Free trade and workers’ rights in Colombia: “peace” the European way

Ignoring fierce opposition from labour unions and their allies on both sides of the Atlantic, the European Parliament voted yes to a free trade agreement with Colombia this past December 11. The FTA's passage adds yet another layer of absurdity to the European Union’s recent Nobel Peace Prize win, as the agreement is an affront to workers’ and indeed human rights in Colombia, where union activists and members of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities are regularly sacrificed on the altar of foreign multinational corporations.

As is to be expected, the powerful interests cheerleading the FTA have trotted out the usual talking points: it will deliver jobs and prosperity, increase investment, facilitate trade, support “open societies and market economies”, promote the sustainable development of Colombia’s natural resources, support human and workers’ rights, etc. These are either outright lies (the sustainable development of natural resources), misleading claims (prosperity for whom?), or vague assertions cloaked in liberal rhetoric that presuppose inherent benefits of, for example, market economies and foreign direct investment. Then again, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if the starving of entire populations through austerity measures, systematic oppression and criminalization of undocumented people, and sponsorship of a massive weapons fair in Tel Aviv on the eve of Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza passes for the promotion of peace.

The EU-Colombia agreement comes on the heels of a US-Colombia FTA, and a full 22 years after the country began to lower many of its tariffs –among other radical policy changes– in order to implement IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies. Suffice it to say that in the first decade following the introduction of neoliberalism, small and medium-sized enterprises could no longer compete with manufactured products from abroad, the country went from being a self-sufficient food producer to a major food importer –all while millions of acres of arable land lay idle–, and official unemployment virtually doubled as the precarious informal economy burgeoned. Although trade with Colombia only amounts to a mere 0.3% of the EU’s total trade, the FTA will deepen this neoliberal tendency, enriching large European corporations at the expense of the Colombian people.

Take, for example, Europe’s extremely competitive dairy industry. As the Transnational Institute points out, the EU spends ten times as much on subsidies to its producers than do their Colombian counterparts, and mainly produces dairy products such as whey, while Colombia’s chief export is simply milk. The FTA imposes the EU’s strict industrial system on Colombia, and the arrival of European milk and dairy products will weaken the national industry, resulting in the loss of many jobs and negatively affecting cultural traditions and eating habits. This adds up to a further loss of both food security and food sovereignty for the South American nation.

Mining, in turn, accounts for a third of all total foreign direct investment in Colombia. Coal is the most important mineral, and the EU is the main player, as it receives more than half of total coal exports, and a full two thirds of the coal extracted from the main coal-producing regions is mined by European transnationals, which benefit greatly from tax loopholes that deprive the Colombian state of much-needed revenue. Indeed, according to a recent report by SOMO, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, the FTA makes it more difficult to regulate capital flows and increases the risk of money laundering and tax evasion. Much like NAFTA and the shady Trans Pacific Partnership, the EU-Colombia FTA amounts to a corporate coup, with corporations given the right to file suits against the Colombian state if denied a license due to environmental concerns. This is particularly disturbing because mining in Colombia has been linked to the destruction of ecosystems, the poisoning of water sources, and genocidal violence against indigenous communities.

Yet just like any good Nobel Peace Prize winner not named Barack Obama, the EU is keen on promoting a “peaceful” and “green” image, and as such has made a conscious effort to ditch fossil fuels for renewable energy sources and bio-fuels such as palm oil. The phrase “dirty coal” is probably an understatement, but palm oil, of which Colombia is Latin America’s largest producer, is notorious for being associated with environmental destruction and violent land dispossession. In Colombia the victims are disproportionately Afro-descendant populations and trade union members, neither of whom was invited to the FTA negotiating table. As they will remain faceless to those who have drafted the agreement, the destruction of their communities will be just another example of what is referred to in bourgeois economics as “market externalities”.

Although the EU also passed free trade agreements with Peru and six Central American countries, the agreement with Colombia has sparked the ire of unions and their allies on both sides of the Atlantic because the country is far and away the most dangerous place in the world for union members, with about three thousand having been murdered since 1986. Indeed, Colombia has long been plagued with violence between state and oligarchy-funded paramilitary forces and left-wing guerrilla rebels such as the FARC. Some analysts trace the specific targeting of union members back to the reforms of Belisario Betancur’s administration during the 1980s, which prompted the paramilitaries to go after union members allied with groups such as the Unión Patriótica and the Communist Party in an effort to retain their power in a more open political system. Although the absolute number of murders of union members has gone down since peaks in the mid ‘90s and early 2000s, there has been a recent shift towards targeting union leaders in particular, and at least fifteen murders and three hundred death threats had been reported this year through the end of November.

With such extreme violence being directed at unions, it is only natural that they would vociferously oppose the FTA, as they have unequivocally done. In a superficial attempt to address these concerns, the drafters of the agreement have written a “human rights clause” into the text, which they claim is “robustly enforceable”. One would hope that it is more enforceable than the toothless Labour Action Plan written in to the US-Colombia FTA. Not only does the LAP focus on retroactive punishment, the agreement was ratified without many of its stipulations having been met, despite the fact that it had been held up in Congress for almost five years due to concerns regarding violence against unions. Understandably, the Colombian government has interpreted its passage as a green light to crack down even further on unions, as evidenced by its handling of a dispute between the Pacific Rubiales company and the local oil workers’ union. The Colombian vice-president had been facilitating talks between the two parties, but when the company announced massive firings a mere ten days after the US-Colombia FTA's passage in Congress, the union responded with a work stoppage. The government then sent in hundreds of troops who proceeded to threaten the workers at gunpoint.

It is true that there has recently been some optimism regarding a new round of negotiations between the administration of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC in Havana, and particularly the latter's announcement of a month-long unilateral ceasefire beginning December 19. Nonetheless, critical analysts point out the key role that land distribution has always played in Colombia's armed conflict, and the fact that the consolidation of ownership has only gotten worse in recent years. While the first key point on the negotiations agenda is a comprehensive agrarian development policy, this is utterly incompatible with the spirit of the EU-Colombia free trade agreement, which only cedes more power to mining, biofuel and agribusiness corporations to seize and destroy large tracts of land, and displace and even kill numerous campesinos in the process.

Conspicuously absent from this dialogue is Colombian civil society, despite the FARC's petition for its inclusion. Not only has Santos' administration balked at this suggestion, but the army has insisted that it be allowed to retain its current privileges and impunity, no doubt in light of its atrocious human rights record, such as the “false positives” scandal in which soldiers slaughtered thousands of poor Colombians and dressed them up post-mortem as guerrillas in order to meet their kill quotas. It is understandable that negotiations would provide people with hope, but if a genuine desire for peace is lacking, the masses are excluded, and there is a large power differential between the two actors, the stronger party can use a so-called “peace process” as an endless distraction in order to consolidate its power and make conditions on the ground even worse. Witness Israel's settlement-building and land-grabbing frenzy in the West Bank since the signing of the Oslo accords. The concessions to foreign multinationals enshrined in the EU-Colombia FTA make the prospect for justice in the Colombian countryside seem as elusive as it does between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, and leaves those of us on the radical left scratching our heads when branded “idealists” for daring to question unfounded and overly optimistic rhetoric and incorporating actual facts on the ground into the discussion.

Dave Feldman is an activist for social rights and migrants’ rights and is currently studying for a Masters’ degree in Paris. The photograph was taken by Marisseay and shows a demonstration in Washington, DC, against the US-Colombia FTA.