Today's announcement by the Obama administration of an "Action Plan" ostensibly aimed at addressing Colombia's horrific labor rights conditions is a remarkably cynical maneuver to facilitate passage of yet another of President Bush's leftover NAFTA-style Free Trade Agreements (FTA). With today's move, Obama takes ownership of a Colombia-Korea trade agreement package that poses enormous policy and political peril.
Passing the Korea deal would kill U.S. jobs - even the official government studies show it will increase the U.S. trade deficit. Passing the Colombia deal would kill any leverage Colombian union, Afro-Colombian and other community leaders and their U.S. union and civil society friends and allies have to stop the murders, forced displacements and other acts of political violence that dominate life in Colombia.
And even on the very week that President Obama announced his reelection bid, once again the administration's response to a GOP/corporate hostage situation has been to betray its commitments and stomp its political base to comply with hostage takers whose goal is Democrats' defeat.
In February, GOP congressional leaders made an evil genius move. If the Obama administration wanted credit with potential corporate donors for moving Bush's Korea FTA - the biggest NAFTA-style job-offshoring deal since NAFTA, beloved by Wall Street for its financial deregulation terms - then the ultimate price had to be paid: also move Bush's Colombia deal, reviled by labor and other key elements of the Democratic base.
Obama had the power to call the GOP's bluff. The Korea FTA remains under the extreme White House power rules of the Fast Track procedure. Fast Track votes are the only ones over which the White House controls timing. Under Fast Track, if the White House sends a trade pact to Congress, it gets an automatic vote within a set number of days. Stopping it would require the House GOP to take action.
Anyone care to bet that if the Obama administration made Speaker Boehner face this reality, he actually would pull the plug on the biggest dollar trade deal since China PNTR that every GOP corporate constituency is salivating over? (And passing the Korea deal alone would do plenty of political damage to Obama, given that a wide swath of Democratic base groups oppose it, if for no other reason than it is projected to increase the U.S. trade deficit and cost tens of thousands more manufacturing jobs.)
Yet, instead of countering the GOP gambit by exercising its strength, the administration scrambled through March to dust off basically the same list of easily doable "demands" that had been blasted by Democrats and labor during the Bush administration. The motivation was transparent: Enactment of this kabuki dance facilitated compliance with the GOP demands to move the Colombia FTA.
Statements from members of Congress, USW President Leo Gerard and AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka outline the extreme deficiencies in this sham "plan." (Also check out a statement from Ways and Means Ranking Member Sandy Levin, which is worryingly vague.) Last month, a group of six leading human and labor rights advocates in Congress submitted a document noting that the conditions in Colombia made considering any trade agreement unacceptable and setting forth some real benchmarks for improvement. This adds to the long-standing demands of TransAfrica and American and Colombian unions for real reform. All ignored.
Obviously, if the goal of this administration action was to actually address the conditions in Colombia - where the number of unionist assassinations has grown during the period of maximum congressional and public scrutiny, from 37 when the FTA was signed in 2007 to 51 in 2010 - a very different approach would be undertaken.
To start with, the administration would have adopted the recommendations of those in Congress, unions and other civil society groups who have taken the lead on these issues. Instead, the White House sprung a done deal that meets none of the congressional benchmarks and requires no change in outcomes in the horrible human and labor rights violations suffered daily in Colombia before a trade agreement may be considered.
Instead of rushing into an easy-to-meet list of changes to laws and agencies in Colombia, which can be done largely with the stroke of a pen, the administration would have required demonstrated changes on the ground - a serious reduction of unionist and other rights defenders' murders, successful prosecution of some of the thousands of impunity cases - and then conditioned consideration of any trade pact on such changes in reality. Ninety-seven percent of the past murders remain unprosecuted.
And, the terms of a real initiative would have been enforceable as part of a trade agreement - with consequences related to loss of trade benefits for failure to maintain real improvements. Instead, this plan is all optics, an informal bilateral plan of action. And contrary to administration claims, many aspects of it fall outside the weak labor chapter in the FTA text, which relates only to "trade related" labor issues. Finally, a real plan for change would have explicitly addressed the documented and escalating human rights abuses, murders and forced displacement of Afro-Colombians, indigenous people and other vulnerable populations.
However, the administration's goal was not to make a serious agreement to deliver real change, but to get something that could be announced when Colombian President Santos visited the White House today.
So, today we face a situation - an Obama Colombia-Korea NAFTA expansion - that is equal parts damaging, heartbreaking, infuriating and disgusting. Does anyone even remember that there was supposed to be change we could believe in?