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Colombia trade deal doesn’t pass the smell test

Corporations seeking profits in a country at war have unleashed paramilitary death squads to protect their profits. Chiquita, for example, is still paying a Justice Department fine for bankrolling brutal killers for over a decade responsible for at least 14,000 murders.

And if the human rights and labor rights horrors in Colombia — enough to make the Chinese blush — are not enough to convince Congress and the Obama Administration that a free trade deal with Colombia should be a non-starter, how about an increase in cocaine production? Colombia isn’t only the world’s leader in union murder. Despite decades of U.S. anti-narcotics aid, it’s also the world’s leading cocaine producer. 

Free-trade deals scrap tariffs and quotas on imports. After such changes, countries can no longer protect strategic sectors to ensure they are competitive. No one in Latin America can compete with U.S. grain farmers. The technology, mechanization and subsidies at U.S. famers disposal make grain production very cheap relative to Latin America.

For example, once Mexico ended corn tariffs and quotas under NAFTA guidelines, an estimated 2 million Mexican corn farmers went bankrupt. They simply couldn’t compete with U.S. corn prices. Research has shown that an estimated 400,000 Colombian farmers would see their net income fall 48 to 70 percent if the U.S.-Colombia trade deal were enacted. 

Free traders and corporate lobbyists insist that the trade deal would create new jobs to absorb these farmers without a “comparative advantage.” That’s a boldface lie. Since the early 1990s, nearly all Colombian exports have entered the U.S. tariff-free under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act. Any jobs created in Colombia by gaining unfettered access to U.S. markets were created years ago.

But there is one Colombian export market that can always absorb new workers: the cocaine trade. When Colombian farmers are pushed out of grain farming due to cheap U.S. imports, expect them to face a terrible choice. They’ll either lose their farm, join the vast ranks of Colombia’s unemployed, and watch their children drop out of school and become malnourished, or switch to farming coca crops to stay on their farm, keep their kids in school, and put food on their tables.

Colombian farmers want out of coca farming because it doesn’t pay very well and violence often dogs coca production. But the U.S.-Colombia trade deal would leave them with virtually no other choice.

Meanwhile, here at home the American public has soured on NAFTA-styled free trade agreements. At the end of 2010, for the first time in the long history of the Pew Research Center’s polling on the public’s perception of free trade, more respondents had a negative view of free trade than a positive view.  

That should come as no surprise. Free trade deals lead to minor macro-economic gains and pad corporate profits but bring depressed wages and job losses to workers on either side of the border. 

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are searching for the silver bullet to right the economy, but no one can claim with a straight face that the U.S.-Peru free trade agreement enacted in February 2009 has boosted job growth. There is too much at risk and too little to gain for members of Congress to hold their noses and pass a trade deal with Colombia.

Jess Hunter-Bowman is Associate Director of Witness for Peace, a nonprofit organization with a 30-year history analyzing U.S. policy in Latin America. Mr. Hunter-Bowman has monitored U.S.-Colombia relations for over a decade.


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