Colombia's Case

Saturday, April 19, 2008

HOUSE SPEAKER Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) says the Bush administration's free-trade agreement with Colombia may not be dead, even though she has postponed a vote on it indefinitely. If the White House doesn't "jam it down the throat of Congress," she said, she might negotiate. Ms. Pelosi wants an "economic agenda that gives some sense of security to American workers and businesses . . . that somebody is looking out for them" -- though she was vague as to what that entails. Nor did she specify how anyone could "jam" through a measure on which the administration has already briefed Congress many, many times.

Still, in the hope that Ms. Pelosi might in fact schedule a vote, it may be worth examining once more the arguments against this tariff-slashing deal. Perhaps we should say "argument," because there is really only one left: namely, that Colombia is "the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist" and that the government of President Álvaro Uribe is to blame. As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney put it in an April 14 Post op-ed, union workers in Colombia "face an implicit death sentence."

Colombia is, indeed, violent -- though homicide has dramatically declined under Mr. Uribe. There were 17,198 murders in 2007. Of the dead, only 39 -- or 0.226 percent -- were even members of trade unions, let alone leaders or activists, according to the Colombian labor movement. (Union members make up just under 2 percent of the Colombian population.)

This hardly suggests a campaign of anti-union terrorism in Colombia. Moreover, the number of trade unionists killed has fallen from a rate of about 200 per year before Mr. Uribe took office in 2002, despite a reported uptick in the past few months. (Arrests have already been made in three of this year's cases, according to Bogota.) And evidence is sparse that all, or even most, of the union dead were killed because of their labor organizing. As Mr. Sweeney and other critics note, precious few cases have been solved, which is hardly surprising given that Colombia's judicial system has been under attack from left-wing guerrillas, drug traffickers and right-wing death squads -- a war, we repeat, that Mr. Uribe has greatly contained. But in cases that have been prosecuted, the victims' union activity or presumed support for guerrillas has been the motive in fewer than half of the killings.

An April 10 letter to the editor from Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch suggested that we would not make such arguments "if death squads with ties to the U.S. government were targeting Post reporters for assassination." We like to think that our criticism would be energetic but fair, especially if the government was responding aggressively to such a campaign and the number of killings was declining. No fair-minded person can fail to note that Colombian unionists are far safer today than they used to be.

There are two important countries at the north of South America. One, Colombia, has a democratic government that, with strong support from the Clinton and Bush administrations, has bravely sought to defeat brutal militias of the left and right and to safeguard human rights. The other, Venezuela, has a repressive government that has undermined media freedoms, forcibly nationalized industries, rallied opposition to the United States and, recent evidence suggests, supported terrorist groups inside Colombia. That U.S. unions, human rights groups and now Democrats would focus their criticism and advocacy on the former, to the benefit of the latter, shows how far they have departed from their own declared principles.

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