With the Pennsylvania primary fast approaching on April 22, Barack Obama will have the opportunity to end the race for the Democratic nomination once and for all. If he wins by only a slim margin in the state, the “punditocracy” will declare him the presumptive choice of the party and the pressure will build on Hillary Clinton to withdraw. Obama should do well in Philadelphia amongst black voters and will probably pick up a decent percentage of the white affluent vote in the city’s suburbs.
In order to clinch the victory, however, Obama will have to make inroads amongst blue collar workers in the more industrial, western section of the state. In Ohio, Obama lost that constituency to Clinton and he’s desperate to cut into her lead amongst this critical voting bloc. But with less than two weeks to go, how can he turn things around?
In one word: Colombia.
The Scandal Breaks
Recently, Clinton handed Obama a golden opportunity to sew up the nomination when her chief strategist, Mark Penn, was caught up in a scandal involving the pending free trade deal with Colombia. Bush has been pushing hard for the agreement, which would allow for duty free commerce with the United States. Many Democrats and most unions oppose the initiative because of Colombia’s appalling labor record.
Penn’s ties to Team Clinton go back some time: the PR man was originally admitted to Bill’s circle by consultant Dick Morris in an effort to shore up the 1996 presidential campaign. Penn headed up a global public relations firm called Burson-Marsteller; the company has offered public relations help to such unsavory entities as Blackwater, the security contractor accused of killing Iraqi civilians, and Countrywide, a major lender of risky subprime mortgages.
Penn was employed by the Colombian government to help win passage of the trade agreement in Congress. Penn’s ties to the Colombian government were revealed when the Wall Street Journal reported that the PR man held a private meeting with the Colombian ambassador.
News of Penn’s ties to the Colombian government proved acutely embarrassing to Clinton, who has gone on record as opposing the agreement. Surely fearing that she might lose out amongst the blue collar constituency in western Pennsylvania, Clinton promptly demoted Penn—though he remains on the campaign staff as a pollster and adviser.
It’s odd to think that the Penn-Colombia story could exert an impact on domestic U.S. politics. Most Americans, if they are aware of Colombia at all, probably associate the country with drug cartels and little else. The media has done a swell job of ignoring Colombia as a news story, despite the fact that successive administrations in Bogotá have been proud recipients of billions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid.
Álvaro Uribe: Creating a Climate of Fear for Colombian Labor
On the other hand, the recent scandal within the Clinton camp might touch a nerve among angry, blue collar workers in the industrial heartland. Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for labor organizers. In the six years since President Álvaro Uribe took office, over 400 labor activists have been murdered, according to Colombia’s National Trade Union School (Escuela Nacional Sindical). In 2008, almost one unionist a week has been murdered, while 39 unionists were murdered in 2007, far more than in any other country. In addition, threats of violence and murder are now sufficient to halt an organizing drive or to abort a strike.
The connection between this horrific labor climate and the Uribe government is pretty clear. Indeed, there’s been mounting evidence of collusion between many of Uribe’s allies and right wing paramilitaries who assassinate labor leaders. Colombia’s Supreme Court has even ordered the arrest of fourteen members of congress on suspicion of collaboration; thirteen of the legislators back Uribe. The president’s former intelligence chief is also facing charges of passing information to the paramilitaries to help them target and kill opponents. Recently, Uribe’s cousin, a Senator, was forced to resign in an effort to avoid a Supreme Court inquiry into whether he had ties to the paramilitaries. Mario Uribe was a key ally of the President.
So far, Álvaro Uribe has not been directly implicated, but the President has been accused of letting paramilitary groups use his family’s farms to kill opponents during the 1990s. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy cut off $55 million in military aid to Colombia over the allegations.
At the very least, the Uribe regime has created a climate of impunity in which labor activists have been targeted. Recently, human rights groups wrote a letter accusing a top Uribe adviser of endangering the lives of labor leaders by claiming that a protest march against right-wing death squads had been organized by FARC left wing guerrillas. The letter charged that four people involved in the march were subsequently murdered, and dozens more threatened with death.
In Colombia, there’s little chance that the paramilitaries will face justice: since the reign of terror against trade unionists began in the 1980s, only three percent of the cases have been clarified.
