Oct 17

An editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal criticizes Sen. Barack Obama for saying the following about Colombia in Wednesday’s presidential debate:

The history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination, on a fairly consistent basis, and there have not been any prosecutions.

This, the Journal says, is an example of Obama “repeating union distortions” about labor violence in Colombia.

It is true that Colombia has seen progress on labor violence according to one measure: the absolute number of labor-union leaders, organizers and members killed. Estimates vary, and labor-rights defenders contend that acts of anti-union violence have, in fact, increased dramatically this year. Nonetheless, killings of unionists have dropped since the worst period of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The Journal’s argument, however, cannot overturn Sen. Obama’s second objection: that prosecutions, another very crucial measure, have seen little improvement.

Today’s editorial tries to make the case:

As for prosecutions: In union-member killings, there were zero convictions from 1991-2000 and one in 2001. But from 2002-2007, there were 80.

The argument collapses right here. Eighty convictions in six years is an extremely poor result. It is not a number to celebrate – especially when the total universe of cases from the past twenty years is well over 2,000. This statistic is one of the strongest arguments that opponents of the free-trade agreement could employ.

It shows that even though labor killings are reduced from 2002 or so, the impunity rate for such killings has barely budged. In nearly all labor killings, the murderers – both the planners and the trigger-pullers – are still at large and have little to fear from the justice system.

Until the prosecution rate for unionist killings improves, the Free Trade Agreement will continue to be a hard sell in Washington.

Hopes for improvement hinge on the work of the Labor Sub-Unit of the Colombian government’s Prosecutor-General’s Office, which is trying to make progress on dozens of “benchmark cases.” Observers, notably Rep. George Miller (R-California), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, have questioned whether this Sub-Unit will be able to make significant progress at current levels of funding, political and institutional support.

If it does not, the agreement’s opponents will continue to have a very strong argument.

Oct 03

This post from CIP Intern Anthony Dest offers a trenchant overview of the recent increase in labor ferment in Colombia – and the Colombian government’s troubling response.

While calling into question the efficacy of both the economic and judicial systems, recent labor strikes also demonstrate that respect for workers’ rights is still low in Colombia.

The Sugar Cane Cutters’ Strike

Sugar cane cutters in Valle del Cauca (the department of which Cali is the capital) have been on strike since September 15th. Despite massive economic losses caused by the strike, the workers have not been able to make any progress in meeting basic demands.

These demands hinge on moving away from a “worker cooperative model” to one in which they directly engage, and establish contracts with, ASOCAÑA (the Colombian sugar cane business conglomerate). Colombian cane cutters are among the poorest and most disadvantaged workers in the country, and they are the basis of the profitable ethanol and biofuel industries. Yet the government has not offered them support.

The strikers have faced attacks from the Minister of Social Protection Diego Palacios, who called them “vandals” and implied that they are tied to guerrillas. Palacios’ remarks have not only attempted to debase the strike’s political content, but have also made participants vulnerable to retribution from illegal armed actors. According to Senator Alexánder López, the Uribe administration’s allegations that the strikes are in some way associated with or are supported by the FARC “are calamitous assertions that [show that the Uribe administration] is trying to criminalize social struggles and will therefore give [the administration] the pretext to dismantle the peaceful movement of the sugar cane cutters.”

Government use of its security forces to break up the protests has resulted in at least forty injuries of participating workers. This type of official response to a strike that addresses legitimate grievances clearly sends the wrong message to both Colombians and the international community.

The Judicial Strike

In addition to the sugar strike, there is also a judicial workers’ strike, which is causing an enormous back-up in the courts. Colombia’s judicial branch, which includes judges, clerks and other government employees who work in the courts, has been on strike for a month because its workers have not been given a constitutionally guaranteed raise. This raise is of significant importance to some of the poorest paid judges in Latin America. One would think that fair salaries for judges would be a high priority in Colombia, where impunity is one of the greatest impediments to establishing public security. In the mean time, the government, unable to strike a deal, has been forced to name interim judges in order to maintain some sort of mobility in the courts. This has been the longest judicial strike since 1997.

