Despite the continued violence, Colombia has benefitted from increased trade with the United States over the past several years. Passed by the U.S. Congress in 1991 and recently extended another 10 months, the Andean Trade Preferences Act, under which tariffs on most exports from Colombia coming into the United States are removed, has increased employment and boosted Colombia's economy. Last year, Colombian exports to the United States totaled nearly 9.4 billion dollars -- mostly in the form of crude oil, coal, and flowers -- up from less than 3.0 billion dollars when the preferences were first enacted.
But Colombian labour leaders and independent observers say the increased trade has not led to much improvement in the status of workers' rights. A 2006 U.S. State Department report on Colombia found that "freedom of association [is] limited in practice by threats and acts of violence committed by illegal armed groups" against labour unions, and noted that Colombian NGOs often complain that the government has "arbitrarily detained hundreds of persons, particularly social leaders, labour activists, and human rights defenders".
Last year, the Cincinnati, Ohio-based fruit giant Chiquita was ordered by a U.S. federal court to pay a 25-million-dollar fine after executives at the company were found to have authorised payments to the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, a violent right-wing paramilitary group linked to labour violence. According to Vasquez, his organisation has found that the Chiquita case may only scrape the surface of the extent to which U.S. corporations have supported violence against organised labour.
"[T]here are other American transnational enterprises, for example Dole and Del Monte, in which we began to see evidence appearing of their links to these paramilitary groups and to anti-union violence," Vasquez said.
Those links were the focus of a recent trip to Colombia by Rep. William Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat. Speaking to IPS, Delahunt would not say whether he discovered anything in Colombia implicating other U.S. corporations. "I really don't want to disclose that at this point in time... but yes, it was very productive, it was significant," he said.
Violence directed against unions and the role some U.S. corporations have played in supporting it is an important aspect of the debate over the FTA, say labour activists, but it is far from the only one.
"Even if Colombia had a sterling record on human rights, if there were no assassinations of trade unionists, the Colombia free trade agreement would still be a bad idea," said Economic Policy Institute global policy director Tony Avirgan.
"These agreements provide for the extension of patents and [intellectual] property rights, particularly in terms of medicines, that go way beyond what's provided for in the United States," Avirgan said.
"They should be called corporate rights' agreements rather than free trade agreements," he argued. "It's a misnomer because they're not much about the exchange of goods, but they are about empowering corporations."