Consensus Builds on Free Trade Deals, Alongside Proof of Their Toll

On the same day this month, the president backed a Colombia pact he campaigned against, and new memos revealed how complicit Chiquita has been in anti-union violence.

By Michelle Chen Apr 18, 2011

The National Security Archive, an independent research group, released this month a series of documents raising disturbing new questions about the relationship between the Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International and a lethal web of guerrilla and paramilitary groups in Colombia. The documents reveal the company’s internal discussion from 1990 to 2003 of money it shelled out to the paramilitary groups, many of which have been linked to systematic killings of unionists and other activists. The company has said the payments were extortion; the new memos suggest Chiquita benefited from the arrangement.

But a federal investigation into links between the company and the killings it may have financed is already closed. Chiquita brokered a 2007 plea deal in which it paid a $25 million fine to make the matter go away, leaving the bananas in your local produce aisle untarnished today. Blood evaporates quickly from the fruits of so-called free trade in Latin America.

On the same day as NSA’s document release, the White House threw its backing behind a new free trade deal with Colombia. The deal is a George W. Bush holdover that President Obama campaigned against and that labor groups here and in Colombia still staunchly oppose. The deal had been held up by concerns over violence against union activists, but with Obama’s endorsement it now awaits action on Capitol Hill. 

Trade debates have been drowned out lately in the din of the deficit battle in Washington. But there’s a link between the push for fiscal austerity and the rush to expand foreign commerce. While lawmakers slash social programs and dish out more tax breaks to the wealthy, it’s clear that the budget equation can’t add up without a new source of economic growth. And this is where politicians roll out the free-trade mantra. 

Both Republicans and Democrats have recited it to impress corporate donors, quell workers’ anxieties over jobs, and generally distract voters from the economic turmoil in their districts by pointing to the mystical beacon of fallow markets overseas. The less savory aspects are overlooked, things such as what NSA researcher Michael Evans described to Inter Press Service* as ‘"Chiquita’s apparent quid pro quo with guerrillas and paramilitaries responsible for countless killings." 

So a number of long-pending trade deals–with Colombia, but also with Panama and South Korea–are moving toward passage under the halo of job creation, riding on Obama’s campaign to expand U.S. exports. They are all deals the president campaigned against. Business Week reports that Caterpillar lobbied particularly hard for the Colombia deal; the country’s mining industry makes it a top export market for construction equipment. Congress’ Easter recess, which began this weekend, is expected to be filled with intense lobbying for the Panama deal.

"The Obama administration has not addressed the substance of President Obama’s own criticisms as a candidate or Senator," Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach told Roll Call, "but despite that, they’re going to try to shove these agreements through Congress."

Labor and consumer groups have warned of devastating implications for jobs, environmental protections and human rights in all the countries involved in these deals. Such criticisms are routinely dismissed as protectionist paranoia. But critics can point to a major case study for how trade liberalization unfolds on our northern and southern borders. Since the mid-1990s, the North American Free Trade Agreement has linked the U.S., Canada and Mexico in a tangle of trade rules that have been blamed for job losses, the erosion of domestic regulatory and legal systems, and the immigration and economic crises in both the U.S. and Mexico.

Still, proposals for bilateral free trade agreements have continued to spread around the planet, from the Andes to the Middle East–all billed as win-win deals for U.S. industries and agriculture that, somehow, also foster development in poorer economies. For American workers, however, free trade has only encouraged the offshoring of once-solid industries, from factories to information technology.

"Any of the jobs that would be created [by the pending deals] are not living wage jobs," says Kristen Beifus of the Washington Fair Trade Coalition. "Either here or in South Korea or in Colombia, it is actually hurting living wage jobs. And if any jobs are created, they are in the unorganized, poverty-wage service sector."

For poor people living in so-called partner countries, free trade has ushered in a new era of neocolonial exploitation. The deregulation of agriculture under NAFTA, for instance, coincided with the devastation of Mexico’s farm sector, displacing some one million farmers and driving many northward across the border in search of work.

NAFTA’s slimmer twin, the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (or CAFTA, which also includes El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica) has further rattled the region’s fragile economy. Small and middling farmers in El Salvador, according to the advocacy group SHARE El Salvador, have faced an assault of U.S. imports into newly exposed markets for rice, corn and other essential products.

But given the not-too-distant history revealed in NSA’s document release, the biggest concern in the Colombia deal may be labor rights in a country where standing up for workers can be a death sentence. Obama’s backing comes with some measures added to the deal that aim to protect labor activists. Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch has blasted both President Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for failing to strengthen human rights provisions enough. At least 51 unionists were killed in 2010, a death toll that’s up slightly from the year before. 

According to Human Rights Watch, "While most union killings have never been investigated, there is considerable evidence that right-wing paramilitary organizations and their successor groups are responsible for the largest share of these crimes," including massacres and rapes. And yet the labor provisions of the pending trade deal "avoid an issue at the heart of the problem: the continued operation of the powerful armed groups behind the bulk of anti-union violence and other abuses."

Meanwhile, fair-trade activists say the South Korean deal would enable companies to undermine basic protections for workers, farmers and consumers. Opponents fear the deal would leave small farmers defenseless against invasions of subsidized agricultural imports. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, on the other hand, presents this as a ripe opportunity for U.S. exporters. 

The deal could also mow down U.S. auto workers and hurt the environment at the same time, by opening up Korea to Big Three imports, with clunkier models that tend to belch more carbon. The United Auto Workers supports the deal, which has helped cover Obama’s backing of it. But the AFL-CIO and many other Korean and U.S. labor and civil society groups counter that workforces in both countries would suffer from the removal of trade protections.

"Labor movements in both countries have come out strongly against the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement," said Seung Hye Suh of the Korea Policy Institute. Noting that Mexican and U.S. workers saw massive job losses in the wake of NAFTA, she added, "They understand this is an attack on workers’ rights, it’s not about strengthening jobs in one country versus another."

The corporate interests in the trade debate are inlaid with more complex geopolitical factors as well. South Korea serves as Washington’s buffer zone against North Korea’s dictatorship, while Colombia is a key ally in Washington’s Latin American drug war, where the White House is deploying a strategy akin to the one that has wrought such havoc in Mexico. 

The bottom line is that there’s more to these trade agreements than the rhetorical promise of new jobs and new markets. But despite the grim experience of NAFTA, Washington still shies away from taking a tough stance on fair rules for wages, labor conditions and small farms. Instead, political opportunists exploit globalization to break down trade barriers for corporations–and in turn erect barriers to opportunity for everybody else.

*A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the news outlet that quoted Michael Evans.