<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Al Giordano

Opening Statement, April 18, 2000
¡Bienvenidos en Español!
Bem Vindos em Português!

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Colombian Senator Petro Tells U.S. Congress: Free Trade Agreement Would Benefit Narco-Traffickers

Bush and Uribe Administrations Can’t Hide Reality with their Fantasy Tours of Colombia for Legislators

By Dan Feder
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

October 24, 2007

BOGOTÁ: For the past two months, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez has been spending a lot of time in Bogotá and Medellín. Convincing the U.S. Congress to approve a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia seems to have become his number-one mission at the moment, and he has been touring about the country with U.S. legislators, pulling out all the stops to show them what a changed place Colombia is, and how much it wants the “FTA.”

Photo from Sen. Petro’s weblog
The congressmen were treated to such typical Colombian sights as President Alvaro Uribe riding up on a white horse, raising a cup of coffee and declaring, “I toast to our two countries!” Democrats – concerned with what their friends in the AFL-CIO and human rights organizations have told them about the country’s terrible human rights record and status as home to more than half the world’s killings of trade unionists – found no shortage of people willing to tell them that this was nothing but a politically-motivated lie.

But back in Washington, a certain thorn in Uribe’s side was busy last week upsetting all of Gutierrez, Bush and Uribe’s best-laid plans. Colombian Senador Gustavo Petro was in town to receive the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award for his work denouncing the close relationships between Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups and the government.

Petro is one of the most prominant members of the Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA in its Spanish initials) party. He has become known for his long, detailed presentations at televised congressional debates, including one in April in which he presented evidence that death squads had met on Uribe’s property while the president was governor of the department (state) of Antioquia.

While he was in Washington, however, Petro spent most of his time going from one U.S. legislator’s office to another, explaining to his North American counterparts his major thesis on the Free Trade Agreement: that it will benefit Colombia’s big narco-traffickers, and not its small farmers or businessmen.

The FTA is a document that touches on many different trade issues and sectors of both country’s economies. But perhaps the section that most troubles people here is the agricultural one. Like its older brother the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, the FTA demands that Colombia further open its ports to U.S. agricultural products and encourage more farming for export. In the case of NAFTA, similar policies caused millions of peasant and small farmers to go bankrupt and abandon their farms for the cities or to head north, and the agreement is now widely unpopular there. Many fear that faced with competition from the U.S., Colombian farmers will not be able to compete with the normal food crops they are used to buying. Rural Colombia is already in a sort of state of permanent crisis, due both to ever-falling prices, the pressures of the civil war, and, as Petro explained to the U.S. politicians, the increasing concentration of land into the hands of big landowners and drug traffickers (often one and the same).

Uribe and his followers are known for their hysterical reactions to any attack on their image as upstanding citizens, and this time was no exception. While this wasn’t the first time Petro had made such claims, this time he was doing so in person to U.S. congressmen and women, right when the Uribe and Bush administrations were in the middle of an all-out propaganda marathon to get the FTA approved.

“Petro is going to the U.S. to speak ill of the country, to betray Colombia with lies,” Uribe’s protegé and possible successor, Agriculture Minister Andres Felipe Arías, told the press.

“To go to the United States to say that the Free Trade Agreement favors drug trafficking is to attack Colombia,” said Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez, president of the Congress.

Petro’s statements were “unspeakable, sick and of monstrous proportions,” said Interior Minister Carlos Holguín.

A Closer Look at the Senator’s Claims

On October 16, Gustavo Petro spoke to the national network Caracol Radio from Washington after his statements there – and government officials’ fierce reaction to them – had broken in the Colombian press (they have yet to be reported in the U.S.). “I don’t understand this race of insults the government is in now,” Petro told interviewer Darío Arizmendi, “just because it does not share the opinions of someone of the opposition, who is just reproducing a debate that’s been going on in Congress for two years now.”

Petro began to explain his position in depth:

Well, look, the statistics from the Comptroller General’s Office and the statistics from the National University on the Colombian countryside demonstrate the following situation. In 500 years of Spanish feudalism, the land had never been concentrated in such few hands as has happened in the last 15 years due to drug trafficking. The statistics tell us that of the two-and-a-half million landowners that existed in 1984, 10,000 of them owned 32 percent of the arable land at that time. By the year 2001, of the now three-and-a-half million rural landowners, the 10,000 biggest ones owned 62.1 percent. They had practically dubbled their holdings. In just 15 years. That is the impact of narco-trafficking. The National Comptroller General’s Office, in one of those studies, shows that practically 4 to 6 million hectares (10-15 million acres), the most valuable ones, the most fertile, have passed into the hands of drug traffickers or their front-men.

Colombian’s governments have not been able to do anything, because the policy we have used to recuperate this land for Colombian society has been extinción de dominio [enforcing a loss of land title through legal process]. And the statistics show that we have been able to recover just 0.4 percent of that area for Colombian society through these legal processes. That is to say, today nearly 20 percent of the country’s arable land, the most fertile, is in the hands of drug traffickers.

