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Inter Press Service

Will Democrats Bury Free Trade Deal?

Helda Martinez

Indigenous Colombians take part in a protest march in Cali November 10, 2008. Thousands of natives from different ethnic groups took part in the protest to press for talks with President Alvaro Uribe on promises to protect their lands, defend them against violence and reject a U.S. free trade agreement. (REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga)

BOGOTA - Ratification by the United States Congress of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia appears to be further away than ever, due to the victory of president-elect Barack Obama, who has declared his opposition to the treaty, and to the effects of the financial crisis.

If anything more was needed to cause the Democratic Party, which has a majority in Congress and has been strengthened by Obama's electoral triumph, to hesitate over approving the agreement signed by Washington and Bogotá, it is the scandal in Colombia about the extrajudicial executions of innocent civilians, reported by the army as guerrillas killed in combat.

The scandal, which has already led to the dismissal of 27 officers and noncommissioned officers, including three generals, involves the murders of young men from poor neighbourhoods in Bogotá and other cities who were lured from their homes with fraudulent job offers, murdered a few hours later and presented as casualties of "successful" military operations against leftwing insurgents.

Analysts say the killings, in which high-level military and police chiefs are implicated, reinforce the arguments of Democrats against ratifying the FTA with a country where violations of labour, civil and human rights are rife.

Nevertheless, Colombia's ambassador in Washington, Carolina Barco, remains optimistic, saying the trade deal could be approved in the lame-duck session scheduled to start in the U.S. Congress on Nov. 17. Colombian Trade Minister Luis Guillermo Plata holds the same view.

All the parties involved recognise that the situation today is very different from that of May 2004, at the start of the negotiations for the FTA, when right-wing Colombian President Álvaro Uribe said he believed that the treaty would be ready to go into force in less than a year.

"Resistance by broad social, labour and indigenous sectors of the Colombian population, as well as by small pharmaceutical and farming businesses and parts of the industrial sector, delayed the negotiations and, to some extent, torpedoed them," Aurelio Suárez, an activist and op-ed writer for the local newspaper La Tarde, told IPS.

The debate continued until "August 2006, when the FTA had passed the first hurdle in the United States, and the 90-day period before the voting deadline in Congress was running (under the 'fast-track' rules). Then there was a sudden change, because the Democrats won a majority in Congress, and pressure on Uribe increased, which has redoubled now with the executions scandal," he said.

Since then, the FTA has advanced at a snail's pace. The Colombian parliament, with a government majority, ratified it in 2007, while lobbying continued in the U.S. by advisers who were receiving 80,000 dollars a month from the Uribe administration, as Minister Plata confirmed on La W, a Bogotá radio station.

However, one year ago Vice President Francisco Santos admitted that the FTA was caught up "in a whirlwind of political disputes." And there it has remained, according to analysts consulted by IPS.

"Uribe turned his back on Democratic Party legislators, and now they are getting their own back. It's too late now for him to make gestures signalling a bipartisan policy," Enrique Daza, head of the Centre for Labour Studies (CEDETRABAJO), told IPS.

According to Daza, it is unlikely that the FTA will be ratified by the U.S. Congress any time soon, because "it has a very tight agenda, with many pending items" that have accumulated because of the financial crisis and the election campaign. Therefore, "it would be mistaken to expect that the FTA might become a priority."

In the same vein, economist Ricardo Bonilla at the public National University of Colombia said that "throughout his campaign, Obama opposed voting on the FTA, and I doubt that Uribe will be a priority on the immediate agenda of the U.S. Congress."

Bonilla did not rule out the possibility of approval later on, "with minor changes like those made to the FTA between the United States and Peru, but in the case of Colombia, the seriousness of the accusations of human rights violations will draw the careful attention of U.S. legislators," he said.

Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo of the left-wing Alternative Democratic Pole party (PDA) was more sceptical. A fierce opponent of the FTA, he initiated legal action in parliament against Uribe for treason against his country when the trade agreement was signed.

"Let us not forget that the United States is an empire, with an imperialist policy that is supported by Democrats as well as Republicans," Robledo told IPS.

"Let us remember that the FTA with Peru is identical to the FTA with Colombia, and it was approved by the U.S. Congress," he said.

"In the case of Colombia, I think (the reluctance to approve the FTA) is due to personal grudges against the mistreatment of Democrats by U.S. President (George W.) Bush, and against Uribe for his close ties to Bush, in addition to the violence and paramilitarism in Colombia," he said.

"That's why, once the political burdens are eased, I wouldn't be surprised if Obama, after setting minor conditions, finally approves the FTA, because ultimately it is part of the imperialist policy," he said.

In any case, Robledo said he thought opinion in the United States, which blames free trade for the economic crisis and growing poverty and unemployment afflicting that country, would carry more weight. "All of which is also true," he stressed.

Scepticism about prompt ratification of the FTA is also bolstered by labour conflicts in Colombia in the past few months, with lengthy strikes taking place in the judicial branch, the tax service, the Civil Registry, and in particular the two-month-old strike by sugarcane workers in the southwestern departments (provinces) of Valle del Cauca and Cauca.

Meanwhile, the government is not giving up. Uribe congratulated Obama and "the people of the United States for their great democracy, worthy of admiration," as he wrote in a message sent on Nov. 5 to the U.S. president-elect.

In his letter, Uribe referred to Colombia's historical alliance and bipartisan relationship with the United States, which he said would not change.

He also said that "it is in Colombia's interests that large, strong democracies should exist, as they are examples of freedom, respect for private enterprise and social responsibility."

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