Dave Reichert (AKA Congressman 401) traveled to Colombia this weekend with US Trade Representative Susan Schwab and 8 other lawmakers. The reason for the trip is that the folks who tell Congressman Reichert how to vote are eager to pass a Free Trade Agreement with our strongest South American ally.
One of the things making the passage of the agreement complicated for the Bush Administration is what recently happened in the region. In March, the Colombian military attacked and killed a high-ranking FARC official in Ecuadorean territory along with 22 others. FARC is a left-wing Colombian rebel group that has financed its operations through drug trafficking and actively fights Alvaro Uribe’s government. However, by attacking them on Ecuadorean soil, the Colombians triggered a regional crisis, with both Venezuela and Ecuador sending troops to the border and the Uribe government receiving condemnations from nearly every country in the region. The Colombians were forced to apologize for their actions.
In the wake of this incident, however, President Bush made a speech where he emphasized that passing the free trade agreement was a matter of national security because it was important to send a message to the Colombians that we stand by them in their fight against terrorism. You read that right: following an action by the Colombians that was condemned by nearly every country from Chile to Mexico, the Bush Administration told us that it’s in our national security interests to reward the Colombians. You couldn’t even script a fictional scenario about how the Bush Administration’s foreign policy has been an epic failure better than how that episode actually played out.
But this being a free trade agreement being proposed, it doesn’t just have to do with rewarding the Colombians with more of our military might under the auspices of fighting “narco-terrorists.” It’s largely about eliminating tariffs on the goods that we exchange with them. And these agreements have become a major point of contention, especially within the race for the Democratic nomination. The Democratic candidates are finding it necessary to take strong stands against free trade agreements as the economy worsens. The latest casualty of this backlash against free trade is Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist Mark Penn, who met with the Colombians in support of the agreement, and is no longer working on the Clinton campaign, while his PR firm is no longer working with the Colombian government. It’s a fitting end for the man who made it impossible for many people on the left to support Clinton in the primaries and certainly helped give the nomination to Obama through his own arrogance.
As for Obama, he’s focused on what I also find to be a serious problem with this trade agreement:
Free trade has become an emotional election issue, especially for Democrats. Both Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, contending for the Democratic nomination, oppose the legislation. On Wednesday, Sen. Obama reiterated his opposition, saying that Colombia wasn’t doing enough to stop the killing of Colombian trade unionists.
“The violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these types of agreements,” Mr. Obama said at a meeting of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO in Philadelphia.
“We have made a big effort, and the number has fallen to 26 last year from 205 in 2001,” Mr. Uribe said, speaking of assassinated union members and teachers. “So far this year, there have been 11 murders.”
Human Rights Watch disputes the number. Mr. Vivanco says 17 unionists have been killed so far this year.
Blaming the effects of free trade agreements for the loss of jobs throughout America is an oversimplification that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The more serious problems with free trade agreements occur when we use them as a way to reward bad behavior, or as a way to promote our own failed policies. Both of these things are occurring in Colombia. There’s little difference between the actions of Colombian right-wing paramilitaries and the actions of left-wing rebels. Both groups have a history of using terrorist tactics and funding themselves through drug trafficking. But the left-wing rebels are the “narco-terrorists” who threaten our national security. Why? Because they’re on the same side as those who are demanding labor reforms and other restraints on the corporations that wish to do business there. This administration still equates dissent over their economic philosophy with the threat of terrorism. And because of this, Colombia finds itself increasingly more isolated for their willingess to be our close ally as the rest of South America grows more and more anti-American and anti-capitalist.
And underneath all of this is still Plan Colombia, the multi-billion dollar drug war initiative first unleashed by the Clinton Administration in 2000 and continued by the Bush Administration. The Colombian drug war has always been a ready excuse for the excesses of right-wing paramilitaries, but the complete failure to even make a dent in South American drug production is making it clear what drug policy experts understood all along – it was destined to be a major boondoggle. The Bush Administration may still be able to convince themselves that bombing FARC outposts in the jungles of northern Ecuador will somehow stop the billions of dollars of cocaine from coming into the United States, but people like that should be sitting in rooms with padded walls and not in charge of our military.
As for Congressman 401, his excursion to Colombia was probably a good way to take his mind off of the fact that Darcy Burner is getting a lot of very good press for her work on the Responsible Plan to get out of Iraq. We need a Responsible Plan for Colombia too, but it doesn’t involve rewarding the Colombian government with a free trade agreement at a time when they’re moving the region closer to conflict. It doesn’t involve using the drug war as an excuse for political persecution. And it certainly doesn’t involve the failed drug control strategies like aerial eradication that have done nothing to curb the flow of drugs into this country while devastating the lives of an increasing number of people.