Colombia as a Model for Latin America

In March and April of this year, I traveled to Bogotá and Cali, Colombia on behalf of Trade Justice New York1 to meet with fellow activists who are fighting the implementation of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA). It was my first time there, although I had been to several other Latin American countries, including extended periods I spent in Ecuador. I was struck in my first few days in Bogotá by the level of prosperity in that city. Bogotá struck me, as a native of Detroit, as the kind of bustling metropolis we Detroiters can only dream of our city being. Thus, it does not surprise me that several members of the U.S. Congress who have recently traveled to Colombia seem to go through a religious conversion and become fervent supporters of the Colombia-U.S. FTA.

It is uncanny that great portions of Bogotá and Cali are so prosperous while such large segments of the country’s population live in abject poverty (including much of Bogotá and Cali), worse than average for Latin America because of the violence and displacement. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), 46.8 percent of Colombia’s general population lives in poverty and 20.2 percent in indigence, while overall in Latin America, the level of poverty is 36.5 percent and indigence 13.4 percent.2 This economic constellation does not cease to entice U.S., Canadian, and European capitalists and elected officials, among them President George W. Bush, who seems never to miss an opportunity to stress the importance of ratifying the Colombia-U.S. FTA.3

For decades, Colombian capital has fused more and more with the transnational companies that do business in the country. Over 500 foreign companies have branches in Bogotá.4 According to the U.S. State Department, approximately 250 U.S. firms do business in Colombia.5 Foreign holdings of Colombian stocks stood at $972 million in August 2005 compared to $246 million when President Álvaro Uribe took office in 2002.6 Now the Colombian government and elites, the U.S. government, and U.S. transnationals are pushing for a free trade agreement to consummate foreign control of the Colombian economy.

As Libardo Sarmiento, an economist and editor of the magazine Cepa, puts it: “The Colombian government has steadily been opening the Colombian economy more and more to U.S. corporations ever since 1985. The free trade agreement between Colombia and the U.S. is the marriage after a long courtship.” Simultaneous with the internationalization of the Colombian economy, economic power has become concentrated in fewer hands. There are now only 17 banks in Colombia while in 1990 there were over double that many.7 Since the Colombian bourgeoisie is now so linked to foreign capital, it forms a reduced segment of the movement to stop the FTA compared to the movements in other Latin American countries. So the debate over the Colombia-U.S. FTA is chiefly a battle between the right and the left; or more fundamentally, a battle between the rich and the poor.

According to Sarmiento, the violence that has raged in Colombia over the past decades is a struggle for economic power. In order to carry out macroprojects for oil, wood, gold, silver, and other raw materials, the government and the paramilitaries have massively displaced the campesino, indigenous, and Afro-Colombian populations in the countryside. There are currently 3.5 million persons who have been forcibly displaced as part of the effort to accommodate the pillaging of the country’s raw materials; 552,000 of those are external refugees.8 As Aura Rodríguez, of Corporación Cactus, a group that campaigns against the Colombia-U.S. FTA, puts it: “If you were to map out the paramilitary activity in Colombia and then superimpose a map of the country’s natural resources, they would coincide completely.” Estimates range from 31,000 to two million deaths in Colombia’s civil war.9

In addition to exploiting the country’s raw materials, the multinationals exploit Colombia’s workforce. Apparently in an effort to facilitate the passing and implementation of the free trade agreement, the Colombian government recently passed a law extending Colombia’s regular workday from twelve to sixteen hours, i.e., from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. so that working evening hours no longer gives entitlement to overtime pay.10 Since 1985, more than 2,500 trade unionists have been killed.11 Drummond Company and Coca-Cola, among others, have been accused of paying paramilitaries to bust unions. Cincinnati-based Chiquita brands pleaded guilty in a U.S. court last year to funding Colombian paramilitaries.