We don’t have to just take Petro’s word for it; his claims are meticulously documented. Petro refers often to the national government’s own Comptroller General’s Office and its magazine, Economía Colombiana. If you read Spanish, take a look at Edition #309 of the magazine, published in 2005 and devoted entirely to “the agrarian question, democracy and peace.” In one article, Deputy Comptroller General Luis Bernardo Flórez Enciso writes:

[M]y essential point… is that the appropriation of land on the part of the drug traffickers is equivalent to an enormous agrarian counter-reform. This can be seen in two ways. On one hand, according to figures from INCORA [the government land institute], the drug traffickers have appropriated almost 50 percent of the best lands in the country, while nearly 70 percent of the landowners, especially the small farmers, now posses only 5 percent, as recorded in an illicit drug study by the United Nations Development Program and the Colombian National Narcotics Administration.

The Colombian State has been completely ineffective in taking advantage of the opportunity to confiscate titles for rural lands acquired illicitly, either to improve land distribution or stimulate production… In the current administration’s four-year Development Plan, the goal was to turn over 150,000 hectares [to small farmers], 110,000 of which would come from confiscated land titles. But in 2003 and 2004, just over 5,000 hectares were awarded, which is to say, 5 percent of the goal.

But let’s move to the heart of Petro’s argument, a bit of logic so clear and simple and difficult to refute it’s no wonder it threw the TLC’s promoters in the Colombian government into a fit. The senador argues that given what he calls the state’s failure to put land back into the hands of Colombia’s millions of law-abiding, hard-workng small farmers, and given the kind of agriculture that will dominate under the FTA, it will necessarily be Colombia’s class of gangster landlords who will reap the profits of this new trade arrangement.

If it were a positive agreement, that is to say, if it were to diminish the mafia’s power over the land, I would sign the Free Trade Agreement right now. But if the opposite is being shown, I believe we should think it over more than twice. And what we’ve got is this: of the 50 million hectares inside the Colombian agricultural frontier, the minister of agriculture says that 4.6 million are under cultivation. There are two major clases of crops there. First are those of one to three harvests a year – basically, grains like wheat, barley, rice, corn, et cetera, which are cultivated precisely because they offer quick yields for small farmers and small-to-medium businesses. Those crops cannot compete with the the same products in the United States because of prices. They will be ruined; farmers who grow these kinds of crops in Colombia will lower their production. That is to say, many peasant farmers, many small and medium-sized businesses, will be forced out of the market.

On the other hand, crops that take longer to yield – 10, 15, or 20 years from planting to first harvest – will be able to compete. African oil palm, lumber, rubber, and other crops like that. These require two conditions for cultivation in Colombia. First, great extensions of land under one producer. And second, a great amount of liquidity, in order to hold out for 8 or 10 years while waiting for production to start. And unfortunately, what has been shown is that in rural Colombia, those who meet those two conditions, those who have great expanses of land and enormous liquidity, are the drug traffickers and their front-men.

This is why the rural chapter of the FTA must be completely and comprehensively renegotiated. We have proposed beginning to talk about a Fair Trade Agreement, that takes these conditions into account. We have proposed that we create new clauses about reserves for rural food production in Colombia, which protect the small and medium-sized business and the small farmer, precisely so that he can extend his production over the land now under the control of the mafia. We even say to the Colombian government that if it is capable of recovering those 6 million hectares from the mafia and turning them over to the small farmers and small-and-medium-sized businesses, we’ll sign the Free Trade Agreement right now if they want.

Now, what I have seen, is that they really want to hide this kind of reality.

Why would Colombia’s government want to hide this reality? Why would its Congress approve the FTA given the land situation in the country? A big reason is that Uribista parties have a majority in Congress, and Uribe has made the FTA with the United States perhaps his most sought goal in his second term (well, defeating the leftist insurgency would probably rank first, but he knows as well as anyone else this isn’t going to happen). Many legislators literally campaign on slogans like “100 percent Uribista, guaranteed!” promising to vote however the president tells them, no matter what their constituents actually want. And as the ever-widening “para-politics” scandal is revealing, the Uribista parties, the right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers form a sometimes inseparable network.

Another reason is that, as economist Hector Mondragon noted in 2006, nearly 70 percent of Colombia’s congressmen are among the country’s 15,000 biggest landowners (a “select group” that represents just 0.4 percent of the country’s population). In other words, folks who stand to profit personally from an FTA that favors giant haciendas, and who have no interest in talking of dangerous things like land reform.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gutierrez’ Dog-and-Pony Show for Legislators

Petro’s appearance in the U.S. added a new side to discussion of the agreement in Washington. The more well-known debate around the FTA until now has been that of Democrats questioning whether Colombia has “earned” an agreement with the U.S. by reducing attacks on trade unionists.

