May 13, 2009

'Free trade' with Colombia? Not in our name!

Written by La Chiva Collective, Canada
13 May 2009

Actions against the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA) have increased over recent weeks. We provide a bulletin summary of some recent news below.

* As horrific news floods in on the multinational banana industry and the Colombian government's collusion with paramilitary death squads, Britain is diverting its funding of the Colombian military.

* Canada's Liberal Party stands by the Conservative government in its unwavering support of the Colombian regime.

* Analyses of the Canada-Colombia FTA and its implications continue.

* Mobilizations continue across Canada against the government's intent to lend political support to the Colombian government.

Britain backs off as more horrors emerge

As proponents of the FTAs with Colombia scramble to push their arguments into the media spotlight, the real situation in Colombia is becoming ever clearer.

The impact of multinational companies operating in Colombia is an issue in US courts once again. Following in the footsteps of Chiquita banana, Dole Food Co. is now facing a wrongful death suit claiming it made regular payments to paramilitary death squads. The Associated Press reports, at least three former paramilitary commanders also claim Dole provided 40 percent of their operating budget in Colombia's northern Banana region.

In related news, just this week, more than 17,000 banana workers have gone on strike for better pay and working conditions. In addition to these demands, the workers want the creation of a fund to pay reparations to relatives of the victims of violence. More than 800 farm workers have been murdered over the past 13 years in Colombia's Banana region.

At the end of last month, one of Colombia's most infamous drug lords and paramilitary commanders, Diego Murillo, alias 'Don Berna', said that he and his illegal paramilitary army 'funded' the 2002 presidential campaign of the current Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe Velez.

In the UK, the Guardian and the BBC report, the British government has now diverted part of its aid away from the Colombian army. Alan Campbell, of the UK’s Home Office, explained that the decision was based on the systematic occurrence of ‘false positives,’ where the Colombian army has been proven to have murdered civilians and later dressed them up as guerrilla fighters in order to ‘gain points’ and improve the government's numbers in its war with the guerrillas.

No one is safe. Colombian paper El Espectador reports, the UK Law Society has released the results of a study involving more than 70 international lawyers who have been investigating the situation faced by Colombia’s judicial system. The study found that more than 400 Colombian law practitioners have been murdered with impunity since 1991.

Sara Chandler, of the UK Law Society, says “during our visit [to Colombia], a lawyer was murdered in one of the regions where we were investigating.” In just February and March of this year, Chandler adds, “two lawyers have been forced into exile after having received death threats.”

The Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination, a network of Colombian human-rights groups, issued a report alleging that 535 civilians had been killed by Colombia’s security forces between January 2007 and June 2008, an average of about one per day. This comes even as the Colombian government has been under intense international scrutiny due to its several impending trade pacts.

Canada's Liberals and Conservatives standing by their man in Bogotá

On the eve of a demonstration organized by civil society groups against the Canada-Colombia FTA at the Liberal Party Convention in Vancouver, Liberal Party trade critic, Scott Brison, told Canwest news, "[Liberal leader] Michael Ignatieff understands human rights issues extremely well.”

Brison scoffed at the demands of thousands of Canadians that the Liberals should join the NDP and Bloc Quebecois parties in stopping the agreement, arguing, “it’s easier to engage a country on human rights issues when you’re engaged on economic issues.”

The Liberals, currently the leading opposition party in Canada, appear willing to gloss over the glaring contradictions presented by condemning (and not 'engaging') some human rights violating regimes (like China, Sudan and Burma) and defending ('engaging') others, like Colombia, where Canadian companies stand to benefit from increased access to markets, resources and cheap, disposable and unorganized labour.

Stopping the CCFTA: civil society is moving

Many Canadians, together with allies in the United States, Europe and Colombia, are working to point out the complicity of the Canadian government in atrocities in Colombia should it continue its political support of the regime there. Opposition to the Liberal-Conservative stance is coalescing.

MINGAS-FTA, a transnational coalition of activists, academics and organizations working against the ‘free trade’ model, sent to several Liberal Party MPs a letter signed by nearly 500 individuals and organizations urging Canadian parliamentarians to not absolve the crimes of the Uribe regime in Colombia. The letter and online petition are making waves. “What the Liberals do on this issue will define their new leader’s vision for Canada,” stated a member of MINGAS-FTA in a press release.

The Council of Canadians released another letter signed by prominent Canadians and organizations directed at Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff. The letter urged Ignatieff and the Liberals to "put human rights before trade." This letter has been extremely effective in getting the Canadian mainstream media's attention on this issue.

