No to free trade with Colombia

By  Rusa Jeremic, Catholic Register Special
  • June 20, 2008

{mosimage}In April 2001 my friend Kimy Pernia Domicó, leader of the Embera Katio, travelled from his home in Colombia’s rainforest to Quebec City to join tens of thousands of others from across the Americas in a resounding call for an end to the now defunct Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) project.

Kimy knew that free trade would bring more hardship to his people. The Urrá I dam, a project that received partial financing from Canada’s Export Development Corporation, had already threatened their very existence.  Since the dam construction, fish in the river disappeared and the Embera — robbed of their main source of protein — fell sick from malnutrition. The standing water created outbreaks of malaria and the dam’s reservoir flooded Embera homes and lands.

Kimy knew he was risking his life by speaking out against the injustices his people had endured, but he also knew it had to be done.  

On June 2, 2001, members of one of Colombia’s notorious paramilitary groups abducted Kimy at gunpoint. A hero in the struggle for justice in Colombia, his disappearance sent shock waves across Canada. Thousands of Canadians, including 56 parliamentarians from all parties, demanded his safe return.

By November 2004, the FTAA project was at a standstill. Yet that did not stop the United States or Canada from aggressively pursuing a bilateral free trade deal with a country with the worst human rights record in the hemisphere. And, still there was no word on Kimy’s whereabouts.

In the last 20 years, 70,000 people have been killed in Colombia, most of them victims of paramilitary groups. The United Nations declares Colombia the worst humanitarian crisis.  And now, as each day passes more and more connections between the government, congressmen and notorious paramilitary forces — responsible for thousands of disappearances and extra-judicial executions — are coming to light.  

Even in the United States, in spite of President George W. Bush’s efforts, Congress has refused to vote and thus pass the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Citing concerns over violence and the para-political scandal, the deal remains shelved.

Yet Canada continues to push forward, rushing its negotiations to conclusion in early June. Meanwhile Prime Minister Stephen Harper has become a spokesperson for free trade with Colombia by publicly trying to influence the U.S. Congress.

This hasty deal will worsen the human rights crisis in Colombia. As Kimy showed us, in this resource rich country, the conflict is ripe for exploitation by foreign business. Those who oppose it end up disappeared, tortured and dead. Under the proposed deal, corporate rights threaten to trump and weaken any existing community rights.

Harper must recognize that Colombia is in a serious political crisis. More than 100 former and current senators and government representatives had been implicated in having ties to paramilitary forces. Significantly, Colombian President Alvaro Uribé’s cousin, former Senator Mario Uribé, was arrested on April 22 on charges of “promoting illegal groups.” This para-political scandal shows no signs of abating as it delves deeper into the president’s own connections to illegal para-military groups. To most observers, including the U.S. Congress, the people Harper supports are rapidly losing legitimacy.

With the declaration of Salvatore Mancuso — one of Colombia’s paramilitary leaders — we now know with certainty that paramilitaries, acting on high-level orders, confessed to kidnapping, torturing and assassinating Kimy Pernia Domicó. We also know that, fearing the massive mobilizations and protests calling for Kimy’s return, these paramilitaries unearthed Kimy’s body and threw it in a river in a supreme act of cowardice. To date, we still do not know where full responsibility for this inhumane crime resides.

With negotiations for the Canadian agreement aggressively accelerated, the pressure is now on for rapid implementation. But why? The majority of Colombia’s goods already enjoy tariff-free entry into Canada. Trade with Colombia is really not that significant.  

Most likely, there are key Canadian sectors like agriculture that will make economic gains at the expense of locally grown food crops for domestic consumption. And, of course, mining, gas and oil companies are eager to expand exploration. But still, why the rush?  The only answer is political support for Bush’s narrow geo-political security interests. For his part Bush has vowed to pass the U.S. deal before leaving office.

Although negotiations are now completed, nothing will be signed until the deal goes before Parliament for debate and possible vote, mostly likely this fall.

There is still time for Canadians to call for an end to the Colombia-Canada free-trade deal. It is for Kimy that we must not sign onto or implement a deal that will grant corporations wide-ranging privileges at the expense of people and communities.  We must say no to further injustice and exploitation and demand an end to the violence that took the life of Kimy and so many others.

(Rusa Jeremic is co-ordinator of the Global Economic Justice Program for KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.)

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