Taking aim (poorly) at Jim McGovern Intransigence
Apr 032008

One of Mark Penn’s employers, Hillary Clinton, opposes the Colombia FTA. Another, Burson-Marsteller, has been hired by the Colombian government to promote the FTA.

The Bush administration is nearing a likely exercise of the so-called “nuclear option” – introducing the Colombia Free Trade Agreement for ratification in Congress, against the will of the House Democratic majority and with no assurances that it will have enough votes to pass.

Once the bill is introduced, the so-called “fast track” rules for congressional debate would set in motion a countdown: the Congress would have ninety days in session (about five months) to bring the bill to a vote in both houses. That means the House of Representatives could be voting on the bill by June or July.

This will usher in a period of high-stakes political theater. And it is getting underway while the Democratic presidential candidates are competing in primary states – last month Ohio, now Pennsylvania – whose decaying industrial bases are believed to have been hit hard by free-trade agreements.

In these states, the whole idea of free trade is quite unpopular, especially with Democratic primary voters. A Democratic candidate who professes support for new free-trade agreements risks a voter backlash. As a result, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have not only declared their opposition to the Colombia FTA, they have even been promising to re-negotiate the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Now, the Colombia Free Trade Agreement is threatening to become a new source of presidential campaign controversy. As the April 22 vote in Pennsylvania nears, we may see both Obama and Clinton competing to show which one opposes the Colombia deal more.

On Wednesday, Obama, citing the dangerous climate for labor organizing, reiterated his opposition to the Colombia agreement. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe put out a statement later that same day angrily rebuking Obama. “I deplore the fact that Senator Obama, aspiring to be president of the United States, should be unaware of Colombia’s efforts,” Uribe said. “I think it is for political calculations that he is making a statement that does not correspond to Colombia’s reality.”

Now the Wall Street Journal has a story on Friday’s front page pointing out that Senator Clinton’s chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, met on Monday with Carolina Barco, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, to discuss the FTA. In addition to working for the Clinton campaign, Penn heads a public-relations firm that the Colombian government hired last year to strategize on behalf of the FTA’s ratification.

To some extent, this isn’t surprising – Penn’s firm, Burson-Marsteller, is one of the largest PR agencies in the world. However, the perceived conflict with Senator Clinton’s anti-FTA stance could work to Obama’s advantage in Pennsylvania.

In February, Obama saw his Ohio campaign hurt badly by revelations that one of his economic advisors, University of Chicago professor Austan Goolsbee, had sought to reassure a Canadian consular official that Obama’s desire to re-negotiate NAFTA was nothing but idle campaign talk. Branding it “NAFTA-gate,” the Clinton campaign took maximum advantage of Goolsbee’s comments, and the attacks seemed to contribute to the margin of Obama’s loss in Ohio.

Now, with the Wall Street Journal running it on page one, we can expect a few days of counter-attacks from the Obama campaign about Mark Penn’s firm’s work in favor of the Colombia FTA.

As the Pennsylvania primary draws near, Colombia may become the subject of a national campaign controversy. If that comes to pass, we can expect an onslaught of distorted, simplistic rhetoric about security improvements, labor-union killings, Alvaro Uribe’s popularity, the drug trade, and much else.

Readers who know Colombia well: prepare to have your patience sorely tested.

36 Responses to “The Colombia FTA meets the presidential campaign”

  1. Camilla Says:

    Here’s one thing I don’t get about free trade. On the one hand, we learn from labor groups that it is truly bad for all workers, in all countries, just a truly bad thing. On the other hand, we learn that Colombia itself is bad and therefore must be ‘punished’ by the witholding of free trade. But if free trade is bad, and Colombia is bad, wouldn’t it theoretically make more sense to punish Colombia by foisting free trade on it? As punishment? Or is big labor lying about how bad it is? Which is it?

  2. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Man, the previous comment made me LMAO :)

    On another topic, I hope the noocular option don’t backfire on ambush :lol:

  3. Doug Says:

    The Colombia FTA will, in general, NOT lower tariffs on Colombian imports. Most Colombian goods already get in duty free–so please explain to me how this could possibly cost the US jobs? It will create a more stable legal environment for US companies investing there and will significantly lower tariffs on US goods exported to Colombia. Shouldn’t the US reward just about its only friend left in South America. The unions arguement is demonstrably false. Yes, union leaders are killed in Colombia. But, as the NY Times pointed out the other day, they are killed at a lower rate than the general population–it’s safer to be a union leader than a member of the general population.