Riding the Colombia Gravy Train
The Colombian government has already received billions of dollars in military assistance and economic development from the United States, but clearly that is not enough: the Uribe regime wants more and is hiring Washington lobbyists and power brokers to push for its free trade agreement. The winners in this equation include U.S. corporations which for years have been trammeling human rights in Colombia. Big business sees the trade deal as opportunity to increase its fast-track looting of Colombian human and natural resources.
Together, the Colombian government and its lobbyists have launched an all out assault in an effort to sway members of Congress into signing on to the deal. According to the New York Times, there have been all-expense paid trips to Colombia for more than 50 members of Congress, featuring coffee tastings and dinner at a posh restaurant inside an old Spanish fort. Uribe has visited Washington to make personal appeals. Collectively, the Colombian government has paid more than $1 million to firms that have negotiated or lobbied on behalf of the deal.
In this fight, Clinton staffers like Penn are intent upon picking off as many Democratic legislators as possible in an effort to secure the trade deal for the Colombian elite and U.S. multinationals. Major corporations such as WalMart, Citigroup and Caterpillar stand to benefit and are working double time to ram the deal through Congress.
From Colombia to Pennsylvania
Colombia’s sorry track record is not lost on the likes of organized labor in the U.S., which says the Andean nation’s record in curbing assassinations of labor organizers by paramilitaries remains poor. In Pennsylvania, the Colombia story has political traction: one of four primary voters in the state hails from a union household.
Just yesterday, Teamsters President Jim Hoffa went to a Hershey-owned York Peppermint Patty Plant in Reading, Pennsylvania to denounce the Colombia free trade agreement. Hoffa was in Reading as part of a three-day tour through the state, meeting with Teamsters in Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Allentown, Reading and Pittsburgh.
“These so-called trade deals are killing American jobs,” he said. “They aren’t about trade; they’re about helping companies move their factories to countries with cheaper labor. The last thing American workers need is a trade deal with Colombia, one of the most anti-union countries in the world,” Hoffa added.
In traveling to Reading, Hoffa was making a political statement about Latin American free trade deals. The Hershey plant will move to Monterrey, Mexico by year’s end, resulting in the loss of 260 jobs. It’s yet another painful blow to the residents of Reading, which has already lost one-fourth of its good-paying manufacturing jobs since January 2001.
Appearing at an Obama rally in Scranton, Hoffa declared, “In 1998, we lost 1,000 jobs at Tops Chewing gum, those jobs went to Mexico. In York, Pennsylvania, Peppermint Patties is closing 600 union jobs will go to Mexico (where) they won’t pay health care. They won’t pay unemployment it’s about money. And these CEOs don’t care about America.”
Pennsylvania has been especially hard hit by foreign trade. More than 44,000 jobs were lost due to NAFTA since it took effect in 1994, and Hoffa claims that 1,583 plants, offices and warehouses have closed in the state as a result of the trade deal. Pockets of the state have suffered from chronic unemployment and low wages since many factories and steel mills closed.
What this adds up to is a fired up electorate which is prone to punish any candidate tied to corporate-friendly free trade agreements. Change to Win, a labor alliance which has endorsed Obama, called Penn’s meeting with the Colombian ambassador “outrageous” and urged Clinton to fire him. “We have questioned Penn’s role in the Clinton campaign in the past for his representation of union busting employers,” Change to Win executive director Greg Tarpinian said. Meanwhile, significant union leaders like Hoffa continue to call for Clinton to fire Penn outright.
Pressing Colombia’s Agenda: Hillary’s Sleazy Advisers
Though Clinton herself has opposed the Colombia free trade agreement, her campaign is knee deep in Colombia sleaze. In addition to his public relations work lobbying for the Colombia free trade agreement, Penn also worked as an adviser to Coca-Cola, a company which faces legal action in connection with its bottling plants in Colombia.
A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Florida accused the Coca-Cola Company, its Colombian subsidiary and business affiliates of using paramilitary death squads to murder, torture, kidnap and threaten union leaders at the multinational soft drink manufacturer’s Colombian bottling plants. The suit was filed by the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund on behalf of SINALTRAINAL, the Colombian union that represents workers at Coca-Cola’s Colombian bottling plants.
The story doesn’t end there, however.
