Friday, May 2, 2008

The Truth about the Colombian Trade Unions

By Luis Fleischman*, Nicole Ferrand* and Nancy Menges.*

Just 4.5% of Colombia’s 20 million workers are in unions. This is a decline from a decade ago when membership stood at 6%. The reason there are fewer union members now is due to the radicalized political agenda of the leadership of the large unions. Most labor union members believe that, beyond the U.S. appetite for traditional Colombian exports – coffee, bananas, coal and oil – there is an opportunity to discover new U.S. markets that benefit workers. In a letter to the AFL-CIO dated March 28, the group of pro – FTA unionists charged the leaders of the large traditional unions for being more interested in achieving personal privileges than in working on behalf of the workers.[1]

It is important to point out that we cannot compare the labor unions in the United States with the ones in Colombia. A great portion of unionists in the Andean Nation operate outside the law and are violent in nature. Often, terrorists, left-wing agitators, para-militaries and even ‘chavistas’ infiltrate these organizations for personal gain. What the mainstream media in the US doesn’t say is that the majority of these unions behave like gangs and engage in violent disputes over particular territories or businesses. In those confrontations union leaders and members are killed and the police cannot do much other than try to prevent them and bring those responsible to justice. This is a hard task in a country where the FARC, the ELN and common criminals still exist and terrorize the locals who often fail to denounce them for fear of retribution.

The reasons for the killing of trade unionists are complex. New paramilitary groups have arisen such as the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) which is a criminal organization made up of new and pre-existing paramilitary forces, some of which were part of the demobilized United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The Águilas Negras are intermediaries in the drug business between the guerrilla and drug cartels outside Colombia. They are composed of former members of the de-mobilized AUC. These new groups like the Aguilas Negras lack the organization, reach, and military capacity of the former AUC and focus primarily on narcotics trafficking and extortion rather than fighting the FARC or ELN. These new criminal groups continue to commit numerous unlawful acts and related abuses, including: political killings and kidnappings; physical violence; forced displacement; subornation and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses; infringement on citizens’ privacy rights; restrictions on freedom of movement; recruitment and use of child soldiers; and harassment, intimidation, and killings of human rights workers, journalists, teachers, and trade unionists.

The good news is that from about 200 assassinations of unionists a year in 2001 and 2002, the number fell by half in 2003 and has continued to fall since then. The AFL-CIO claims 38 unionists were assassinated in 2007, while the Colombian Ministry of Social Protection counts 25. Even if we accept the higher AFL-CIO fig­ure, that would mark a plunge of more than 80% in assassinations of trade unionists during President Uribe’s time in office; the decrease would be nearly 90 per­cent if the Ministry of Social Protection figure is accepted. Either number represents remarkable and welcome progress under President Uribe.[3]

As a way of tackling the problem, the government established a protection program for vulnerable groups of society. Currently 1,504 union members have enrolled in the program, more than any other group of civil society. Working with the International Labor Organization, Colombia has created a spe­cial unit under its Attorney General to investigate priority cases of violence against trade unionists. Union members still get assassinated, but they account for less than one in ten civil­ian assassinations by illegal armed groups. Other groups tar­geted for violence include teachers, journalists, business lead­ers, and politicians, most of whom are members of President Uribe’s own party.[4] Instead of giving Uribe due credit for the dramatic decline in killings, the AFL-CIO and its supporters in Congress insist on punishing the cur­rent president and the people who elected him for the failures of past Colombian administrations.

Unfortunately, left-leaning groups in Colombia have col­luded with labor interests in the United States to convince the Democratic leadership in Congress that this FTA should be defeated on humanitarian grounds. The popular perception is that a trade agreement with Colombia would result in Colombian goods coming into the country, displacing American products and workers. Wrong! Most Colombian products, $9.2 billion in 2007, already pay no tariffs to enter America under the Andean Trade Preferences Act, enacted in 1991 and renewed again this year with Senator Clinton’s support. Yet American products, valued at $8.6 billion in 2007, pay substantial tariffs to enter Colombia. What FTA with Colombia would do is lift these tariffs. American exporters and workers would be the main beneficiaries of the trade agreement, which would put U.S. and Colombian exports on a level playing field.[5]

At the insistence of the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Charles Rangel, the pact was rewritten. In fact, the Colombian government is working together with the United Nations International Labor Organization to enhance its labor laws and their implementation and has taken steps to protect union members and end impunity in cases of violence against them. Thanks to these measures and overall improvements in Colombia’s security situation, according to NGO figures, homicides of trade unionists dropped over 79% in the last six years. Colombia has incorporated obligations to enforce the UN’s International Labor Organization’s five “fundamental labor rights”: freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of compulsory labor, the abolition of child labor, and the elimination of discrimination in employment and occupation. In addition, Colombia raised its minimum wage and adopted provisions for overtime pay.[6]

Although US unions originally demanded added worker protections as a condition for supporting the agreement, those protections are now apparently insufficient. Two weeks ago, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney declared, “The AFL-CIO stands in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Colombia in opposition to violence against trade unionists. We stand for the rights of workers in both Colombia and the United States to organize and bargain collectively without fear of firing, retribution or bodily harm. The AFL-CIO is strongly opposed to the Colombia FTA and will mobilize with all of our might to defeat it.” Mr. Sweeney now uses alleged homicides of Colombian union members as an excuse for voting against the agreement, even though murders have significantly declined under President Uribe. Violence in Colombia is still high, but that is no reason to oppose a trade agreement. First, because the Colombian government is not the one killing the unionists. Secondly, because the FTA would lead to more jobs and higher standards of living in both countries.[7]

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Source: Mensual Prensa.