So let’s take a look at the current state of the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. The agreement was inked between the Bush and Uribe administrations in November 2006. Both houses of Colombia’s Congress very narrowly approved the FTA in mid June (85 of 164 representativs and 55 of 102 senators voting yes, with many of the rest boycotting the vote.) On June 29, Congressional leaders announced they would not sign an agreement until progress was shown on human and labor rights, and in demobilizing far-right narco-paramilitary fighters.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez has since led a number of delegations of U.S. lawmakers to Colombia on carefully scripted tours talking to FTA supporters, and no one else. There have been three of these tours so far – the last one wrapped up just last week – and each one has been an impressive exercise in the kind of reality control Bush and Uribe have become so good at.

The most outrageous parts of these little legislative field trips have come in the city of Medellin, Uribe’s most loyal power base. There, Gutierrez tried to present an image of happy union leaders free from violence under Uribe and anxious for the U.S. to sign the FTA. The national daily El Tiempo reported on one such visit by lawmakers on September 17:

They met on Saturday for nearly an hour, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Antioquia’s capital, with union leaders like Gerardo Sánchez, president of the Textiles Rionegro union, Walter Navarro, president of the Union of Public Company Professionals of Medellín, Jairo Rey, of the Valle del Cauca department’s fruit sector, and Luir Germán Restrepo, present of the packers’ union Sintraempaques.

The unionists explained to the North Americans why they support the Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

“The FTA brings more benefits than difficulties. If it is not signed, what is going to happen to more than 200,000 jobs that depend on the flower industry, other 200,000 in bananas and many more in the textile industry? We are 75 unions that support the agreement,” said Restrepo.

This was an amazingly dishonest show that the gringo politicians were getting. Opinion polls consistently show the FTA to have the support of just barely half the Colombian people – sometimes much less, depending on how the question is phrased. Expressions of suspicion or outright rejection of the FTA are common on the streets of Bogotá, even among president Uribe’s supporters. (One thing your correspondent has learned again and again here is that many of Uribe’s supporters are what we call single-issue voters in the U.S. The vague concept of “security” Uribe promises often trumps economic and social issues in a society tired of civil war.)

And among organized workers and farmers, who have access to much more information on the issue than other poor Colombians, support for the agreement is practically zero. On September 24, the United Workers’ Federation (CUT, the country’s principal labor organization, similar to the AFL-CIO), surprised and embarrassed at such statements by its own members, put out a press release clarifying its position:

The union spokesmen present at the meeting… do not represent more than 0.25 percent of the unionized workers in this country, if it is even the case that their rank and file have authorized them to express this support, something we have serious doubts actually occurred.

To the U.S. lawmakers, dependent on their English translators and unfamiliar with Latin American political realities, this must have been an impressive show – seventy-five unions! But like so much of the evidence the Bush administration tends to trot out before Congress and the public before making a terrible decision, it was all an illusion created by spin-doctors. Senador Petro got a taste of this as well, as he told Caracol Radio:

Here [in Washington], I found out that there has been a series of visits by US. congressmen dedicated to studying these issues in Colombia, and their agendas are manipulated. I just found out, for example, that the last ones who came were interested in talking with me, and I never got their invitation. I’ve had to come to Washington just to be able to be able to discuss these points, which we could have easily done in Colombia were it not for that manipulation.

The lies and deception only got worse when the topic turned to the unbelievable level of violence against union organizers, the topic on which the AFL-CIO has been most vocal about its pressure on Congress, and about which Democrats have expressed most concern. As El Tiempo reports in the same article:

To the question from the Democrats on assassinations of trade unionists, the leaders gathered there responded that no one had died in five years due to their union activity, but rather due to internal problems of the country’s armed conflict.

One union leader at the meeting, Luis Germán Restrepo Maldonado of the packers’ union, went even farther, saying, “in 35 years of union activity I haven’t seen anyone killed for being an organizer. Neither the state nor the bosses persecute us. The ones who do that are the groups outside the law, who fight between themselves.” In other words, readers, for those of you not accustomed to the euphemisms of the Colombian right, the 510 union organizers killed from 2002 to 2006 (Uribe’s first term in office) were actually either guerrillas in unionists’ clothing (the paramilitaries’ favorite explanation for massacring civilians) or just random civilian casualties of a civil war completely unconnected to big industry and unionism.

But the issues Petro is trying to bring to the Democrats’ attention are much more important than all this, and should have a central place in discussion of the FTA in the media. Because, in a way, the question of union assassinations, while vital and revealing, is a distraction from issues even more important to Colombians. If the FTA were a good thing for the Colombian people, it would be counterproductive to block it just to punish their president for “insufficient progress” on human rights. And if it is a deal that will benefit the corrupt, landed elite and the narco-mafia that has gained so much ground under Uribe and his predecessors, at the expense of small farmers and businesses, shouldn’t it be opposed no matter how much “progress” the government can show?

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