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Death Threats Remain Rampant Under Obama's Colombia FTA

Shame on the Obama administration: Two years after it announced its "Labor Action Plan" to grease passage of a Bush-negotiated Free Trade Agreement (FTA), death threats against Colombian unionists persist unabated.

Remember then-candidate Obama's passionate confrontation with McCain during the last presidential debate, explaining why he opposed the U.S.-Colombia FTA: "We have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn't being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights."

Yet in April 2012, as anti-union repression rose in Colombia, President Obama travelled to Cartagena to announce the implementation of the FTA, declaring: "this agreement is a win for our workers and the environment because of the strong protections it has for both -- commitments we are going to fulfill."

What change in Colombia could possibly have led a Democratic president to implement a trade agreement over the objections of Democrats in Congress with the country infamous around the world for its violence against unionists? The number of death threats against unionists had not abated, and unionist assassinations remained rampant.

The only difference was the Labor Action Plan, touted by the administration but decried by U.S. and Colombian unions and the policymakers in both countries who had long led the fight to end the deadly repression of basic rights in Colombia.

Now, a full two years after the Obama administration announced the Labor Action Plan, Colombia remains the world's deadliest place to be a union member. Unionists in Colombia received 471 death threats in the year after the Plan was launched -- exactly the same yearly number as in the two years before the Plan, according to the Escuela Nacional Sindical, the group recognized in the Plan as an authoritative source of monitoring data. This number is even more shocking when one considers the diminished ranks of unionists in Colombia, where more than 3,000 union members have been assassinated since 1986 and many have fled to exile. Meanwhile, many of the accused in the more than 2,000 unionist murder cases remain free.

If that wasn't enough, violent mass displacements of Colombians rose 83 percent in 2012, adding to the five million who have been forced from their homes and their land in the world's largest internal displacement crisis. Since the FTA's 2011 passage, horrific violence and forced displacement has increased in venues targeted for development under the FTA, such as the port of Buenaventura.

Should these disturbing numbers come as a shock? Unfortunately not. U.S. and Colombian unions and human rights organizations warned the Obama administration that the FTA would exacerbate the forced displacements and other acts of political violence that far too many Colombians face on a daily basis. In the same way that the U.S.-Oman FTA has shielded that country from U.S. economic sanctions as the government has brutalized the country's "Arab Spring" movement, the Colombia FTA signaled to Colombia's government and business elite that its interests were secured regardless of human rights abuses.

Among the unionists who have received death threats since the FTA went into effect is Jhonsson Torres, a sugar cane worker who came to Washington to plead with members of Congress not to approve the FTA until labor protections improved. One year ago, as Obama was declaring the FTA ready for implementation, the general secretary of Jhonsson's union, who had also been a target of death threats, was shot and killed while walking with his wife.

Despite members of Congress, labor unions and human rights groups in Colombia and the United States pointing out to the Obama administration the many deficiencies in the Labor Action Plan and the lunacy of implementing the FTA before any real improvement could be measured, the sad reality is a failed promise to fix the horrifying daily situations of Colombian workers.

Maybe the most infuriating fact in this tragic ordeal is the flip-flop from the trade reform agenda President Obama campaigned on in 2008 to the retrograde trade agreements that the administration is negotiating today, including a massive 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership FTA. In formulating this agreement, which includes Vietnam -- a country that the U.S. State Department cited last year for child labor and "antiunion discrimination." The administration is taking no incoming data on the labor rights debacle in Colombia. Nor is it considering how the U.S. trade deficit with Korea has grown 34 percent under implementation of the U.S.-Korea FTA, also passed in 2011.

Doing more of the same while trying to sell the American public on the notion that these next agreements will have different outcomes is more than dishonest.

With all of the talk about Obama's focus on his legacy, certainly violent repression of human rights and lost American jobs is not the desired narrative. The Obama administration is responsible for ignoring the warning signs and implementing the U.S.-Colombia agreement. Now what will it do to reverse the horrible trend of violence? And will it now stop selling anti-worker FTAs on the basis of empty promises?