There is only one thing the United States needs to do for Colombia right now: Pass the free-trade agreement negotiated and signed five years ago. The agreement has economic benefits for both nations. Failure to ratify it this year would be a slap in the face to Colombia’s new president and the Colombian people. Rewarding Colombians for their democratic progress would seem to be a no-brainer. But the administration shows no inclination to push the agreement forward, even with the new free-trade-oriented Republican House sure to pass it. Labor leaders, of course, oppose all free-trade agreements. And some human rights groups still want to punish Colombia for abuses committed years ago, and some in the administration agree.

In Egypt, the human rights abuses are not a decade old. ~Robert Kagan

Kagan makes it sound as if these abuses occurred in the late 1990s or earlier. In fact, dozens of Colombian union members were murdered in 2007 and 2008, and just in 2009 forty-eight Colombian union members were murdered. 2010 was reportedly no better, as murders of trade unionists were up in 2010 compared to the previous year as of September. Colombia reportedly leads the world in violent deaths of union members. One of the standing objections to the agreement from American unions and Colombian workers is that it would create trade preferences for Colombia without securing the rights of Colombian labor, which are under constant threat from violence and intimidation. Maybe supporters of the Colombian FTA can argue that the benefits of the agreement outweigh the ongoing abuses of labor that will continue, but it is telling that advocates have to minimize and obscure the objections to the FTA to make their case.

Lauren Damme at the New American Foundation wrote a paper outlining the problems with the Colombian FTA. Damme wrote:

The deal would reward egregious labor and human rights violations, bring minimal benefits to the U.S. economy, and have destabilizing impacts on Colombia — which will be paid for by American taxpayers in the form of U.S. aid.

Perhaps advocates of the deal could say that the murders are horrible, but the Colombian government shouldn’t be penalized for them. Damme explains why this is mistaken:

First, Colombia is infamously known as the most dangerous country in the world for unionists, but less well-known are the series of scandals that plagued Uribe’s tenure, including widespread party connections between Uribe’s close advisers and relatives to “demilitarized” paramilitaries, illegal wire-tapping of human and labor rights activists by DAS, the Colombian equivalent of the CIA, and the “falsos positivos” scandals in which the military murdered over 2,000 civilians and then dressed them as guerrillas to claim progress in Colombia’s internal war.

None of this may change with incoming president Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s handpicked successor who assumes power on Aug. 7, 2010. As former minister of defense and a closely held member of Uribe’s party, Santos’s proximity to these scandals means he will not take office with a clean slate, but must earn support by respecting human and labor rights as well as the independence of Colombia’s courts.

All of a sudden, the “enlightened democratic leadership” of Uribe and the “no-brainer” of a free trade agreement aren’t quite what Kagan made them out to be.

So why should Americans care? After all, it might not be in the interest of Colombian workers, but it will help our economic recovery, right? Well, any boost from this deal would be small indeed:

In reality, that “entire” market will represent (about two decades down the line after full implementation of the FTA) less than a 0.05 percent increase in U.S. gross domestic product, and the International Trade Commission predicts that the FTA will have “minimal or no effect on output or employment for most sectors in the U.S. economy.”

So this is a free trade agreement that does essentially nothing for the American economy. Inevitably, reduced barriers between the U.S. and Colombia will cause some Americans to lose their jobs as businesses relocate and cause dislocation in local communities here. The deal is pretty obviously a political reward being handed out to a government that the previous administration wanted to bolster. In exchange for negligible benefits to the U.S., Colombian agricultural labor would be impoverished:

While the Colombia FTA would likely confer few benefits on U.S. workers, its effect on Colombian workers would be severely negative. In particular, the FTA would be devastating to rural agricultural laborers, who constitute 20 percent of the country’s employment, provide 40 percent of its domestic food consumptionand generate 8 percent of Colombia’s GDP. By tearing down barriers to U.S. agricultural products, the FTA would put Colombia’s farmers in competition with giant U.S. agri-business firms subsidized by tax dollars. It is widely expected that thousands of rural workers would be displaced as cheap U.S. farm products — particularly rice, corn and beans — flood Colombia. Oxfam Colombia estimates that at least 15,000 rural jobs will be lost and small farmers’ incomes, which average less than $3.90 per day, will be reduced by almost half.

All of this will contribute to deepening inequality and stratification in Colombia. As Damme says, it will add to the numbers of farmers who will be forced to turn to growing illegal cash crops or violence. None of this is healthy for Colombian political development or stability. As long as the U.S. is waging its pointless drug war in Colombia, it makes even less sense to pursue policies that are liable to fuel the culivation of coca, narco-trafficking, and paramilitary violence, since the U.S. will directly or indirectly have to bear the costs. The Colombian FTA doesn’t make sense for either party, and it is just the sort of neoliberal policy that has helped turn most of Latin America towards left-populism. Congress should reject the agreement until the Colombian government can improve labor protections and make this minimally-beneficial trade deal politically and ethically defensible.