Though it has received scant press here, the Colombian media recently and enthusiastically reported that Jimmy Carter, after allegedly "resolving his anxieties" about the labor situation in Colombia, would champion Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's bid for the Colombian Free Trade Agreement (FTA) - an agreement which Democrats have forcefully opposed and which Barack Obama himself is against. This news followed Carter's recent sit-down visit with President Uribe in Georgia and was based on President Uribe's representations thereafter that Carter would assist him in urging Congressional Democrats to pass the FTA.
Surprised by this information, I contacted the Carter Center and received the following reply by e-mail:
"PC [President Carter] has not yet adopted a public position. Uribe met with him during his recent visit to Atlanta. The media made its own interpretation. The Carter Center information office issued a clarification but it has not have [sic.] the same impact."
Indeed, it was not the fault of the media for getting this information wrong. Rather, it was the fault of President Uribe who misled the press on this issue, just as his administration attempted to mislead the U.S. Congress in the spring of 2007 in another failed attempt to obtain passage of the FTA. At that time, a delegation of the Colombian government falsely claimed to Congress that the former director of the DAS (the Colombia's FBI) was innocent of the charge of passing a list of unionists to the paramilitaries to kill. In fact, as Gerardo Reyes of the Miami Herald later reported, Colombia's own office of the Fiscalia (Prosecutor) had concluded months prior to this false claim that the DAS director had in fact passed this hit list to the paramilitaries.
It would be quite surprising indeed if President Carter, who is known as the "human rights president" and who has certainly committed his post-presidential years to the promotion of human rights, would in fact align himself with such unworthy causes as President Uribe and the Colombia FTA. In fact, this would mark a dramatic reversal from the Carter Center's position on this issue up till now.
As one spokesman for the Americas Program of the Carter Center, Associate Director Marcelo Varela-Erasheva, explained at a panel discussion which he and I jointly chaired at Emory Law School this past February, the FTA will only aggravate the horrendous humanitarian crisis in that country.
For example, the FTA would flood the Colombian market with cheap, government-subsidized food stuffs from the U.S., thereby displacing thousands of small farmers (who make up 23% of the Colombian population) who will be unable to compete with these products and who will therefore lose their livelihoods. This is exactly what happened to 1.3 million Mexican campesinos who were displaced by NAFTA's analogous agricultural provisions. The displaced Colombian farmers would join the ranks of the 3.8 million Colombians already displaced by the civil conflict in that country - the second largest internally-displaced community in the world -- thereby further exasperating an already abysmal humanitarian crisis.
Further, passage of the FTA would serve to ratify the horrendous human rights record of Colombia under the Uribe Administration. As the L.A. Times reported last week, the Colombian military has been credibly accused of engaging in the extra-judicial killing of 329 civilians in 2007 - a 48% increase from the 223 reported in 2006. This brings to 997 the total of civilians murdered by the Colombian military since President Uribe took office in the spring of 2002 -- a 65% increase over the five-year period preceding Uribe's inauguration. No other country in the Hemisphere even comes close to this atrocious record of state-sponsored violence against its own people.
In addition, Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists, with 2597 trade unionists killed since 1986 - a number unprecedented in the world. Since Uribe took office in 2002, 471 unionists have been killed, and the share of those killed by the official Colombian armed forces has increased under President Uribe's watch. As of my writing this article, 38 union leaders have been killed in Colombia so far this year. This is a rate of over one union leader killed a week. Should this pace continue until the end of the year, the rate of union killings in 2008 will far exceed the 39 union killings which took place during the entire year of 2007.
If this were not bad enough, President Uribe's government continues to sink under the weight of the growing para-political scandal in which a number of Uribe's close political associates (around 60 in all), including a number of pro-Uribe congresspeople, have been jailed for aiding the violent right-wing paramilitaries - paramilitaries which were designated as a "terrorist" group by the United States in 2001. Indeed, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal court in the The Hague, Luis Moreno Ocampo, is in Colombia now to investigate whether he can prosecute such pro-paramilitary officials under international law.
For Jimmy Carter to support Uribe and his lobbying effort for the Colombian FTA would be shocking indeed. As the Carter Center's own Americas Program recognizes, the passage of the FTA would bring further misery to the Colombian people and would represent a reward to Colombia - the country with the worst human and labor rights record in this Hemisphere. I urge President Carter to maintain the Center's continued opposition to the FTA - an opposition which has only become more justified by current events.