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April 03, 2008

Trade on the Trail: Obama v. Uribe

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) made a speech to the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO yesterday that called for an overhaul of our trade policy. Here's the key quote:

But what I refuse to accept is that we have to sign trade deals like the South Korea Agreement that are bad for American workers. What I oppose - and what I have always opposed - are trade deals that put the interests of multinational corporations ahead of the interests of Americans workers - like NAFTA, and CAFTA, and permanent normal trade relations with China.

And I'll also oppose the Colombia Free Trade Agreement if President Bush insists on sending it to Congress because the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements. So you can trust me when I say that whatever trade deals we negotiate when I'm President will be good for American workers, and that they'll have strong labor and environmental protections that we'll enforce.

Obama touched on two themes that are obvious but rarely spoken in polite political circles: one, there is a severe imbalance in our trade policy against the public interest in favor of corporations; two, that it's a mockery of human dignity to even consider signing a trade deal with a country that is the union murder capital of the world.

The bold statement didn't win him any friends in Colombia's right-wing government, which has attached its hellish political sails to the outgoing Bush administration. According to the AP:

Colombia's president sharply criticized U.S. presidential contender Barack Obama on Wednesday for opposing a trade deal with his country, calling the Democrat out of touch with the realities of the South American nation.

The White House is urging Congress to approve the agreement, which would remove most tariffs on American exports and cement Colombia's preferential trade status with the United States.

But Illinois Sen. Obama said Wednesday he would oppose the deal.

"I deplore the fact that Senator Obama, aspiring to be president of the United States, should be unaware of Colombia's efforts," President Alvaro Uribe said in a statement. "I think it is for political calculations that he is making a statement that does not correspond to Colombia's reality."

Okay, I realize that the news that was trying to be reported here was the Uribe and Obama spat. But to describe the monstrous (what is it about Barack that makes people use that word?!) 600-plus page FTA does far more (and far more harm) that the innocuous-sounding summary "would remove most tariffs on American exports and cement Colombia's preferential trade status with the United States."

For folks covering the campaign, this short blurbs are a great opportunity to move past the horse race and dig a touch deeper on the issue. Here's just a few thoughts for things to insert:

  1. If FTAs are just about tariff reduction, why are they hundreds of pages, while only a few pages deal with tariff reduction? What accounts for the opposition of such a wide swath of Americans and environmental and consumer groups who don't work on tariffs? Could it be the corporate privileges which allow foreign investors to claim taxpayer-funded compensation for having to comply with the same public interest laws which domestic firms must comply?
  2. What's up with this narrative - paid for by the super-expensive Uribe lobbying outfits - that the Colombia FTA would help our foreign policy initiatives? If voters across Latin America are electing candidates that reject our failed trade model, how is our Latin America policy helped by shoving NAFTA-style trade policy on the one outlier government in the region, and one that doesn't seem to mind playing favorites in our domestic electoral processes? Doesn't sound like much of a foreign policy to me.

Another issue to probe is what role the candidates envision for U.S. multinationals in the global economy. I had the great misfortune to read the cases brought by the estates of murdered Coca-Cola workers against the company. Among the highlights: In 2001, the International Labor Rights Fund and United Steelworkers of America brought a civil case for equitable relief and damages against Coca-Cola and its Colombian bottlers on behalf of the estate of a murdered Coca-Cola plant worker (Isidro Segundo Gil) and of five other plant workers who were tortured, kidnapped and/or otherwise injured. According to the plaintiff’s complaint:

“The claims in this case arise from Defendants’ wrongful actions in connection with their production, bottling and distribution of Coke products in Colombia. With respect to their business operations in Colombia, the Defendants hired, contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilized extreme violence and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced trade union leaders of the Union representing workers at Defendants’ facilities. The individual Plaintiffs have been subjected to serious human rights abuses, including murder, extrajudicial killing, kidnapping, unlawful detention, and torture in violation of the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), 28 U.S.C. §1350, the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA), international human rights law, and the common tort law of the state of Florida. Further, Defendants, their alter egos and/or their agents engaged in a conspiracy to cause physical and mental harm to Plaintiffs in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. § 1961 et seq.”

In 2003, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed this case on jurisdictional grounds. In 2006, a similar case that is still pending was brought against Coca-Cola and its Colombian bottlers on behalf of the wife and estate of another murdered Coca-Cola workerThe number of unionized workers at Coca-Cola's Colombia plants dropped precipitously after these fear campaigns. As a result, we've seen heightened congressional scrutiny, corporate shareholder protests and university Coke boycotts.

This is the same Coke, ahem, pushing the Colombia FTA. How is doling out legislative victories to corporations that have provoked such animosity abroad helping the long-term interests of Americans? What do the candidates have to say about these crucial issues?

(Disclosure: Global Trade Watch has no preference among the candidates.)

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