  4. Sancho Says:

    It’s on. Don’t miss Robert Novak’s column where he chastises US labor for “spending more time” with Colombian unionists than with the Colombian government, and comes close to saying that the AFL-CIO is controlled by Chavez (“Chávez-controlled labor unions in Venezuela are in close contact with Colombia’s leftist unions, which in turn influence the AFL-CIO. Thus, the labor intransigence in Washington can be traced to Caracas.”).

    Here’s the link, in all it’s craziness: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/03/AR2008040302912.html

  5. jcg Says:

    Honestly, until most of the partisan politics moves to the background and things calm down a bit out of campaign season, I wouldn’t really expect a serious discussion, whatever side of the debate one happens to be on (I’m against the current FTA, on non-union-related grounds for the most part although I do believe the issue can’t exactly be ignoring either, but not against the concept in general).

  6. Chris Colbow Says:

    I am for the FTA and behind close doors I believe that many politicians would be for it as well, specifically Obama and Clinton. Like all politicians they are catering to that constituency with the deepest pockets.

    Of course there are several things that can be improved upon in the FTA, but all-in-all the good outweighs the bad. I have no faith in the labor unions, they just represent one groups interest at the expense of others.

    As another comment states, this FTA establishes an evironment that promotes more outside investment in Colombia, which the country needs.

  7. Kyle Says:

    Camilla, you’re melding two different arguments together: one which says free trade is bad, the other which says Colombia should not get an FTA (presumably here, free trade is good). After that, you just go downhill.

  8. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Sancho, I wouldn’t trust Novak much, since he was spending some time in Uribe’s blockhouse in Cordoba last year. You are right he’s crazy and he obviously kisses Uribe’s butt.

    As for Mr. Colbow, I am not an expert on the FTA, but would sure like you to illustrate us on the good points that in your view outweigh the bad. thanks.

  9. Golden Boy Says:


    The AFL-CIO is not controlled by Chavez, but they are definitely big fans.

  10. Camilla Says:

    Big fans? Despite all 52 trade unionists killed in Venezuela in the last five years? Despite the elected leader of the oil workers’ union being jailed and driven into exile in Peru? Oh what a lovely crowd of hypocrites.

  11. Camilla Says:

    Colombia just gave Penn the boot:


  12. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Burson-Marsteller, signed a $300,000 one-year contract with the Colombian Embassy in March 2007 to work on behalf of the trade deal and anti-drug-trafficking initiatives, according to the Justice Department filings.

    Probably, the contract was not renewed, but surely it had expired by now.

  13. Camilla Says:

    Slightly OT, but since Adam was the first to point the phenomenon out, doesn’t Uribe look rather … iconic, chiding the gringos?


    compare and contrast:



  14. jcg Says:

    Jaime: I wonder how you can conclude that the contract had “expired” when Penn was, precisely, meeting with Colombian officials as part of it.

  15. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Jfc: read twice: Penn was a representative from Burson-Marsteller, and Burson-Marsteller, signed a $300,000 one-year contract with the Colombian Embassy in March 2007

  16. Randy Paul Says:

    Penn is the CEO of Burson-Marsteller, the same company, I might that did PR for Pinochet and the Argentine Junta of the 1970’s

  17. Santos Says:

    Wow, Randy Paul, do you have a cite for that? I’m not challenging the veracity of the claim–it’s just that I’d never heard that and it’s an important piece of info.

  18. Mark Penn Quits As Chief Strategist For Clinton Campaign | Comments from Left Field Says:

    [...] from Plan Colombia and Beyond on Penn, Burston Marsteller and the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Share and Enjoy: These icons [...]

  19. Mr. Unite Us Says:

    Jaime Bustos Says:

    “April 5th, 2008 at 3:04 pm
    Burson-Marsteller, signed a $300,000 one-year contract with the Colombian Embassy in March 2007 to work on behalf of the trade deal and anti-drug-trafficking initiatives, according to the Justice Department filings.

    Probably, the contract was not renewed, but surely it had expired by now.”

    Looks like Penn was looking for more money.

    But here’s the real problem.

    Clinton says she had no idea that Penn’s firm and been lobbying for Colombian the trade deal for over year?!

    How can that be if the firm was lobbying her Senate colleagues to support the bill.

