Mar
05
2009

L.A. Times Editors' Colombia Fantasyland

The capacity for U.S. editorial writers to twist reality when it comes to "free trade" is astounding. But when "free trade" collides with Colombia policy in the minds of the same editorialists, the potential for illogic becomes truly Orwellian.

Take Wednesday's Los Angeles Times editorial ("Obama Should Press for Colombia free-trade pact") pushing for passage of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The editors denounce U.S. labor activists as "special interests" who "are holding congressional Democrats hostage on the pact." They are upset because U.S. union leaders say Colombia is not sufficiently curbing human rights abuses–a supposed prerequisite for passage of the FTA–and that their views are causing some congressional Democrats to oppose the bill.

Disputing that view, the editors head deep into "War is Peace" territory, fabricating a rosy human rights scenario for Colombia's labor community, and arguing that president Álvaro Uribe's government has solved their problems with the creation of a special agency for their protection:

Colombian officials aren't even sure why the pact is controversial. For a time, human rights advocates and union organizers saw it as a means of pressuring the Colombian government to stop the persecution of labor organizers, who are routinely threatened and killed. The government responded by protecting organizers and prosecuting their attackers. Activists should declare victory and move on.

Note the odd construction: the government is "protecting organizers," but organizers "are routinely threatened and killed"–both in present tense. This would seem to suggest that labor leaders on both continents still have a valid complaint, that thegovernment is not doing a very good job of "protecting" organizers from violence (largely perpetrated by government-linked death squads.)

And, indeed, they aren't. According to the U.S. State Department's 2008 human rights report on Colombia, violence against union activists not only continues, it increased over 2007 figures:

Violence and discrimination against union members discouraged some workers from joining and engaging in union activities. The MSP [Ministry of Social Protection] reported that 38 trade unionists were killed during the year, compared with 26 in 2007, while the National Labor College (ENS), a labor rights NGO, reported that 46 trade unionists were killed, compared with 39 in 2007. ENS and government figures differed because of different methodological conceptions of trade union membership.

A February 2008 editorial in the Hill ("Colombia's President Tacitly Supports Union Murders") provides more reasons why many people–if not "Colombian officials" or L.A. Times editors–might find the pact "controversial." According to the Hill editors, while violence against labor activists was significantly down compared to six or seven years ago, Colombia still leads the world in the category; they indicate that this scourge will likely continue, because Colombian president Uribe tacitly supports the killing of some labor leaders.

The editorial relates a (paraphrased) comment made by Uribe to an AFL-CIO delegation regarding three murdered unionists: "By the way, those three guys killed in Saravena were members of the guerrilla group ELN." The editors note:

Colombiaâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s own attorney general had said that was not true, and international human rights groups agree. But Uribe went on to tell Kovalik that heâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢d gone to the community and people there had assured him that the three were guerrillas. Based on hearsay, without any proof, and in direct contradiction of his own attorney generalâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s case, the president has decided that these three unionists were terrorists. Unfortunately, this was not the first time Uribe has endangered unionists by stigmatizing them guerrillas.

So perhaps it isn't so hard to understand why the pact is controversial, nor why U.S. labor leaders might find the situation in Colombia disquieting. Much harder to understand is the Times editors' ghoulish advice tolabor activists to "declare victory and move on."

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.