Uribe’s commitment to labor rights?

These strikes do little to better Uribe’s standing with organized labor, whose clout has been critical in delaying consideration of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in the U.S. Congress. The Uribe government’s pro-FTA lobby effort has been hampered by a reversal of progress against union violence. At least forty trade unionists have been murdered in the first eight months of this year, compared to 39 murdered in all of last year. This badly undermines the message that Colombia has sought to send.

Nov 09

The editorial-writers at the Washington Post are usually a politically moderate bunch, but when the topic is Latin America they move to the right of Attila the Hun. Worse, they get sloppy, embarrassing themselves with ad hominem attacks and “straw man” arguments.

These pieces do a lot of damage, though, because they are widely read among Washington decisionmakers who, by and large, also pay little attention to Latin America.

We have two examples from the past three days.

On Wednesday, they had this to say about “Plan Mexico,” the supplemental aid request that the Bush administration sent to Congress last month.

Almost all of the funds would cover the cost of training police or supplying planes, helicopters, detection equipment for use by customs and communications gear. Mexican officials say that none of the U.S. aid would be in cash and that no new U.S. personnel would be deployed in Mexico.

The package nevertheless will probably become a target for leftists in Mexico and the United States who reflexively oppose any military or security collaboration between the two countries.

As we have pointed out, military and police aid do not make up “almost all” of the funds in the Mexico aid request. (This is what we mean by sloppy.) Such aid is just over half of the dollar amount, and nearly all of that amount is taken up by eight helicopters and two planes. Much of what is in the package – port scanning equipment, judicial strengthening assistance – makes perfect sense.

We know a lot of people whom the Post editorialists would consider to be “leftists,” and very few of them have any problem with a U.S.-Mexican partnership against organized crime. Of course we should have a discussion about whether the Mexican Army is the best tool for the job, about the missing U.S. response on drug treatment, money-laundering and cross-border gun control, and about whether some of the money going to those expensive helicopters might be put to better use on other priorities. Those who “reflexively” support the proposed aid package should be prepared to participate in this more nuanced discussion.

Today (Friday), the Post launched a spirited defense of the Colombia free trade agreement, repeating many of the talking points coming out of the Colombian government’s lobby firms (the murder rate of labor unionists is lower than the overall murder rate, et cetera). While CIP has not been a major participant in the free-trade debate, we found the first sentence cited here to be repugnant and offensive.

To make them wait indefinitely while Colombian authorities go through cold-case files would be to substitute some Americans’ priorities for those of the Colombian voters who reelected Mr. Uribe last year with over 60 percent of the vote. The United States should not write Mr. Uribe a blank check, but the appropriate means of pressuring him already exist in human rights conditions Congress has attached to Colombia’s military aid packages.

What the Post dismissively, repellently, calls “cold-case files” are the whole point. When the trail goes cold on nearly 99 percent of union-member killings, then we have no guarantee that the recent decline in these killings is going to last. If such killings are virtually certain to go unpunished, they can resume at any time.

One can even argue that a country that doesn’t punish union-member killings has an unfair competitive advantage over a country that does punish such killings. Wages and benefits will always be worse in a country where to bargain collectively is to risk being killed with impunity. Progress on punishing labor cases should be a sine qua non condition for U.S. ratification of the FTA.

Or could it be that the Washington Post editorialists have happened upon a magic formula for conflict resolution? Why don’t the Arabs and Israelis, the Albanians and Serbs, the Cubans in Miami and Havana just forget about those “cold case files” from the past, the same way that the Post expects thousands of slain unionists’ family members and former colleagues to move on?

And why don’t those victims and their U.S. advocates get out of the way of the more than 60 percent of Colombians who voted for Uribe? Does the Post editorial board believe the same logic applies to regime opponents in Venezuela (62 percent for Chávez in December 2006) and Bolivia (53 percent for Morales in December 2005)?

As for the human-rights conditions on U.S. aid, which the Washington Post editorial regards to be an “appropriate means of pressure”? A Post editorial in May criticized those conditions’ principal congressional proponent, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), for “reflexively resist[ing] U.S. military aid to Latin America.”

