Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Free trade - for what?

A just deal, or just a deal?
A U.S.-Colombia agreement today appears to eliminate the last obstacles to a free trade agreement between the two nations. Colombian leaders had long felt snubbed by Washington's failure to move on the agreement. After all, Colombia has probably been Washington's most loyal ally in the War on Drugs and many other issues amidst a region full of leftist governments which reject U.S. influence.

But some U.S. congressmembers, human rights advocates and unions have opposed the proposed agreement because of Colombia's very troubled history in human rights issues and union rights. For many years, Colombia had more killings of union leaders than all the rest of the world combined. Is it right to reward such a nation?

Women peasants porotest rights abuses, in Bogota.
The agreement, made during Pres. Santos' visit to the U.S., requires Colombia to increase protections for union leaders, assign more investigators to union killings and strengthen laws protecting union members' rights. But the question is whether those agreements can actually bring about qualitative change. After all, there's lots of evidence that big business here, including U.S.-owned companies, as well as governments, have worked with right-wing death squads to violently repress unions. A fundamental cultural shift is necessary to make that stop happening. 

Also, a U.S. union representative once explained to me that U.S. unions opposed the agreement because it would establish a precedent for the approval of other FTAs, which would shift U.S. jobs overseas.

For their part, Colombian officials seem to want the FTA to a great degree out of self respect for being such a loyal ally. After all, temporary agreements intended to promote non-drug industries already give Colombia most of the same trade preferences for their exports.

Free trade beneficiaries?
Pushing American smokes on youths in La Candelaria.
What will the FTA mean? Rather, here's what I hope it DOESN'T mean for Colombia: a flood of unproductive, status-boosting toys for Colombia's wealthy: more cars to clog the country's roads and pollute its air; flat-screen TVs to promote unhealthy, sedentary lives; video games; lots of subsidized U.S. agricultural products which will drive peasants off of their lands, make them refugees in their own nation or force them to turn to growing one crop which the U.S. doesn't produce but never stops importing: coca leaves, the base ingredient for cocaine.

Scarily for me, the New York Times reports that the agreement will remove tariffs from 80% of consumer products. Let's welcome the discount X-Boxes and SUVs, for the good of Colombia! This page seems to give a good, and terrifying, summary of the agreement. Look forward to an invasion of used cars which can't meet U.S. mileage or clean air standards!

More mangoes?
And, will the FTA actually help Colombia escape from the raw materials curse, which has locked so many developing nations' economies into dependance on raw material exports? That may increase GDP, but it benefits a small class, feeds corruption and doesn't create a middle class, which is the foundation for a vital civil society and democracy in any nation.

I sure hope I'm wrong, but I fear that an FTA will mostly promote Colombia's exports of hydrocarbons, agricultural goods, timber, etc, instead of helping the country shift manufacturing, which creates much more income, requires brainpower and means high-paying, skilled jobs.

See photos of the protest against the FTA and proposed public university reforms.

By Mike Ceaser of Bogotá Bike Tours

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