While the paramilitary violence seems to have somewhat subsided, the Colombian government’s perpetration of human rights violations skyrocketed from 17 percent when President Álvaro Uribe took office in 2002 to 56 percent at the end of his first term in 2006.12 While some have noted a decline in union assassinations, others have pointed out that as more unionists and union leaders have been killed, there less are left to kill. In Guatemala, killings of unionists dropped during the DR-CAFTA negotiations but then increased sharply once the treaty had been implemented.13

The fact that the violence is still rampant in Colombia indicates that the campaign of aggression that favors multinational corporations is not being addressed as a problem. But few in Colombia or elsewhere make the link between the country’s armed conflict and its economic transformation culminating in the Colombia-U.S. free trade agreement. According to Consuelo Ahumada, Director of the Observatorio Andino and the Masters Program for Latin American Studies at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, over the last year or so, a series of issues related to the violence in Colombia ate up the media’s attention. First, the parapolítica scandal dominated the political debate: the infiltration of the Colombian congress by politicians with links to paramilitaries. Thirty-four members of the Colombian congress currently have been or are being investigated for ties to paramilitary death squads; 33 more have already been detained.14

After that, the big issue was the kidnappings by the FARC. Then in March of the present year, the confrontation between Colombia and the U.S., on the one hand, and Ecuador and Venezuela, on the other, claimed the media spotlight. Since my visit, two big issues have been challenges to the validity of Uribe’s election and the liberation of Íngrid Betancourt and others, including three U.S. citizens. Although these issues deserve plenty of attention, they are seen as completely unrelated to a project to exploit Colombia’s natural and mineral resources and labor force. In fact, the FTA has been framed as a safeguard against aggression from Colombia’s neighbors and a bonanza for the Colombian economy.

According to a billboard that appeared in multiple locations in the country during my visit, “Either you’re with Colombia or you’re with the terrorists.” Álvaro Uribe’s name appears under the statement. It seems that by extension, you’re either with the free trade agreement or you’re with the terrorists. Uribe’s approval rating is currently over 80 percent. The public’s justifiable loss of tolerance for the FARC’s kidnappings, violence, and general humiliation of the Colombian populace seems to translate into unconditional backing of Uribe and his policies, among them the FTA with the U.S.

According to Consuelo Ahumada, being against the FTA is often construed as being in favor of the FARC. Colombian Senator Jorge Robledo agrees: the FARC are a disaster for the left in Colombia. Robledo compares Colombia with Argentina: “In Argentina, people don’t necessarily support the Left, but they view the Left with a certain degree of sympathy because they see them as people who sacrifice themselves for the oppressed. In Colombia, however, leftists are seen as kidnappers and extortionists…” According to Ahumada, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s and Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega’s support of the FARC only aggravates the crisis in Colombia. Ahumada adds the choice shouldn’t be between Uribe and Bush or the FARC, but that’s the message people get. She cites Evo Morales, who has condemned the FARC, as a more helpful role model.

Meanwhile, the Uribe administration’s accusation of leftist activists and marginalized groups of being linked to the FARC has often constituted a death sentence. In connection with the March 6 protest against violence in the country perpetrated by paramilitaries and the state, six unionists were killed who were involved in organizing the protest. Many more activists were threatened. Right after the murders in March, an Op-Ed article in the New York Times by Edward Schumacher-Matos appeared in which he claims that “it was far safer to be in a union than to be an ordinary citizen in Colombia last year.” He states that “of the 87 convictions won in union cases since 2001… the judges found that 15 of the murders were related to common crime, 10 to crimes of passion and 13 to membership in a guerrilla organization.15 But Schumacher fails to mention that, in the days preceding his article, three trade unionists, Leonidas Gómez Rozo, Gildardo Gómez Alzate, and Adolfo González Montes were killed on three different days in Bogotá, Medellín, and Riohacha, respectively, and were killed in exactly the same way: They were tied up in their homes and cut and stabbed numerous times. In other words, they were tortured to death in exactly the same way in three different cities, and the only common denominator was that they were unionists. Such acts instill terror in fellow labor activists, according to Héctor Mondragón, Advisor to Convergencia Campesina, Negra e Indígena and consultant to the Centro de Cooperación al Indígena (CECOIN) (campesino, Afro-Colombian, and indigenous groups).