Another top Clinton campaign aide spokesman Howard Wolfson is an owner of the Glover Park Group, to which the Colombian government pays a $40,000 per month retainer to lobby for the US-Colombia free trade agreement. In the wake of the scandal involving Penn, Clinton promoted Wolfson to take over the campaign’s “strategic message team.”
In other words, Hillary’s clarifications on Colombia notwithstanding, Glover Park Group has been arguing the same position on the free trade agreement as Penn (several other Glover Park employees have deep connections with the Clintons, including founding partner Joe Lockhart, who served as the White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton, and Joel Johnson, who was a senior communications adviser in the Clinton White House).
Bill’s Sordid Colombia Past and Present
In addition to Penn and Wolfson, there’s also husband Bill to consider.
As President, Clinton went to bat for Andrés Pastrana, whose administration was equal to if not worse than the sordid Uribe regime when it came to protecting human rights. Clinton backed so-called Plan Colombia and approved $1.3 billion to the Andean nation while waiving human rights conditions. More than $900 million of the U.S. contribution went toward military and police equipment, including attack helicopters and other lethal aid, ostensibly in an effort to prosecute the drug war.
What’s particularly jarring is that Clinton backed the Pastrana government despite rampant human rights abuses in Colombia at the time. According to Human Rights Watch, right wing paramilitaries massacred civilians, committed selective killings, and spread terror with the tolerance and open support of the armed forces.
Labor was hit particularly hard during the Pastrana years: the Colombian President enacted strict austerity measures and began selling off state-owned banks and other nationalized enterprises. When some 800,000 state workers struck in protest, Pastrana declared the strike illegal.
Meanwhile, labor leaders were assassinated.
Bill’s Colombia advocacy has continued under the Uribe regime. According to the Politico, the former President was paid $800,000 by the Colombia-based Gold Service International to give four speeches throughout Latin America. The organization is ostensibly a development group tasked with bringing investment to Colombia and educating world leaders about the country’s business opportunities.
As early as 2005 Clinton remarked that he was in favor of a Colombian free trade agreement. In that year, he went to Bogotá personally to meet with Uribe. The Colombian President said that he needed Clinton’s support to ensure the passage of the free trade agreement. Clinton agreed to follow up on the request once he returned to the U.S.
After speaking with the Colombian President, Clinton accompanied Uribe on a walk through downtown Bogotá. The two headed from the Tequendama Hotel to the Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada Convention Center. During their walk Bill greeted the city’s many street vendors, many of whom were surely cast out of the formal economy as a result of Colombia’s draconian labor policies.
On Colombia, Hillary is little Better
Though Hillary hasn’t made personal junkets to Bogotá, her record on Colombia does not inspire much confidence. In the Senate she has been careful not to stick her neck out on behalf of human rights in Colombia, leaving this task to more principled liberal folk.
In 2002, The Latin American Working Group singled out the late Paul Wellstone, Patrick Leahy, and Russ Feingold for their tireless efforts to raise the issue of human rights in Colombia. All three denounced aerial fumigations of coca leaf which had dire environmental consequences in Colombia. Clinton was nowhere to be found on the issue.
In 2003, the usual Senate suspects including Dodd, Feingold, Leahy and Kerry sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell expressing serious concern about a speech given by Uribe. In chilling fashion, the Colombian President accused some human rights groups of acting as “terrorist spokespeople,” remarks which put human rights defenders in danger. The Senators’ letter of protest also opposed amnesty for paramilitary leaders involved in grave human rights abuses.
Where was Clinton? The junior Senator from New York refused to sign on to the letter.
Fast forward to 2004, and the dire plight of trade unionists continued unabated. Once again it fell to Feingold and Dodd to lead the charge: the two drafted a letter to Uribe urging him to make progress on breaking ties between the Colombian army and paramilitary forces. Feingold and Dodd expressed concern about ongoing attacks against human rights and union activists, and raised concerns about policies granting police powers to the military.
Again, Clinton refused to sign the letter.
In 2005, it was again the same: Leahy, Dodd and Leahy signed a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling on her not to certify that Colombia met human rights conditions in law until greater progress was made on a series of cases. Clinton passed when it came time to add her name.