Actually, it might be a surprise to many to find out that the Free Trade Agreement is widely popular among many labor union members in Colombia. The labor leaders opposing the FTA represent workers unaffected by trade and their arguments are clearly based on the fear that the potential success of the FTA will bring popularity to their political opponents in the Colombian government, even with a president who has an 84 percent approval rating, and simply dislike the United States. These leftist labor unions oppose every open market economic policy and often are involved in drug trafficking. The real story in Colombia is not the current level of violence but its dramatic fall in a relatively short period since President Uribe came to power in 2002.

However, there is something very disturbing in the way our public officials receive information on the Colombian situation and how they willingly or unwillingly become part of manipulations that often come at the expense of the truth and the national security of our country. Here is an example: Documents found in the computer of Raúl Reyes, the second in command of the FARC, killed by the Colombian government this past March, March reveal successful efforts by the FARC to contact US public officials. According to the documents, an American professor, James C. Jones, (not to be confused with the former congressman and ambassador to Mexico by the same name) with long time connections to the FARC, reached out to Congressman James Mc Govern (D-Massachusets) with the purpose of helping diminish the status and reputation of President Alvaro Uribe.

Congressman James Mc Govern (D-Massachusets). Source: Canada Free Press.

Jones, who is an admirer of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and whose correspondence with Reyes showed clear sympathy for the FARC [8], contacted Congressman Mc Govern, a staunch opponent of the free trade agreement with Colombia. According to Mc Govern, his interest in Colombia had to do with his belief that the conflict over the hostages could be resolved through negotiations. That may well be true but Jones, and the FARC’s intentions were clearly to isolate President Alvaro Uribe and diminish the status of Colombia [9] as a strategic asset of the United States. This can be seen in the accounts of Mr. Jones’s exchanges with the FARC as they appeared in Colombia’s Semana magazine on March 15: “Receive my warm greetings, as always, from Washington,” Mr. Jones began in a letter to the FARC last fall. “The big news is that I spoke for several hours with the Democratic Congressman James McGovern. In the meeting we had the opportunity to exchange some ideas that will be, I believe, of interest to the FARC-EP. ” Semana reports that in the documents Mr. Jones “rules himself out as the spokesman but offers himself as a ‘bridge’ of communication between the FARC and the congressman.”[10]

A letter that Reyes wrote to top FARC Commander Manuel Marulanda on October 26 reads: “According to (Jones’s) viewpoint, President Álvaro Uribe is increasingly discredited in the U.S. . . He believes that the safe haven (for the rebels) in the counties can be had for reasons mentioned. Congressional Democrats have invited him to Washington to talk about the Colombian crisis in which the principal theme is the swap.” Semana reports that Mr. Jones made some proposals to the FARC, including a Caracas meeting with representatives of Venezuela, Colombia, the FARC, other South American countries, U.S. Congressmen and the Catholic Church. “It would be almost impossible for Uribe to reject such a meeting,” Mr. Jones wrote, “without burning himself a lot, nationally and internationally. If he persists in being against it, I have understood that there are ways to pressure him from my country (the U.S.).”[11]

What we are seeing here is a clear case where dangerous manipulators succeed in creating common cause between foreign elements hostile to the US with American populists and American domestic interests. It is unlikely that American labor unions or US Congressmen associated with them would want to harm America’s security interests. Nonetheless, they are doing so. The episode of James Jones with Congressman Mc Govern is frightening because it shows how the ignorance and naiveté of an elected public official entrusted with the common good can be so easily manipulated. This, of course, might hurt US interests badly.[12] What is worse is allowing an enemy like the FARC to lobby our government and enable the defamation of an ally like President Uribe. This form of vicious disinformation is not only immoral and unacceptable but portrays the US as a paper tiger and an unreliable ally ready to betray its friends.

*Dr. Luis Fleischman is an advisor to the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington DC. He is also an adjunct professor of Political Science and Sociology at Wilkes Honor College at Florida Atlantic University.

* Nancy Menges, Editor in Chief of the Americas Report. Mrs. Menges, the co-founder of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project, is in charge of the weekly edition of CSP’s Americas Report. Fluent in Spanish, she holds a degree in International Relations from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has studied at the University of the Americas in Mexico City. Her postgraduate degree has been earned from the University of Maryland. She has testified in Congress and submitted CSP’s statement regarding US-Colombian relations to the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

*Nicole M. Ferrand is a research analyst and editor of “The Americas Report” of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project. She is a graduate of Columbia University in Economics and Political Science with a background in Law from Peruvian University, UNIFE and in Corporate Finance from Georgetown University.

[1] Colombia Free Trade Agreement: Congressional Democrats Need to Step-Up. March 6, 2008. The Minority Report.
[2] The Colombian Imperative. April 9, 2008. The New York Sun.
[3] Colombia: An Opportunity for Lasting Success. March 11, 2008. Bureau of Public Affairs. US State Department.
[4] Free Trade Fact of the Day. The Heritage Foundation. April 14, 2008.
[5] US Department of State. March 11, 2008.
[6] A U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement: Strengthening Democracy and Progress in Latin America. Feb. 7, 2008. The CATO Institute.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “El Gringo y la FARC”, Semana, Bogota, 03/15/08
[9] “A FARC Fan’s Notes”, The Wall Street Journal”, 03/25/08
[10] Sorprende a Colombia y EU contactos de ex consultor de ONU con FARC. March 16, 2008. Revista Semana, Colombia.
[11] Ibid.
[12] For a deep analysis of this subject-matter see Luis Fleischman, Nicole Ferrand and Nancy Menges “The FTA Agreement with Colombia: The Politcal Dimension, America’s Report, April 17, 2008