  20. Randy Paul Says:


    I may have misread regarding Pinochet, but click here and you can see the link regarding other repressive regimes including Argentina.

  21. jcg Says:

    Jaime: I did actually overlook that, so your observation is valid, but the exact days of initiation and termination as presented in the relevant papers are what determines the “one year period”.

    Not what press or blog reports may summarize for the convenience of the reader. Still, I can accept it was either already over OR nearly over in a relatively short amount of time.

  22. jake Says:

    The idea that the AFL-CIO is any way aligned with Chavez is laughable. The AFL-CIO was known for its hardline anticommunist stance throughout the Cold War. During that time it established strong links with Venezuela’s CTV labor confederation, which was associated with the AD political party. After Chavez came to power the CTV became aligned with the opposition and played a role in both the protests leading to the 2002 coup and the general strike that paralyzed Venezuela in 2002/2003. While it condemned the coup and expressed support for social change in Venezuela, the AFL-CIO has specifically criticized Chavez many times and has maintained links with the strongly opposition-aligned CTV. Indeed, this is why hardcore Chavistas like Eva Golinger despise the AFL-CIO and publications like Znet are always happy to denounce its “imperialist meddling.” The AFL-CIO speaking out against unionist murders in Colombia has nothing to do with Chavez, and anyone who thinks it does has little knowledge of either Venezuela or the US labor movement.

  23. Camilla Says:

    Actually, that is false. And the statements above show an ignorant mind, purely motivated by a leftist ideology. Of course leftists like to cover up their true orientation and claim it’s all apolitical, to do that is part of being a leftist. If you can’t win people over on ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (which in itself means something different from what it is) you say you are just being objective and apolitical.

    The AFL-CIO under the great Lane Kirkland understood the value of a genuinely independent labor union as a weapon against Marxist and any other tyranny, and he fought for it. However, he died and no one carried on his legacy. Ever since, a radical fringe has taken over the AFL-CIO, and used Colombia as a whipping boy to show that somehow – despite their dwindling numbers – they matter in this US election. They’ve even openly told Colombian think tank members that ‘nothing personal about Colombia, we just need to show that we matter.’ They’ve slandered pro-free-trade unions, who’ve bitterly complained about it and if you go to their blog, there you will behold their strange ravings about how this Colombia pact will be crushed through their efforts and the next one will be determined by a workers’ collective, led and vetted, naturally, by themselves. The AFL-CIO has aligned itself with the most radical elements of the left which just happen to coincide with those aligned with the FARC or actually in the FARC – Raul Reyes, whose CAREER was made by infiltrating labor unions in order to destroy them.

    The AFL-CIO may continue to have ties to CTV in Venezuela but to date they have said NOTHING about the imprisonment and exile of the popularly elected leader, Carlos Ortega, who was imprisoned, escaped and driven into exile in Peru. They had a certain marginal involvement with the NED from 2002-2005 but nothing since. Now with Ortega in exile, they say not one word!

    Instead, they focus on a target that is civilized, a target that wants to do the right thing, a target whose president has always shown them kindness and listened through their leftist diatribes, that bends over to their every demand – Colombia. Instead of dialoging which includes give as well as take, they dishonestly focus on how to keep Colombia down, how to make demands and once the demands are made, change the goalposts. They are one hell of a dishonest group who’ve abrogated their main mission in order to play politics. I see right through it.

  24. Randy Paul Says:

    However, he died and no one carried on his legacy.

    Actually he stepped down when it became clear he wasn’t representing his constituency very well.

    The AFL-CIO may continue to have ties to CTV in Venezuela but to date they have said NOTHING about the imprisonment and exile of the popularly elected leader, Carlos Ortega, who was imprisoned, escaped and driven into exile in Peru. They had a certain marginal involvement with the NED from 2002-2005 but nothing since. Now with Ortega in exile, they say not one word!

    It’s called Google, Camilla and it took me all of thirty seconds to find this:

    The AFL-CIO is gravely concerned about the order of detention issued recently against Carlos Ortega, president of the Venezuelan Confederation of Workers (CTV). The order by the judge, Maikel José Moreno of the Public Ministry, is based on accusations of treason, civil rebellion, instigation of crimes, gang activity and devastation.