And as recently as 2007, Hillary refused to sign a letter sponsored by Leahy and Dodd that expressed concern over public statements by government officials, including Uribe. The statements led to attacks against human rights defenders, journalists, and other members of civil society.
Obama’s Contrasting Record
In contrast to Hillary, Obama has shown some spine when dealing with Uribe. The Illinois Senator has questioned President Bush’s close alliance with Bogotá and, unlike Clinton, signed the letter to Condoleezza Rice. Obama wrote that he was concerned about the links between the Colombian government and paramilitaries.
To his credit, Obama has taken a strong stance advocating the dismantling of paramilitary networks. The Bogotá government, he argued, should undertake measures such as investigating and sanctioning paramilitaries’ financial backers and accomplices in both the government and the military, regardless of their rank. If the Uribe regime did not take more effective action, Obama warned, then “maintaining current levels of assistance will be difficult to justify.”
On the pending Colombia free trade measure, Obama should be lauded for his position. He emphatically opposes the pending free trade deal, remarking “I’m concerned frankly about the reports there of the involvement of the administration with human rights violations and the suppression of workers.” On the campaign trail, Obama added that he opposed the treaty “because when organizing workers puts an organizer’s life at risk, as it does in Colombia, it makes a mockery of our labor protections.”
On the positive side, Obama recognizes the need to rethink the nature of trade agreements. “I think it is very important for us in our free trade agreements with any country to ensure that basic human rights are being observed, basic worker rights are being observed, basic environmental rights are being observed,” he remarked.
Uribe recognizes the potential threat posed by an Obama administration. A few days ago, the Colombian President chastised Obama for not being aware of Colombia’s “efforts” on trade. Apparently, Uribe was referring to the Colombian government’s public relations campaign in Washington, designed to whitewash human rights atrocities.
Obama retorted hotly, “I think the president is absolutely wrong on this. You’ve got a government that is under a cloud of potentially having supported violence against unions, against labor, against opposition…That’s not the kind of behavior that we want to reward. I think until we get that straightened out its inappropriate for us to move forward.”
What’s striking is that Uribe would openly meddle in the U.S. presidential campaign, perhaps underscoring the Bogotá government’s deep nervousness about the future. One might ask though: why did Uribe not criticize Hillary, since her stance on the Colombia trade deal is identical to Obama’s? Clearly, Uribe isn’t too concerned about a Clinton administration in Washington. After all, the Clinton machine has a long history of backing the Colombian far right, its politicians and death squads, of whom Uribe is the top leader.
Sewing up the Nomination in Pennsylvania
Mark Penn reportedly believes that the entire Colombia story, and the issue of his conflict of interest within the Clinton campaign, will ultimately blow over. According to Huffington Post, Penn remarked that the fiasco would vanish from the news cycle within a couple of days.
Camp Obama seems to be catching on to the importance of the story, however. A campaign spokesperson sent reporters a note reading, “Just ask yourself [what you would do] if some of my advisers had been having private meetings with foreign governments.” For whatever reason, however, Obama doesn’t mention Penn’s name while campaigning in Pennsylvania.
It’s a mistake.
Unfortunately, Obama still hasn’t given white voters in the western part of the state much of a compelling reason to vote for him. He must draw a starker contrast to the Clinton campaign on foreign policy and labor rights. Having already delivered a major speech on race, he could now discuss class within the context of Pennsylvania’s de-industrialization. He could point out, poignantly, how free trade benefits the corporate elite in Colombia and the United States and harms workers in both countries.
Threatening to cut off economic aid to Colombia unless Bogotá improved its labor record would be a gutsy move and make Obama an instantaneous hero to organized labor. He could top it all off by riffing a bit about Clinton and her campaign’s unseemly ties to the Uribe regime (it would be drole, and that is putting it mildly, to see the mainstream media struggle to play catch up on the story. Having systematically ignored the issue of labor in Colombia during the Pastrana and Uribe years, it would now have to explore the underbelly of U.S. foreign policy in the Andes).
If Obama were to take such a daring move, he could sew up Pennsylvania and the nomination. If he fails to electrify working class voters however, the nominating contest goes on, perhaps even to the Convention. The Illinois Senator would still probably prevail, but the public will lose interest in the campaign and “Obama-mania” could fade somewhat.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2008).