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January 29, 2008

The Colombian Corporate Agenda... from the inside

Today, at an event at the Council of the Americas, a corporate organization, I was introduced to a delegation of corporate CEOs from Colombia: David Bojanini of South American Insurance, Manuel Carvajal of the Carvajal Corp., Antonio Celia of Promigas and Francisco Diaz of the Corona Organization.

The event was introduced as a discussion of whether the "free trade agreement" would help improve Colombia, but amongst the diverse panel made up entirely of CEOs of Colombia's corporations (but from different geographic regions, perhaps? Though not even sure about that...), no one said that the FTA would be a bad idea, omitting the perspective of most civil society groups in Colombia and not leading to much of a discussion.

Each businessman outlined their commitment to improving life in Colombia. Antonio Celia said, "we provide jobs...hoping that they [workers] will be compensated with commitment and personal reward." (I'm sure most Colombians would prefer a living wage)

They also said that as opposed to Mexico pre-NAFTA, Colombia's corporations have a real sense of social responsibility and the problems were different in Mexico. (a  reminder that drugs were one of the major issues during the NAFTA debate and last I heard most of our cocaine still comes from Colombia...?)

Bojanini said that he is "very concerned about the well-being of our employees. We have deep respect for our labor unions - many of our companies have unions. We support free association." (and still the most dangerous country for unionists in the world)

After going on about all the contributions of what they admitted was not a representative sample of Colombian CEOs, Francisco Diaz strained to say, "we're trying to tie this into the FTA..."

There was also the obligatory exchange about Venezuela and Chavez (that "purveyor of false populism" Bush mentioned last night in the State of the Union). The CEOs cited that the #1 market for Colombia corporations is the U.S. and #2 is Venezuela. The businessmen also said that the private sector has no control over this and will continue to send the "wrong signal" by exporting to Venezuela, but the government can't send the "wrong signal" by rejecting the trade agreement, because the top two exporters might switch places and then the world will end!!! ahhh!! This was an especially interesting statement given the frame of this forum as about Corporate Social Responsibility, but I guess by this point they had forgotten the corporate responsibility part...

The CEOs were also excited to announce that they were adopting a few conventions of a Human Rights Code of Conduct that they had written. I would think that since they wrote it they would sign up for all of it, but apparently some of the private-sector written Human Rights Conduct just went too far in supporting human rights.

And then they assured the people around the table including a few reporters that this forum and this trip was in fact "not a PR effort." (Well, at least with only the two reporters who showed up and the arguments full of holes, it wasn't a very successful PR effort.) 

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