Recently, a group of Colombian officials were on Capitol Hill lobbying your congressional members to pass the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
They extolled the virtues of free trade and the relationship between Colombia and the U.S., promising that free trade will help our communities here and abroad.
Afro-Colombian communities make up 26 percent of the population of Colombia, and receive far too little attention in the mainstream imagination. But the truth behind this free trade agreement is a grim reality for Black folks both here and in Colombia.
"Free trade" is shorthand for a global system where the interest of capitalism is a priority, with the notion that competition will produce the best products at the lowest market cost. Nations have supported this system by opening up the borders of the signing countries to each others' exports. Corporate America uses words like "higher productivity" and "efficiency" to disguise their desired end: access to the world's cheapest labor in the chase for the lowest bottom line.
The U.S. middle class is being deprived of millions of jobs as a result of opening the world's richest consumer market to foreign competitors while outsourcing millions of domestic manufacturing jobs.
What free trade has meant to the U.S. working class is a loss of jobs and declining economic stability. While U.S. based mega-corporations have benefited from these deals, these benefits have not trickled down to the average American worker.
Colombia, on the other hand, is the most dangerous country in which to be a unionized worker. According to the AFL-CIO, about 4,000 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia in the last 20 years.
In Buenaventura, a port city comprised almost entirely of Afro-Colombians, workers operate in deplorable conditions, are forced to work overtime without adequate compensation, and are subjected to terror and violence.
In Buenaventura alone, over 50 trade unionists and their leaders have died from causes ranging from employer health and safety violations to paramilitary assassinations. The violence in Colombia has disproportionately affected Afro-Colombians resulting in several massacres and the displacement of thousands.
Colombia's internal displacement rate is second only to Sudan and is an unvoiced blight in our Hemisphere.
The administration of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has ignored the Colombian Constitution, as well as national and international laws pertaining to Afro-Colombians.
Passage of the FTA under these conditions will further undermine Afro-Colombian territorial, labor and human rights.
The recent delegation of Colombians to Capitol Hill, some of whom were Afro-Colombian, advocating for the approval of the U.S.-Colombia FTA, does not represent the view of the majority of Afro-Colombians living in urban and rural areas throughout the country. In response to the misleading Capitol Hill visit, over 168 Afro-Colombian grassroots organizations wrote letters reaffirming their opposition to the FTA and underscored the systematic lack of respect for their territorial, labor, political, and cultural rights in Colombia.
I find myself perplexed by this visit. It is amazing that this delegation is welcomed and allowed to lobby our leaders in an effort to convince them to sign a pact that is not in the best interest of the U.S. workers or the majority of Afro-Colombians.
I am perplexed, although not surprised, at the fact that some U.S. leaders are willing to sacrifice more U.S. jobs, and potentially the lives of Afro-Colombians, where no evidence of progress in Colombia exists.
The timing of the Colombian delegation's visit is not merely a coincidence. They are urging a vote on the FTA in a lame duck session later this year. Clearly, any decision about the FTA should be made after the next U.S. Administration is sworn in. This gives the new President the opportunity to critically assess the serious problems within the Agreement, the potential impact of such an agreement on the U.S. economy and its workers, as well as the human rights conditions for trade unionists and other Afro-Colombians.
Nicole C. Lee is the executive director of TransAfrica Forum.