While in Colombia, I interviewed three members of the flower union Untraflores, which holds meetings about an hour outside of Bogotá in the flower district. Union members Aide Silva, Nidia López, and Orlando Romero explained to me how their struggle has persisted. Despite the type of union busting and intimidation against union members that also occur in the U.S., unionizing has proven worthwhile; they have made modest advances such as a 48-hour, 6-day work week, being able to take time off for doctor visits, and modest vacation pay. They have not been able to obtain a collective bargaining agreement for larger sectors of the industry. They had never been the victims of threats or violence, but after I left, there was word of statements by government officials linking the union to the FARC, which caused great alarm. Untraflores has always condemned all forms of violence.

Evidently, the violence against union organizers, the indigenous, Afro-Colombians, and activists will not stop in order to facilitate the free trade agreement precisely because the free trade agreement and the state and paramilitary violence in Colombia are part of the same project. Some of the ideals that anti-FTA activists in Colombia strive for are affordable food and medicine, labor rights, and a clean environment. One organization that opposes the Colombia-U.S. FTA, the Center for Research for Development, strives for full employment and price stability, its director Professor Germán Umaña Mendoza told me.16 Héctor Moncayo of Recalca, an FTA information campaign that launched in 2003 as a coalition of organizations of different political stripes and has progressively become more fervently critical of the FTA, stresses the importance of the government’s role in social programs. He asserts that they are undermined by the so-called Singapore topics that protect the pre-eminence of investor rights over national laws and the strengthening of intellectual property at the expense of public health. But specifically in Colombia, the FTA is about land distribution. Will the land belong to the poor who have traditionally populated and cultivated it or to the multinational corporations that want to exploit it for oil, gas, minerals, and the agro-industry?

The pro-FTA camp seems to accept a society in which “there will always be winners and losers. The best we can do for the losers is to mitigate their losses,” as Rafael Padilla put it. Rafael, who works for a European multinational, is a friend of my hosts whom we ran into on my first evening in Bogotá. He turned out to be a very articulate defender of the Colombia-U.S. free trade agreement. His strongest argument was that the FTA, by requiring the country to comprehensively adopt international standards, for example for electronics and machinery, would allow Colombia to become more competitive internationally. He also put forward classical pro free trade arguments, such as the FTA enabling Colombia to exploit its comparative advantages. While he believes, for example, that Colombia should stop producing wheat, which it does inefficiently, he argues that the country can greatly boost its profits in coffee. When I confronted him with the fact that Colombia competes with many other coffee-producing nations, he countered that Colombia could expand its business by delivering the whole production cycle, from cultivation, to processing, to merchandising coffee. He believes that Colombia’s equivalent to Starbucks, Juan Valdez, could insert itself in the U.S. market.

The FTA with Colombia is particularly worrisome given the country’s already existing violence particularly against groups who will be negatively impacted by the FTA, such as labor unionists, the indigenous, and Afro-Colombians.17 Yet the free trade agreement with Colombia is one in a series of disastrous agreements with Latin American countries (and countries in other parts of the world such as Oman and South Korea), in the process of negotiation or already implemented. By conservative estimates, after ten years of NAFTA, 1.3 million Mexican farmers had been forced off their land because of U.S. corporations dumping subsidized agricultural products on the Mexican market.18 In the maquiladora sector in Mexico, which grew exponentially after implementation of NAFTA, workers have been systematically abused and exploited, including violence against union organizers. The environmental destruction caused by these factories, which also obviously impacts the health and well being of the workers, has been of epidemic proportions. Rafael’s answer to this was that perhaps Mexico has done a poor job of implementing a good treaty. Of course, the experience could theoretically not apply, but experience is the most conclusive evidence there is either against or in favor of the FTA, as the case may be.