    These accusations appear to be an attempt to criminalize Mr. Ortega’s exercise of basic civil rights, civil protest and freedom of expression. Such an attempt would violate fundamental human rights guaranteed in the Bolivarian Constitution of Venezuela. Directed at the leader of Venezuela’s principal labor confederation, the detention order also will have a chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of association, guaranteed in the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

    The AFL-CIO joins with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in condemning any action by the Venezuelan government to criminalize or otherwise restrict the rights of trade unionists, and holds the government responsible for the physical well being of Brother Ortega and all other trade union leaders.

    The AFL-CIO is also concerned about the detention of Carlos Fernandez, president of FEDECAMARAS, and urges the Venezuelan government to respect his physical well being and his constitutional and human rights.

    The AFL-CIO joins with the International Labor Organization in asking that the arrest warrant against Brother Ortega be withdrawn immediately and that Mr. Fernandez be released. We also condemn the abduction, torture and assassination of four members of the Venezuelan opposition that took place last week and demand that all of those responsible for these heinous crimes be brought to justice.

    The AFL-CIO is particularly disappointed that these actions come just as the government of Venezuela has reached an agreement with the Organization of American States (OAS) to reduce the level of political violence in Venezuela. We fear these actions will undermine the negotiation process, with adverse consequences for all Venezuelans. The AFL-CIO urges the Venezuelan government and the opposition to seek to resolve all political differences within the framework of the OAS negotiations and the mediation efforts of the Friends of Venezuela.

    Finally, the AFL-CIO reiterates its condemnation of violence, coups and all other anti-democratic methods as means of resolving the grave social and political crisis in Venezuela.

    Dig a little deeper next time.

  25. Chris Colbow Says:

    Los Angeles Times: “Under pressure from human rights and labor organizations, Colombia has done what Democrats in Congress have urged: improved the country’s dismal labor record.” “Now the U.S. must demonstrate faith in an ally – faith that its reforms are not solely the product of political pressure from the north, and that the people of Colombia and the government are equally committed to a more just society. Congress should approve the trade pact.” (Editorial, “Approve Pact With Colombia,” Los Angeles Times, 4/8/08)

    The Wall Street Journal: “The Colombia agreement is another example of when politics must take a back seat for a larger good. We certainly know how Hugo Chavez is rooting for the congressional vote to turn out.” (Editorial, “Smoot-Chavez,” The Wall Street Journal, 4/7/08)

    The Washington Post: “[T]he proposed pact is good policy for both Colombia and the United States.” “Meanwhile, the agreement contains labor and environmental protections much like those that Congress has already approved in a U.S.-Peru trade pact. A vote for the Colombia deal would show Latin America that a staunch U.S. ally will be rewarded for improving its human rights record and resisting the anti-American populism of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.” (Editorial, “Free Colombia; A Trade Pact Everyone Can Love,” The Washington Post, 3/31/08)

    The Chicago Tribune: “The pact contains the strongest labor and environmental protections of any U.S. trade deal in history. It would signal support for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a strong U.S. ally.” (Editorial, “Off With His Head,” The Chicago Tribune, 4/7/08)

    The New York Post: “Indeed, Colombia, America’s strongest ally in the region, is also Latin America’s most remarkable success story.” “For the United States, meanwhile, the deal means not only a market for an estimated $1.1 billion a year in added exports, but the chance to counter Chavez’s blustering with a real model of what friendship with America can look like.” (Editorial, “Democrats’ Real Boss,” The New York Post, 4/8/08)

    The Arizona Republic: “Congress is protecting no one by fighting the Colombia trade agreement. It should approve the measure now.” “Since assuming office in 2002, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has made huge progress in stabilizing his formerly war-torn nation. He has created one of the most stable democracies on a continent that otherwise seems to be backsliding toward its tragic roots of totalitarianism, despotism and revolution. … [S]nubbing a trade deal with staunchly democratic Colombia – a deal that is pure win-win for the U.S. – makes no sense, regardless.” (Editorial, “The Issue: Colombia Trade Agreement,” The Arizona Republic, 3/12/08)

    The Orlando [FL] Sentinel: “Congress needs to stop stalling and pass it.” “Last year a trade deal with Peru passed Congress with the support of most Florida lawmakers. Mr. Bush is right: The Colombia deal has bigger economic and national-security benefits.” (Editorial, “The Other Important Speech,” The Orlando [FL] Sentinel, 3/20/08)

  26. HorsesAss.Org» Blog Archive » Reichert in Colombia Continued Says:

    [...] summation of how both Obama and Clinton have found some political landmines when it comes to Colombia and free trade in [...]

