Free Trade Is Harmful in Colombia

Free Trade Is Harmful in Colombia


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Because of marginalization, exclusion, racial discrimination, the location of the conflict/fighting and

targeted fumigation effort, Afro-Colombians have been hardest hit by internal displacement. 

From 1995 to 2005, 62% of Afro-Colombians were forced to flee



Free Trade Is Harmful in Colombia      

By Dr. Keith Jennings


Atlanta, Georgia. The Colombia “free trade” deal currently being promoted by the Bush Administration should be opposed by all those who seek justice and those who want the United States to regain some of its lost respect at the international level. 

The human rights situation in Colombia (Latin Americas’ third largest country) is appalling and should be clearly and unequivocally condemned by all members of Congress, but especially the Congressional Black Caucus given the abuses faced by the Afro-Columbians.

The free trade agreement, as proposed, is not about fair trade and in effect would further exacerbate human rights violations and environmental degradation in Colombia. This agreement would continue the marginalization and social exclusion of Afro-Colombians, Indigenous Peoples and the poor.  Furthermore, the consequential exporting of manufacturing jobs from the United States will continue to have a disproportionately destructive and detrimental impact on black workers.

Why the Deal Should Be Opposed

During the Bush Administration’s two terms, Latin America has largely been ignored, except for trade deals and immigration bashing by right-wing intellectuals, media pundits, and politicians.  All of the agreements pursued by the Bush Administration, from Chile to the Dominican Republic, have exhibited several consistent features. The agreements have all marginalized human rights concerns while only paying lip service to the strengthening of democratic institutions.  None have ever included any anti-racist provisions or equal opportunity encouragements or demands to respect the land rights of indigenous or African descendant populations.

The official Washington rhetoric today is the same as it was in 2006 when the last trade agreement with Colombia was signed.  That deal was supposed to be a comprehensive trade agreement that would eliminate tariffs and other barriers to goods and services, and expand trade between the United States and Colombia. That agreement was “to help foster economic development in Colombia, and contribute to efforts to counter narco-terrorism, which threatens democracy and regional stability.”

In the period since that agreement was signed, Colombia has been close to going to war with its neighbor Venezuela.  The internal peace process and the democratic reforms process within the country have significantly slowed. Additionally, efforts to address so-called “narco-terrorism” and have only netted additional U.S. military “advisors” being provided by Washington to Bogotá.  Plan Colombia has not stopped the flow of drugs into the United States or Europe. The spraying of toxic chemicals –“fumigation”- and violence have pushed almost 2.5 million Colombians off the most productive tracks of land.   

The newly proposed free trade deal would be nothing more than an economic extension of Plan Colombia which has resulted in the second largest internally displaced population in the world, following Darfur, and a state at war with itself.  These types of agreements only benefit transnational corporations and the local elite. Liberalized trade and more privatization of state owned industries will only mean less public spending on education, health care, social security and electricity.  It will also mean more spending by citizens on basic necessities such as food, water, housing, and transportation.  The impact of such an agreement in the United States will continue the “race to the bottom” that pits workers in this country against workers in other countries who do not enjoy union protections, who make poverty wages and who face slave-like working conditions.

Human Rights Violations in Colombia

In fact, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, human rights violations have not disappeared over that period and are of such a dreadful magnitude today that they cannot be relegated to a secondary category or a practically meaningless side agreement. The government of Colombia has systematically committed and tolerated gross human rights abuses. Torture and disappearances are commonplace for leaders who stand up for social justice or stand in the way of foreign investment. 

Amnesty International believes that there has been a phony demobilization of the expected 25,000 paramilitaries which may actually result in de facto amnesties for horrific human rights violators.

Human Rights Watch also believes that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s claims of demobilization are unfounded.  As evidence in support of its position, Human Rights Watch points to an Organization of American States report that identified 22 illegally armed groups in which paramilitary are actively recruiting new troops and are participating in drug trafficking, extortion, selective killings and forced displacement of citizens.

Moreover, the continuation of the violence in Colombia is mainly due to the government failure to bring the perpetuators to justice and fully dismantle paramilitary mafias that have deliberately targeted trade unionists and others. In fact, Colombia is the country with the worse violence against labor leaders, who are killed almost everyday. Since Uribe took office over 400 labor leaders have been killed and more than 1,300 received death threats. 

Indigenous communities are completely disrespected and ignored. And the state has become a permanent war machine. The latest United Nations human development report shows 70% of the country’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of the top 20% of the population while 64% of its citizens are impoverished. In fact, the Colombian Gini Index, an economic measure of inequality, is virtually the same as that of Haiti, the hemisphere’s poorest country.

Finally, it should be noted that President Uribe is embroiled in a scandal involving high ranking officials in his Administration and some 40 Congressmen over their links to the paramilitaries. 