Make Poverty History is also now calling on the Liberals to stop the CCFTA.

On workers’ day, May 1, groups from civil society and the labour movement held a demonstration outside the Liberal Party Convention in Vancouver. With a crowd roughly 200 strong, participants called on the Liberals to show how they differ from the Conservatives, to tell them that Canada must not be made complicit in the crimes of the Colombian regime, and to show that Canadians are becoming aware of Canada's precarious role in Latin America. A video of the demonstration produced by the La Chiva Collective is available online.

At the Vancouver demonstration, several prominent Liberals MPs were challenged on the Canada-Colombia FTA and their knowledge of the situation in Colombia. Liberal delegates were generally receptive and appalled when made aware of the situation their party is planning to support. It is unknown whether that sentiment will resonate among Liberal Party leadership.

Save for an article in the Ottawa Xpress, the Vancouver demonstration went virtually ignored by the mainstream press, though a few independent media outlets have provided coverage, most notably The Vancouver Media Co-op, Rabble, Fairchild TV and CKUW at the University of Winnipeg.

On May 6, activists gathered outside the Canadian Parliament buildings in Ottawa to express their opposition to the CCFTA. Photos of that event are available here.

Analyses continue on Canada’s ‘ridiculous’ position

When challenged on the contraditions of standing up for human rights and making trade deals with repressive regimes, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper called putting human rights before trade a "ridiculous" position. Canadians join Colombia analysts in rejecting the attitude of the Harper Conservatives and their Liberal supporters.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs has published a comprehensive analysis on the Canada-Colombia FTA. That article argues that the deal represents a lose-lose situation for both Canadians and Colombians. It notes Canada's meagre trade relations with Colombia (just 0.13 percent of its international trade total), the degree of fierce opposition to the CCFTA in both countries, and the ineffectual nature of the Labour and Environmental side agreements. The piece also outlines the secrecy of the negotiations and those who stand to benefit from the CCFTA.

In an interview with Stefan Christoff in The Dominion, Laura Carlsen, director of the International Relations Centre's Americas Program, outlines the key reasons why agreements based on the 'free trade' model of NAFTA (of which the Canada-Colombia FTA is a carbon-copy) do not benefit average people in the partner countries but actually accentuate inequalities and socio-economic strife.

At a conference at Simon Fraser University in April, Colombian activist Manuel Rozental discussed the perils of the Canada-Colombia FTA and called on Canadians to take this issue on as one that has important impacts on their own well-being. A portion of this talk was recorded by Redeye in Vancouver and reposted here by

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This article is obviously written by a person who doesn't know Colombia or is trying to harm Colombians.

First of all, the article tries to make a link between commerce and human rights. This is totally irrelevant. Why does the quality of life of Colombians has to be punished because of a good or bad president? If by any chance you manage to make a logical connection between commerce and human rights, then all of the international commerce will have to be halted, since no country has a clean record regarding human rights.
Then, I am sure people might argue that in some countries the law and public policy defend human rights. The same happens with Colombia. Colombia is a constitutional democracy with a legislative and judiciary system separated from the executive power, where there are laws that were created to safeguard human rights as well as workers, where is legal to create unions, and opposition has a voice in the media. In fact, about 90% of the political information presented in the news is about complaints from the opposition. Nonetheless the president has an approval rate above 50%, and in some cases, above 70%. Colombia is a country where the opposition and union leaders have personal security (bodyguards) assigned by the government and paid by tax payers.
Finally, yes Colombian politicians are corrupt and dishonest as are the majority of politicians in the world are and even in Canada, but a country where people are innocent until proven guilty. Many and many speculations against the president cloud the news, and I’m not saying that they couldn’t be true; but until now, no investigation has been established and no court has appointed him to be guilty.
Therefore, if you want to punish the Colombian president, first of all, you have to judge him and find him guilty. Then you will have to make sure that stopping the FTA is a relevant punishment. Additionally, like the article commented, you will have to be consequent and close your commercial borders with countries with this same problem, especially with Canada´s first commercial partner: the USA, where the death penalty is legal and to torture and imprisonment without trial of civilians in American soil is legal. Finally, if by any chance you find useful and valid all of the previous, please think that if the struggling Colombian civilians deserve more abuse and also to lose the chance of a better way of life, especially thinking that the presidents period will end in a little more than a year?