement with Colombia.  Quite the contrary.

The Times says that rejecting the trade pact “would send a dismal message to allies the world over that the United States is an unreliable partner…”  But the world already has the message that the United States is willing to support a corrupt, murderous regime – such as that of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe – as long as their own largest corporate sponsors (e.g., Coca Cola, Occidental Petroleum, Chiquita Brands) – can make big profits there.

Hollow U.S. rhetoric has achieved new hypocritical heights under the Bush-Cheney junta.  A free-trade pact would only license the Uribe regime to continue its human rights abuses, ceding any leverage to pressure Colombia for positive change.  The U.S. has long abetted the crimes of its own companies, supplying Occidental with funds for their own paramilitary troops.  Chiquita Brands paid a $25 million-dollar fine last year for hiring paramilitaries to kill union leaders who wanted better wages and working conditions.  Such practices send a “dismal message” indeed.

The Times claims falsely that the murders of trade unionists are “down sharply,” whereas in fact, by August 2008 the number of union leaders assassinated in Colombia had already surpassed the 2007 total.  “Washington must keep pressing Bogota to reduce abuses by Colombia’s Army, ensure the prosecution of paramilitary thugs and further rein in violence against union members,” says the paper of record.  But a free-trade agreement would forfeit that pressure.  Instead, the U.S. should make its ongoing “$600 million a year in mostly military and anti-narcotics aid” contingent upon radical government reforms in Colombia.  Time for the moral stick, not more financial carrots.

Despite eight years and hundreds of billions of dollars in aid from the U.S. under Plan Colombia, the flow of cocaine from that country to ours has only increased.  The War on Drugs is actually a war on common sense.  Government-enabled drug cartels – including Uribe’s family and friends – are making enormous profits from this illicit trade.  So-called coca eradication campaigns are driving small farmers, including many indigenous people, from their traditional lands.  Colombian anti-drug policies have created millions of newly-impoverished internal migrants, forced into cities to try to survive.  What will a free-trade agreement do for them?

As the Times correctly points out, “the United States has very few friends these days” in Latin America.   And no wonder.  Besides propping up the thuggish Uribe regime on behalf of corporate profits, the U.S. has continued its long, sordid tradition of intrigues against democratically elected leaders they view as threats to globalized markets.  But the arrogant Bush-Cheney approach to Latin American relations has alienated former allies and stirred a new spirit of regional inter-dependence, apart from U.S. influence.

Bush administration plots against Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales have only strengthened those leaders.  The ham-handed Bush approach makes a convenient target and rallying-point for all sorts of demagoguery.  The U.S. ambassador to Bolivia met openly with right-wing opponents of the Morales regime, fomenting political violence.  When Morales expelled him, the U.S. expelled the Bolivian ambassador in return.  Then the Bush regime went further, removing Bolivia’s favored trade status by declaring it “uncooperative in the war against drugs.”  Having no incentive to retain the Drug Enforcement Agency in his country, Morales expelled them too, consolidating his power.  Bush makes a noisy school-yard bully but a lousy diplomat.

What we need in Colombia and throughout Latin America is a new spirit of co-operation from the United States, not domination, based on moral strength and mutual respect, not force of arms.  The Obama administration must restore credibility to U.S. foreign policy and declarations of support for human rights.

Colombia has been a laboratory for the failure of corporate over human values.  Under cover of a war on drugs, the United States has fueled the flames of civil war, supplying a huge arsenal of U.S.-supplied weaponry to a burgeoning military and often unaccountable paramilitary forces.  Drug traffic has only increased.  Yes, the armed leftist FARC exists, but seems to function more as justification for severe repression than as a threat in itself.   If such a force didn’t exist, Uribe would have to invent it.

The Times claims that failing to ratify the Colombia free-trade pact would “alienate many people in Colombia and undermine Washington’s credibility.”  Tens of millions of Colombians suffer repression and terror by their own government, supported by the United States.  Not just alienation, but violence and disappearances without judicial redress, are daily facts of life.  Washington has no credibility there, except for the ruling minority who depend on U.S. arms.  There is nothing “free” about a trade agreement with Colombia under these conditions.  We must not be part of such a deal.

JAMES McENTEER is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Political Documentaries (Praeger 2006). He lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia.





James McEnteer’s most recent book is Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty DepartmentHe lives in Quito, Ecuador.

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