The Situation of Afro-Colombians

Afro-Colombians constitute between 26% and 40% (the exact percentage is disputed because of self-identification options and the government’s desire to decrease the size of the population) of Colombia’s 45 million people. That percentage of African descendant peoples is the second highest in South America, following the estimated 60% of Brazil’s population and much higher than the 13% that African Americans constitute in the United States’ population.

According to Piadad Cordoba Ruiz, former Afro Colombian Senator, Colombia “continues to be a racist, exclusionary and discriminating society.” Therefore it should come as no surprise that Afro-Colombians live in horrific conditions whether found on the Pacific or Atlantic coast. 

The Inter-American Development Bank has reported that over 90% of the Afro-Colombian population lives on less than 2 U.S. dollars a day. 74% have no access to health care. Less than 30% of Afro-Colombian children attend high school.  Fewer ever attend college. And similar to the situation of African Americans in the United States, Colombian jails and prisons are overflowing with Afro-Colombians.  Even officials with the United States Agency for International Development have recognized that one in three of the displaced has been Afro-Colombian and that “the displaced Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities are truly one of the hemisphere’s least recognized tragedies.”

Because of marginalization, exclusion, racial discrimination, the location of the conflict/fighting and targeted fumigation effort, Afro-Colombians have been hardest hit by internal displacement.  From 1995 to 2005, 62% of Afro-Colombians were forced to flee their land. Whole communities such as San Jose de Buey, La Vuelta, Curuchi, San Antonio de Buey, Auroduey, Chibuja and Mansa have been displaced. Afro-Colombians in others communities have lost their land to oil and mining interests connected to the paramilitaries.  More recently, 265 Afro-Colombian young people were massacred. The slaughter of those young people has never been fully addressed by the Uribe government. 

Why is this happening to Afro-Colombians?  It is occurring because they are vulnerable and the land that they occupy is so valuable. Plans are afoot to construct a new Panama Canal this time like last time through Colombian territory. In addition, new oil deposits remain to be exploited in the same Northwest region where many of these small communities have existed for years.

Democrats and Colombia

Recognizing that serious challenges to current U.S. policy exists, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently traveled with a delegation of Democratic lawmakers, who apparently needed to be convinced first-hand of the so-called “progress” being made in Colombia.  Some have already shown where they stand and obviously intend to use the trip to rationalize their vote in support of the trade agreement.  But let’s be clear on what their vote will really mean.  It will mean more of the same: more deaths and misery; more marginalization and social exclusion; and more humiliation, exploitation, internal displacement and migration.

Some of the democrats traveling with the Secretary oppose House Resolution 618, which simply calls for the United States Congress to recognize the plight of Afro-Colombians.  Why members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who routinely support resolutions that recognize the plight of Israeli civilians, would oppose such a common sense resolution, is daunting? 

At the same time it does suggest that some members must be placing a greater value on their relationship to corporate interests and prefer to remain insensitive to the very visible human rights abuses, environmental damage, health problems and displacement from land historically occupied by Afro-Colombians before Bolivar’s liberation wars, that’s now being fumigated and poisoned by herbicides (supplied by some of the same U.S. Corporations that make contributions to their campaigns) that are sprayed from U.S. piloted planes.

Perhaps we should not expect more from the Democrats than we do from the Republicans.  If that is the case, then the Democrats should discontinue their loud rhetoric about reclaiming the “moral high ground” with regard to the promotion of human rights in our foreign policies or restoring respect for the United States abroad.

Rewarding Uribe for What?

While Secretary Rice is lobbying for the free trade deal on the basis of rewarding Uribe’s government for its pursuit of pro-market neo-liberal reforms at a time when many of its neighbors are instituting pro-poor statist policies, millions of Colombia’s citizens are caught in the crossfire in a low intensity war zone where state supported right-wing militias, the Colombian military, left-wing guerillas and drug warlords operate with impunity. 

The rewards for Uribe appear to be consistent with the repugnant Bush policy of providing assistance to “friendly” governments who support the U.S. government’s incessant global war on terror, regardless of how appalling their human rights record might be. Such realist inspired policies overlook long-term U.S. interests in the region, especially that of promoting democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. 

Uribe is President Bush’s friend and ally — they both have a penchant for showing off their cowboy skills.  They also have something else in common — an extraordinary ability to remain oblivious to perplexing human rights violations committed in the name of national security. Hopefully, well intended Black elected officials will not develop that skill while accepting campaign contributions from corporate lobbyist. Those who see “progress” need to look again, this time with their eyes and not their hands.

Dr. Keith Jennings is President of the African American Human Rights Foundation and former Director of Citizen Participation for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. He can be reached at .

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posted 29 January 2008




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