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Beyond Free Trade with Colombia

Posted: 05/27/11 04:11 PM ET

A spate of recent editorials in major U.S. press outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and in the Wall Street Journal (again) are disappointingly short-sighted and reflect a sadly parochial view of our economic and foreign policy interests. The Colombian Foreign Minister meets Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday and a few reasons to question the seemingly unanimous chorus are in order.

Anyone familiar with, or remotely concerned about, the realities of the fifty-year conflict in Colombia would realize that our policy package has to go beyond the mechanics of free trade and their domestic political implications here in the U.S. I am not referring to the concerns of unionists in the States about free trade deals exporting jobs overseas or the data that indicates free trade enriches subsidized industrial agriculture in the U.S. and decimates local agriculture in the partner country, though these are important sources of concern.

If you just have a look at the working conditions of port workers in Buenaventura or know the history of an entire union-based political party that was annihilated by targeted assassination or are aware that Colombia has led the world in number of trade unionists murdered for over a decade and understand how little justice has been done, then you might have cause for listening to the complaints of labor activists. Since announcing our free trade action plan with Colombia, a labor rights lawyer was gunned down in Cali and two teacher union activists were killed in Cordoba.

If you know that the U.S. has funded support for more than a decade of over $7 billion known as Plan Colombia that has largely gone to the Colombian military and that, during the same period, the armed forces are accused of murdering 2,547 civilians and presenting them as combat kills; there are now 27,000 forced disappearances in Colombia -- numbers similar to the most horrific cases in the region like Argentina and Guatemala; and that Colombia now leads the world in the number of internally displaced persons, 5 million, fleeing violence, then you might consider our policy needs more than formulas that benefit business interests.

What's being packaged as rewarding an ally and snubbing our detractors in the region is dubious, at best. By making free trade our banner issue, along with Plan Colombia, our other most notable (and equally questionable) contribution to Colombia over the last decade, it's easy to understand why the "anti-imperialist" bluster from our detractors in the region continues to garner receptive audiences.

A wiser option would be for the U.S. to pursue a multilateral peace agenda with our Colombian government partners. President Juan Manuel Santos' favorability ratings have soared as high as 90%, giving him the political capital necessary to lead for peace. FARC rebels have been weakened and may be reaching out for a credible exit to their fifty-year insurgency. In mid-April, the leader of the ELN appealed for a "political solution" to the Colombian conflict. We should not be naïve about the goals and tactics of these groups but Colombia has a successful record of demobilizing insurgencies from the 1980s and 90s; a negotiated solution may be preferable to the guerrilla groups dividing into hundreds of more criminal groups across Colombia; and public opinion polls indicate 74% of Colombians want their government to dialogue with the insurgencies.

Leading for peace is more reflective of American democratic values than negotiating for more military bases or a trade deal that arguably only enriches elite interests while continuing to downplay the massive human rights and labor rights injustices in Colombia. It would help Colombia and the U.S. transcend the negative images perpetrated by populist demagogues across the region. These same countries could also be enlisted in a multilateral effort and asked to help ensure that the FARC and ELN comply with agreements.

Our foreign policy has to be about more than the goals of "the one percent," as notably characterized in an April article in Vanity Fair by Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz. American leadership for peace, accountable and egalitarian democracy and human rights resonates around the world. We should live up to those standards in our foreign policy and urge our allies to do so as well. The original free traders, Cobden and Smith, were on to this. They believed trade between nations would decrease the possibilities of their going to war. Now is the time to move beyond free trade and lead for peace in Colombia.

Line is executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego