Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will be passing through Washington DC today to join President Barack Obama in formally announcing White House support for a US-Colombia free trade agreement. The creation of a so-called “Action Plan” in which Colombia promises to expand protections of trade unionists, enforce its labor laws with greater vigor, and hire as many as 480 new labor inspectors over the next four years is being hailed as the final deal maker, according to US Trade Representative Ron Kirk.
The New York Times notes that neither Kirk nor White House international economic affairs adviser, Michael Froman, would yet offer a timeline for when an actual vote on the Colombian FTA would take place in the US Congress. Some congressional Republicans see a similar deal with Panama as complimentary and may press the Obama administration to move on both deals before an actual vote is taken. The Wall Street Journal this morning quotes Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), the House chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who says he wants the Colombia pact to be considered along with similar EU and South Korea deals by July1. There are also, of course, domestic policy concerns this week as the Republican Congress threatens to shut down the federal government over the president’s federal budget proposal.
Thus far it seems few, if any, groups or individuals opposed to the Colombia FTA because of labor and human rights concerns have been won over by the new “action plan.” A group of six House Democrats, led by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), released a statement Thursday which acknowledges this is the “first time any trade agreement has taken labor rights so seriously.” But the House members say pushing the FTA through without first verifying if, how, and when violence against trade unionists declines runs counter to the spirit of the action plan:
“When so many lives are at stake, we do not believe this is a matter to be rushed to Congress until we are able to determine, including through consultation with the targets of violence and human rights violations in Colombia, whether genuine and lasting change has taken place on the ground – not just on paper, but in the reality that so adversely affects so many Colombians every single day.”
Congressman Sandy Levin (D-MI), Ranking Member on the House Ways and Means Committee, expressed similar concerns Wednesday. “The Administration has achieved in its discussions with the Colombia government a number of important commitments to address serious issues regarding worker rights, violence and impunity, but more work needs to be done,” the congressman says.
The AFL-CIO, which has stayed noticeably quiet about another FTA with South Korea (the UAW has actually supported that deal), also continues to oppose the Colombia agreement, despite the Wednesday’s new labor protection proposals. “We understand that the proposed Action Plan lays out some important benchmarks in terms of increasing the level of protection for workers, addressing some flaws in the labor code, and improving enforcement of labor laws,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says. But, Trumka continues:
“There is no guarantee that the terms of it will in fact lead to a reduction in violence, and no backup plan to delay implementation if the violence and impunity continue. The Action Plan is a stand-alone agreement, not connected to the benefits conferred in the trade agreement. Once the trade agreement is ratified by Congress and implemented, the U.S. government will have no leverage whatsoever to enforce its terms in the event that the terms are not implemented as agreed.”
In the past 25 years, more than 2,850 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia. Last year, 51 trade unionists were killed in Colombia – an increase from just one year prior. Six trade unionists have been murdered so far this year, including two in just the last week. Some have noted that, should the Colombia FTA be approved, Colombia’s future, in terms of violence against labor activists, could parallel that of Guatemala. There trade union murders were brought down to zero before the passage of CAFTA in 2006 but shot back up in the years which followed. In fact, the Inter-Press Service had a good piece on the Guatemala labor situation under CAFTA yesterday, which, is worth reading next to IPS’s report report today on Colombia.
Today’s bullet points:
· Juan Manuel Santos deflated speculation that he might have been reconsidering his decision to send Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled back to his native Venezuela. In an interview with Univision, Santos says his position has not changed. Walid Makled will be extradited to Venezuela, despite the frustration of some in the US.
· News about the advance of a US-Colombia FTA comes on the same day the Mexican Senate also ratified an expanded free trade pact with Colombia. The two countries originally signed an FTA in 1996, which, at the time, also included Venezuela (Venezuela withdrew in 2006). EFE reports: The agreement will open up the Mexican market for Colombian crackers, citric acid, sodium and calcium citrate, palm oil, pork rinds for microwave ovens and cigarettes, among other products.” The deal, however, continues to limit the entry of Colombian dairy products and coffee into the Mexican market and prohibits exports of Colombian beef to Mexico. News also this morning that a deal integrating the stock exchanges of Colombia, Peru, and Chile will go into effect on May 30. Shannon O’Neil at CFR comments on that, as well as a separate FTA expected to be signed between the three countries, plus Mexico, on May 2, and compares to the ALBA bloc.
· In Brazil, AFP reports that agricultural interests are demanding the government expand the country’s “agricultural frontier” by revising the country’s 1965 forestry law. Environmental groups are opposing the measure.
· In Mexico, the LA Times highlights a series of anti-crime marches which took place in cities around the country Wednesday. TIME, meanwhile, explores the proposal of poet Javier Sicilia, one of the demonstrations’ organizers: that a pact be made between the government and Mexican cartels to try to put an end to out-of-control violence. Mexican historian Lorenzo Meyer tells the magazine such a discussion is long-overdue. UNAM’s John Ackerman, meanwhile, says Mexicans have stopped buying the government’s line that “things have to get worse before they get better.” This as Mexican investigators discovered a new mass grave in Tamaulipas Thursday, filled with at least 59 bodies. The grave was found just a short distance from the ranch were 72 migrants were massacred last summer. Authorities were in the area investigating other very troubling reports of individuals being dragged off buses and abducted by gunmen. AP reports.
· Outgoing Haitian president Rene Preval was at the UN Wednesday, criticizing the Security Council for dragging its heels in transforming the MINUSTAH peacekeeping mission into a development mission. Seen as detached and absent in Haiti for much of the last year, Preval seems to have finally found his voice, challenging the UNSC to consider the effectiveness of its interventions that “have practically led to 11 years of military presence in a country that has no war.” Edmund Mulet, head of the UN mission in Haiti tells the AP he is in agreement. “We all agree with Preval. This is what we all want. This is what we all need — for the peacekeeping mission to leave Haiti.” But Mulet says his timeline for departure is somewhere around 2015. CEPR points out that South America, through UNASUR and the South American Defense Council, may be pushing for the mission to end more rapidly.
· The Carter Center has posted Jimmy Carter’s Cuba trip report. Geoff Thale at WOLA comments on the trip, as well as an announcement by DOS just two days after Carter’s return that it, through USAID, will continue to support – to the tune of $20 million – controversial “human rights and civil society programs” on the island. “It is these very “regime change” programs,” says Thale, “that landed U.S. citizen Alan Gross in jail well over a year ago.”
· In Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is reassigning some 1200 federal police officers to Buenos Aires amid rising complaints of crime insecurity in the capital. In Bolivia, Evo Morales has authorized the Bolivian military to operate along the border in an attempt to combat “illicit” activities, including narco-trafficking. In Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, meanwhile, has put his military in charge of a new anti-mosquito campaign intended to stem growing concerns about dengue.
· Reuters reports on major clashes between campesinos and security forces at Southern Copper’s Tia Maria mine in Peru this week. The campesinos involved say they will boycott the presidential election if the mining project there is not brought to a halt.
· And finally Jo-Marie Burt and Coletta Youngers at Foreign Policy in Focus on Peru’s elections this Sunday, specifically Ollanta Humala’s rise. Also worth reading, a recent interview with CIDDH director, Ricardo Soberón, who, on a personal basis, has been advising the Humala campaign on drug policy.