Behind Flowers and Flags, Unionists Still Face Violence
By Emily Schmitz
In April, distracted by the scandals of Barack Obama’s Secret Service detail at the Summit of the Americas, a six-year stagnant trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia was quietly implemented.
With handshakes and smiles, President Obama and President Juan Manuel Santos posed, documenting the passing of a historic moment: “this agreement is a win for both our countries,” stated Obama, accompanied by Santos, who equally shared his enthusiasm, as he declared: “We have gone from being good friends to being true partners.”
The first export under the new agreement, on May 15, shipped more than 1.2 million flowers to the shores of Miami, leaving the ports of Cartagena at midnight “seen off by flag-waving children” in a show of symbolic appreciation. But many predict the free trade agreement will leave little to be thankful for.
The decision took many by surprise: on the campaign trail Obama had alleged opposition to the treaty, arguing that, “violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.” But once in office promises dissolved quickly, free trade was pushed to the front of the agenda and, with the creation the Labor Action Plan, was implemented far sooner than ever expected.
The Labor Action Plan (LAP) was designed to put the free trade agreement back into motion. Signed in April 2011, it was created to counter the image of a poor human rights record spawned by years of continuous violence: Colombia is the world’s most dangerous country for union organizing (pdf). With an estimated 2,245 killings since 1991, 3,400 threats and 138 enforced disappearances, it has the highest level of violence against union leaders worldwide. Very few of these criminals are ever convicted, with reports estimating impunity rates around 95%. In theory, the LAP was designed to protect labor rights by confronting anti-union violence, prosecuting crimes and improving working conditions for port, sugar and palm oil workers.
“Colombia For Sale - Super Sale” “FTA Men: This Country is NOT for Sale”But on April 27, just two weeks after Obama announced that “historic progress” had been made, Daniel Aguirre, a leading figure in the sugarcane cutters’ labor movement, was shot twice and killed, becoming the seventh union leader killed this year alone, with a total of 61 union-related deaths since the Santos administration took office in 2010. The same week, four other leaders received death threats, each from distinct labor sectors specifically covered by LAP protections.
The Labor Action Plan looked good on paper, but haste never allowed it to generate real impacts, nor did the initial draft include essential measures. Historian Greg Grandin criticized the pact, explaining, “the human rights and labor communities in the US asked the Obama administration to build into any free trade agreement a number of guarantees; 1. They wanted to see real change on the ground, before they went forward — say, a three-year period where there would be no murders, no executions of trade unionists. The White House refused that. They asked for a mechanism built into the trade agreement that would void the treaty if executions started to rise again. The White House refused to do that.”
Described as a policy “without teeth,” the LAP failed to meaningfully improve labor and human rights conditions in the country. Year-to-date estimates report 64 attacks against human rights defenders, 13 murders, 29 death threats, one disappearance, 17 attacks, three arbitrary arrests and one case of sexual violence. Yet symbolic implications run deep. By implementing the free trade agreement, the U.S. has outwardly approved human rights conditions throughout the country, despite data illustrating that Colombia leads the world in killings of trade unionists. The Obama administration continues a path forged by former President Bush, aggressively pushing for an agreement that remains highly debated.