  27. Camilla Says:

    Randy Paul: That item you cut and paste, is dated 2003. 2003, for your information, is a year that falls between 2002 and 2005, an era I noted that there was AFL-CIO involvement. Try brushing up on your reading skills.

    The item you post also protests a DETENTION, and does acknowledge an imprisonment.

    Here’s the facts since you only know what you googled in 30 seconds:

    1. Carlos Ortega went into exile in Costa Rica in March 2003 after charges were brought, a month after the AFL-CIO put out its note. That was the end of AFL-CIO’s interest in his case.

    2. He secretly slipped back into the country in 2004 or 2005 and was captured by Chavista goons at a nightclub in 2005.

    3. After that, he was tried by a Chavista kangaroo court, put in a MAXIMUM SECURITY MILITARY prison for 16 years – the very sort of place of your obsessive Pinochet nightmares – even though his crimes were not military, all he did was lead a popularly supported strike. It just goes to show what a fascist regime the Chavista one is.

    4. The AFL-CIO response? Crickets.

    5. He escaped the prison in late 2005, making his way though four layers of military security, somehow persuading his jailers to leave the doors open and the troops let him out. He was a popular figure the government feared, a man who could win popular elections. After his escape, he made his way to exile in Peru.

    6. The AFL-CIO response? Crickets.

    Vice President Santos has recently pointed out that the AFL-CIO does have close ties to Chavista-controlled nonindependent labor unions over in Caracas. These guys have visited the radical leftists who run the AFL-CIO and who have shunned the concept of independent labor unions concerned for the working man alone. The AFL-CIO is now after political power for its elite nomenklatura, which has little to do with helping workers, and that makes Chavista unions far more valuable to them in the political game, than does mere standing up for working men like Ortega. What’s that sound from the AFL-CIO again now that Venezuela’s most popular labor leader has fled into exile? Crickets. But lots of noise about isolated incidents in Colombia, as Chavistas prefer.

    Try reading the newspapers next time.

  28. Randy Paul Says:


    You wrote they said “NOTHING.” You were wrong. End of discussion.

  29. Randy Paul Says:

    After that, he was tried by a Chavista kangaroo court, put in a MAXIMUM SECURITY MILITARY prison for 16 years – the very sort of place of your obsessive Pinochet nightmares

    Actually, that last statement was incorrect. Pinochet imprisoned in places like Dawson Island – and more often than not tortured in secret locations like the former restaurant, Villa Grimaldi. Indeed it was rare for Pinochet to imprison in military prisons. His regime was more inclined to make people disappear, making their bodies turn up floating in the Rio Mapopo or buried in abandoned mines in the Atacama.

    Obviously you are thinking of Argentina, which was famous for the Escuela Mecanica de la Armada and other military detention centers.

  30. Golden Boy Says:


    You wrote they said “NOTHING.” You were wrong. End of discussion.”

    I don’t really know much about the particulars here, but Camilla did mention the 2002-2005 involvement. One perfunctory protest by AFL-CIO during the years she mentioned doesn’t sound like much effort to me.

  31. Randy Paul Says:

    It’s more than nothing.

  32. Golden Boy Says:

    and it’s within 2002-2005. End of discussion, to quote you.

  33. Randy Paul Says:

    So what? She only mentioned that the AFL-CIO “had a certain marginal involvement with the NED from 2002-2005,” making no mention of any effort on behalf of Ortega.

    She put no qualifications on her claim that they said nothing. When you use absolutes – as she did and does frequently, including her attempt to defy logic and make a claim with no supporting evidence and expect us to prove her wrong – you open yourself up to correction. If she had written that they had written nothing except a short comment in 2003 or if she had that the response was deficient in her opinion, I would’ve had no objection: one is objectively true and the other is a subjective matter that is reasonable. Nothing is an absolute – and she was wrong.

  34. Golden Boy Says:

    “Nothing is an absolute – and she was wrong.”

    If nothing is an absolute, then you just contradicted yourself by saying she was wrong. :)

    “She put no qualifications on her claim that they said nothing”

    She mentioned 2002-2005, so she covered her argument. You have proved nothing to the contrary.

  35. Randy Paul Says:

    We’re getting into dead horse territory here, but she did not make a reference to the Ortega matter with regard to those years. She said that they said nothing. I proved otherwise.

    If nothing is an absolute, then you just contradicted yourself by saying she was wrong


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