Meanwhile, over 700 Salvadorans are leaving El Salvador daily, at least in part due to dramatic price jumps resulting from U.S. products flooding the market.19 Instead of U.S. investment rising in El Salvador, U.S. capitalists have taken over many Salvadoran companies, such as Citibank’s takeover of Grupo Cuscatlán. The country is not exporting more to the U.S., as had been promised before ratification, but less since implementation of the FTA.20

When I mentioned Rafael’s argument about international standards to Senator Robledo, who has been one of the highest profile and strongest opponents of the agreement, he agreed that it is possible that the standardization of technology could constitute a marginal improvement to the Colombian economy in the midst of many other perils of the FTA. He also pointed out that minor improvements to matters such as hygiene could be devastating to Colombian producers. “For example, in terms of veterinary vaccinations, say that we’re functioning at 99% safety, in other words, laboratories are working with extremely high safety standards, but instead of 99%, they impose 99.9%. Of course we’re talking about arbitrary figures, but the increase in technology is going to rob part of the profits they are making; so you see how technical standards can also become a factor for imposing the price of multinationals and monopolies.”

According to Héctor Mondragón, the Bush administration seeks to use the conflict in Colombia as a jumping board not only for the Colombia-U.S. FTA but for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). While there is much talk of Latin America’s turn to the Left, the U.S. government, the transnational corporations that it serves, as well as the Colombian and Latin American elites are countering the new leftist politics in Latin America with another model. As Mondragón puts it: “Colombia is an example of how the resistance against neoliberalism can be paralyzed by massive violations of human rights, through persecuting social movement leaders. To permit this model of violence and impunity, as has occurred with the negotiation by the [Colombian] government with the paramilitaries is a new model of impunity. If we allow this model to be imposed in all of Latin America, it will constitute an essential element for imposing the FTAA in all of Latin America.” Mondragón also believes that as people’s rights have been violated to the benefit of transnational companies in Colombia, people’s rights can be violated in the U.S. in much the same way.

Witnessing the level of prosperity of major sectors of Bogotá and Cali, I had to ask myself how much further removed we in the United States are from the misery in Colombia’s countryside than the prosperous residents of those Colombian metropolises. And how much less responsibility we bear. After all, we live in a globalized society.

  1. Formerly known as The NYC People’s Referendum on Free Trade (or La Consulta Popular sobre el Libre Comercio de NY), Trade Justice New York is a grassroots coalition that campaigns against unfair trade agreements between the U.S. and Latin America and seeks alternatives to neoliberal globalization. []
  2. ECLAC, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Social Panorama of Latin America 2007, November 2007. []
  3. Canada and the European Union are also currently attempting to conclude free trade agreements with Colombia. []
  4. Proexport Colombia, “Foreign Companies Bogotá-Cundinamarca.” As of 2003, 504 foreign companies had branches in Bogotá. []
  5. U.S. Department of State. “Background Note: Colombia,” March 2008. []
  6. Murphy, Helen. “Colombia’s Rich Lure U.S., European Investors as Violence Ebbs,” September 27, 2005. []
  7. See under “Establecimientos de Crédito,” then “Establecimientos Bancarios.” See also: Series estadísticas del sistema financiero colombiano. Asociación Bancaria de Colombia, editor and publisher. July 1990. This collection of statistics shows over double the number of banks and financial corporations in the year 1989 of what the Superintendencia Bancaria reports presently. It covers members of the Asociación Bancaria de Colombia. According to Sarmiento, there were around 150 banks in Colombia in 1990. []
  8. Redacción BBC Mundo, “Colombia/desplazados: sigue en aumento.” June 17, 2008. []
  9. Scaruffi, Piero. “Wars and Genocides of the 20th Century.” Scaruffi’s estimate of 31,000 deaths in the Colombian civil war evidently only encompasses the period from 1966 to the end of the 20th century. Libardo Sarmiento estimates the number of deaths in the war at 2 million since 1985. []
  10. Arias Pulido, Armando E., reposted: “La Reforma Laboral a la luz de los ingresos de los trabajadores.” Actualidad Colombiana. No. 447 March 12-26 2007. []
  11. U.S.: Reject Colombia Free Trade Deal,” Human Rights Watch. April 7, 2008. []
  12. Leech, Garry. “Colombia’s Economic Growth Fueled by Repression.” May 19, 2008. []
  13. USLEAP (U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project). “Violence Against Colombia Trade Unionists and Impunity: How Much Progress Has There Been Under Uribe?” April 2008. []
  14. INDEPAZ (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz). “Parapolítica en el congreso,” 26 July 2008. These are the figures according to Indepaz as of July 26, 2008. And they state that the number keeps rising. []
  15. Schumacher-Matos, Edward. “Killing a Trade Pact,” New York Times. March 29, 2008. []
  16. Professor Germán Umaña Mendoza is an economist at the National University of Colombia and Director of the Center for Research for Development (CID in Spanish), an organization that has published research documenting the hazards of the FTA. []
  17. According to Héctor Mondragón, yearly killings of indigenous people. in Colombia have risen from an average of 62 historically since 1970 to 146 during Uribe’s administration. []
  18. Another America is Possible: The Impact of NAFTA on the U.S. Latino Community and Lessons for Future Trade Agreements, A Joint Report by Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.” August 2004. []
  19. Andrade, Teresa. “Naufragio de Salvadoreños, un sueño truncado,” Centroamérica 21. October 29, 2007. []
  20. Equipo Maíz. “El fracaso del TLC con Estados Unidos,” March 2, 2007 and on Page 184: “Se hacen humo las promesas sobre los TLC,” February 9, 2008. From the year 2005 (before the FTA) to 2007, El Salvador’s exports to the U.S. diminished by 31 million and the U.S. augmented its exports to El Salvador by 161 million dollars. []
Leonard Morin has worked since 2004 against unfair trade agreements between the US and Latin America with Trade Justice New York and is also a freelance translator. Leonard can be reached at: Read other articles by Leonard, or visit Leonard's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Tennessee-Socialist said on August 4th, 2008 at 8:52pm #