“Reflexively” – there’s that word again. And it’s an appropriate one. Where Latin America policy is concerned, the Post editorial-writers’ reflex is to defend the status quo, no matter how unsatisfactory it may be. The search for a better policy would be better served by reason and reflection, not reflexes.

Jul 23
President Uribe speaking in Queens, New York, on July 22
President Uribe speaking in Queens, New York, on July 22. Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) is second from the left, with Ambassador Carolina Barco.

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has a habit of making statements that seem so jaw-droppingly hyperbolic or combative that one assumes they were simply gaffes. Upon reading them, one’s first reaction is to think, “Wow, he really went off the reservation that time.”

But then, instead of going into damage-control mode, the Colombian Presidency will prominently feature these declarations on its website, as though they are serious statements of policy.

These non-gaffes have been coming at a rapid pace lately. Here are four examples from the past week.

1. “Colombia has put paramilitarism behind it”

At the opening session of Colombia’s Congress, July 20:

Colombia has put paramilitarism behind it. If by this is understood the organization of illegal armed groups to combat guerrillas, there is no paramilitarism today because combating guerrillas is now, in practice, the exclusive task of our democratic institutionality. If by paramilitarism is meant the criminal collusion of individuals in the security forces with these illegal groups, today there is no paramilitarism because these ties, which were never institutional, have begun to show categorical signs of ceasing to exist.

The re-formed paramilitaries, approximately three thousand, and those who have not submitted to the Justice and Peace Law, are dedicated to narcotrafficking, allied or competing with the guerrillas, and they are severely pursued by our armed institutions.

This is a remarkable assertion, bringing to mind Dick Cheney’s 2005 affirmation that the Iraqi insurgency was “in its last throes.” The most eloquent response I’ve seen comes from María Jimena Duzán’s column in today’s El Tiempo.

It is not true that the country has put paramilitarism behind it. To the contrary, what is growing day by day, at a dizzying rate, is the number of threatened victims, to such an extent that they have begun to avoid showing up at the [paramilitary leaders'] confessions. …

In several regions, the population still feels their intimidating presence. After a period of relative peace, things have begun dramatically to resemble the recent past. That has happened in Catatumbo, in Putumayo, in Chocó, in zones of Bolívar, Sucre, Cesar, Córdoba and the entire Magdalena Medio. All of this indicates that, despite what the government says, there is evidence that paramilitarism – far from being overcome – is recycling itself into new forms, ever more mafioso and less visible, as the last report from the OAS mission warns.

2. “Less budget should be given to fumigations, which should be just a marginal recourse”

At the opening session of Colombia’s Congress, July 20:

We are carrying out conversations with the United States about what would be the new stage of the “Plan Colombia” against illicit drugs. We believe that less budget should be given to fumigations, which should be just a marginal recourse, and much mroe support for manual eradication, which our government has introduced on a large scale and basically financed with its own resources. Manual eradication has produced excellent results.

At a “town-hall meeting” (Consejo Comunal) in Bogotá, July 21:

Yesterday I said that the new version of Plan Colombia is being negotiated with the United States, and that it is important to diminish resources for fumigation and increase resources for manual eradication.

Why did I say that? Because all of the last years have shown us that while fumigation may be necessary under some circumstances, in some areas, in the last three years our experience has made clear that manual eradication is more effective.

With fumigation we have observed that it is easier to recover the crops. With manual eradication, no.

With fumigation it is more possible for mistakes to happen with legal crops. With manual eradication, no.

When fumigation makes mistakes, instead of achieving Colombians’ support for drug eradication, it provokes complaints and reactions against drug eradication. We have observed that manual eradication makes communities more fully committed to eliminating drugs.

This is Uribe’s first clear admission that the U.S.-funded policy of aerial herbicide fumigation has not worked. It is welcome and necessary. No Bush Administration official has ever gone on the record so plainly stating the obvious about fumigation’s failure to reduce coca supplies.

3. “We can’t allow unionists to ally with the guerrillas”

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