Helda Martínez

By Helda Martínez
BOGOTA, Nov 21 2006 (IPS) — Indigenous and black people, trade unionists and victims of the armed conflict in Colombia are preparing to fight the ratification of the free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States, which will be signed by the trade ministers of both countries Wednesday in Washington.

The signing of the free trade agreement (FTA) is taking place less than 40 days before the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) expires, on Dec. 31. The ATPDEA provides duty-free access to some 5,600 products from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

The FTA will now go to the legislatures of the two countries for ratification.

The sector that accounts for the biggest volume of exports to the United States in Colombia is the cut flower industry, with 700 million dollars a year in exports, according to the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters (ASOCOLFLORES).

The industry generates jobs for around 95,000 people.

Workers in the industry, 65 percent of whom are women, report abuses in hiring, long workdays, and careless handling of pesticides that leads to frequent and serious health problems.

Nevertheless, the possibility that the ATPDEA will not be extended is a source of concern to the workers, who depend on exports of flowers to the United States to survive.

“On Oct. 13, Dole began to cut its output in Colombia, which led to the loss of 3,000 jobs. If the ATPDEA is not extended, if the price of flowers sold to the United States goes up, the consequences will be felt by the workers, who would be hit hardest,” Aura Rodríguez, head of the non-governmental Corporación Cactus which advocates for the defence and protection of flower industry workers, told IPS.

The extension of the APTDEA will be debated by the U.S. Congress Dec. 4-8, when the Republicans will still hold a majority in both houses.

But after the legislators elected on Nov. 7 take office in January, the Democrats – more reluctant to ratify free trade agreements – will have a majority in Congress.

The negotiations for the FTA between Colombia and the United States began in May 2004 and were completed in February. The English and Spanish versions of the document were then compared and revised.

“The FTA will be studied next year by the legislatures of both countries,” economist Ricardo Bonilla at the public National University of Colombia told IPS. “It’s easy to predict that it will be approved in Colombia, taking into account that Uribe has the backing of a majority of lawmakers.”

“In the United States, with a Congress controlled by the Democrats, modifications are expected before it is ratified – modifications that could benefit Colombians at different levels,” he added.

For example, “the question of protection of the lives of trade unionists, an issueàof greater interest to the Democrats. And of course, an issue of interest to Colombians.”

Rightwing President Alvaro Uribe recently stated that “The trade unions know that we will have an uphill battle in the U.S. Congress for ratification of the FTA, because Colombia is attacked all the time there over the murders of union leaders.”

“But it should be clarified that when this government took office, 165 union leaders a year were killed. And last year, only 12 were killed,” he added.

Tarcisio Rivera, one of the heads of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), said his trade union federation is worried about the lives of unionists, but also by the damages that they believe the FTA would cause to the Colombian economy.

“The defence of the lives of trade unionists is important of course. But that does not keep us from also taking a hard look at the damages that the signing of the FTA would cause in agriculture, and in terms of intellectual property, and above all, with respect to the U.S. intention of gaining access to cheap labour in Latin American countries,” he said.

Senator Jorge Robledo of the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole said the FTA between Colombia and the United States is “the worst in Latin America” given “the enormous inequalities” between the agricultural sectors in the two countries.

He cited a study by local experts, “Evaluation of the Agricultural Negotiations in the Colombia-United States FTA”, which warns that Colombia will suffer losses in a number of areas: wheat, barley, corn, rice, sorghum, beans, soybeans, chicken and pork.

For instance, the U.S. negotiators got the Colombians to agree to tariff-free imports of certain kinds of chicken, Robledo pointed out.

According to the senator, the most significant aspect of the study is that it reveals that the Colombian negotiators achieved almost none of what they set out to do, “even though their aspirations were already mediocre.”

Bogota accepted “an FTA that is worse than the others that Washington has signed with Latin America, which is already saying a lot, because those agreements have also been very damaging,” said Robledo.

The FTA is also opposed by indigenous and black communities and victims of Colombia’s four-decade civil war.


Comments are closed.