    So many people have no interest about what happened on 9/11. They make no connection between the ongoing election fraud; the emerging police state, the destruction of the economy, the unnecessary wars and massive loss of life, the corruption of the corporations and governments that are bleeding them white.

  2. Robert Thatch said on August 5th, 2008 at 8:16am #

    The Leonard Morin article about Colombia is an excellent rundown of factors related to the proposed FTA for Colombia. He asks: “Will the land belong to the poor who have traditionally populated and cultivated it or to the multinational corporations that want to exploit it for oil, gas, minerals, and agro-industry?” That is the question in Colombia.

  3. Brian Rudert said on August 6th, 2008 at 8:00am #

    I am concerned about Morin’s statement that “There are now only 17 banks in Colombia while in 1990 there were over double that many.” He makes this statement to argue that there is increasing economic power concentration. Previously banks in Latin America (Colombia no exception) were owned by oligarchs to capture savings that would be used to finance family businesses. When these family businesses would suffer, banks would routinely fail to the detriment of thousands of small account holders. I think Colombia is much better off with a smaller number of banks under the strict supervision of the Superintendency of Banks as long as these banks make efforts to extend financial services to the less fortunate. The poor need safe places to deposit their savings and access to credit at the same rates that is extended to the rich. I believe this is happening in Colombia and Morin is wrong to use to the banking situation to justify his opposition to the FTA.

  4. Leonard Morin said on August 13th, 2008 at 2:20am #

    Thanks everyone for your comments! With regard to Brian Rudert’s comment: I agree with you that many people have suffered from banks failing in Latin America, of which Colombia is no exception. This very process is what concerns me. As Phil Josselyn, who works in our coalition, once put it to me very aptly, when banks fail, the losses of the rich and the corporate classes are “socialized” so that the public pays for the failed risks of the rich. When national resources, such as gold, wood, and petroleum are found, the corporate classes “privatize” them, once again at the expense of the public, in this case especially at the expense of the peasants who occupied the land and are now being massacred or displaced for the sake of corporate profit. I’m not willing to assume that now the Colombian oligarchy is less involved in banking and profits less from it. I do believe, however, that the participation of multinationals is now pre-eminent.

    One can observe the same type of consolidation in the flower industry:
    under “Las Flores y el TLC”

    The first link concerns several flower companies going out of business; the second the case of Dole closing operations. It’s obvious that wealth has become more concentrated in fewer hands here too. If the FTA passes, it will be much easier for large foreign corporations to enter the Colombian market, buy up businesses, and then move on again if it’s more profitable. That will obviously prejudice workers and consumers.