House Democrats’ decision to delay consideration of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement until the next administration represents a move to protect the rights of the Colombian indigenous communities and U.S. national security interests. The decision comes after President Bush sent the controversial trade agreement to the House, which under presidential “fast track authority” requires an up or down legislative vote after ninety days. “Free trade” has most recently been a thorny topic, especially among Democrats, with Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent dismissal of a top advisor, Mark Penn, for his work on the Colombia deal. Although the White House claims that the trade pact will “enhance national security” by “strengthening a key democratic ally” in the region and “bring economic gains to both sides,” the reality of the situation is quite another matter.
So what do indigenous rights in Colombia have to do with U.S. national security? A great deal. I argue that the two are more connected than one would have thought. In Colombia, agriculture is the third most important sector, employing more than twice as many as the industrial sector. However, since the passage of the Andean trade preference program in 1991, the trend has been to export food rather than to provide for local markets. In 2006, 40 percent of Colombia’s population was food insecure. Under the U.S.- Colombia Free Trade agreement, Colombia will be forced to open its markets to U.S. agricultural goods, which are highly subsidized thanks to aggressive U.S. farm policy. Colombian agricultural products, especially from small- and medium-sized farms, cannot compete with the heavily subsidized U.S. agricultural goods such as corn and rice. And who owns and works these small to medium farms? Typically women, indigenous and Afro-Colombians: all members of the population that historically have been marginalized. The competitiveness of U.S. agriculture will drive these farmers from their land as they no longer find market access for their goods. In 2005, the Colombian Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs concluded in a report that full liberalization would lead to a 35 percent decrease in employment.
Decreased employment in small and medium farms means those farmers will seek employment in other sectors, threatening food sovereignty and increasing internal displacement. Colombia has the world’s second largest internally displaced populations (IDPs) of 38 million, second only to Sudan. However, this displacement is not only due to paramilitary violence, but also expropriations from large landholding elites and unemployment on small and medium farms. Many of the displaced will work on the very plantations that displaced them: large agro-business plantations, often environmentally and socially destructive. Others will seek employment in the more profitable coca plantations, exacerbating the cocaine drug trade. One contributor to the Washington Post opinion page said it best when they stated, “If farmers can’t grow rice, they are more likely to grow coca.” (Feb. 17, 2006)
Even more yet will migrate to the cities in search of manufacturing jobs, where the destitution and isolation will put them at risk for joining left or right wing paramilitary groups. The Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington based NGO, contends, “that there is not a national security rationale for passing the trade agreement with Colombia and that a strong argument to the contrary can be made.” It is the cycle of economic liberalization, displacement, inequality and drug production that reinforces the proliferation of the paramilitary groups. The Colombian Minister of Agriculture even admitted the prevalence of this vicious cycle in 2004 when he stated, that the FTA would give small farmers little choice “but migration to the cities or other countries (especially the United States), working in drug cultivation zones, or affiliating with illegal armed groups.”
The strength and pervasiveness of these terrorist organizations threaten democratic institutions in Colombia, regional stability and thus U.S. security interests in the Andes. U.S. agriculture and trade policies only serve to entrench the inequality and poverty in the Colombian countryside. Developing nations, such as Colombia, should not be subject to the same economic principles as the United States. Inherent inequalities in Colombia’s economy and political institutions create a situation in which liberalization would only serve to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the economic elites. Our government must learn from its mistakes (i.e. NAFTA) in order to stop the perpetuation of blow-back, the unintended consequences of U.S. foreign policy.
House Democrats should be applauded for their strong stance against the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
Natalie Danielle Camastra is a student of political economy at UC Berkeley.