Uribe's hope. Harper's handout.

Spent teargas canisters in La Maria indigenous community near Cali, Colombia. I’m not surprised, but I am deeply disturbed that a “free trade” pact with Colombia has been rammed ahead by Harper’s Conservatives despite decades of government-sponsored human rights abuse and civil war. And while Harper is trying to paint this as “all in the past,” let’s recognize that the parliamentary “fact-finding” committee has not even had a chance to report back yet. Not to mention human rights organizations and labour organizations have done extensive fact-finding over the past several years and consistently turn up evidence of severe human rights abuse.

Trade unionists are still being killed at an alarming rate, opposition politicians and their allies are gunned down in the streets, the paramilitary organizations have been restyled as workers co-operatives and are being used to bust-up unionized workplaces… and the government has yet to formulate a plan to deal with the millions of those displaced by la violencia and living shanties outside the country’s big cities. The photograph above is one I took in 2006 in the indigenous community of La Maria just outside Cali where three weeks previously a peaceful encuentro of 15,000 people was set up by government forces. Not only did they kill one of the local leaders, but police forces camped in the community for two days after shelling it repeatedly with tear gas, destroyed the medical clinic, community store, and community office – and kept the people terrorized during that time with the threat of force and more artillery. That photograph is of a handful of the thousands of spent teargas shells that littered the coffee growing fields after the attack. And of course it has not changed in the two years since I was there. I currently have friends living in hiding out of fear from death threats – people who have simply spoken in public about their rights to decent working conditions and humane treatment in their cities.

Government fact-finding mission or no, anyone who has spent time in Colombia in the past several years can attest to this: there is no shortage of current documentation of murder, physical disfigurement (acid burns being a favourite), unjust confinement, political rape, and kidnapping.

But of course human rights are just collateral damage in this ideological war and there is no doubt that this agreement has more to do with legitimizing Colombia as a South American power than actually getting goods cheaper or having a bigger market. As pointed out in the CBC article above, over 75% of goods coming into Canada from Colombia are already duty-free, so there wasn’t much of a need from Uribe’s economic perspective to ink this deal (because it doesn’t really expand markets for them). And on the flip side, Canadian mining companies have been running roughshod in Colombia, Guatemala and the rest of South America for decades since environmental and labour conditions in those countires are somewhat favourable to making a lot of money without responsible investment back into the region. So really, the deal will do little for Canadian corporate interests.

It will, however, give Uribe the legitimacy he craves as he continues to gut social programs and have his political opponents murdered. And it gives Canada and the US a stronghold in the region for their interests. The lines are being drawn – Canada having signed with Peru, Colombia and soon Chile will use this block against the more leftist currents of Venezuala, Argentina and Bolivia. And quite frankly it’s sick for Harper to pretend that our government is up to anything more than political meddling. Pretending to use “improved human rights” as a criteria for an fta is insulting to the thousands of Canadians who have worked for human rights in Colombia, and insulting to the people who withstand the violence of Uribe’s government year in and year out.

I had hoped we could just stay out of the US’s game in South America, as we mostly have in the past, but it seems that Harper is bound and determined to pull Canada onto the far right side of the conflict down there. How long before our troops get committed to the border between Colombia and Venezuala? I suppose stopping that will depend on getting this government out as quickly as we can.

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