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Opposition to Canada-Colombia Free Trade Continues

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December 11, 2009

Opposition to Canada-Colombia Free Trade Continues

Protest targets Liberal trade critic over his support for accord

by Tracy Glynn

Protesters wear masks to represent activists and labor organizers killed by Colombia's military and paramilitary forces. Thirty-eight labor organizers have been killed in Colombia in 2009. Photo: Emma Van Rooyen

WOLFVILLE, NS—As the controversial Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement proceeds into second reading in the House of Commons, pressure is mounting on the Liberal party, and its international trade critic, to drop its support for the proposed accord.

On Friday, December 4, over 80 people rallied in front of the Wolfville, NS, office of Scott Brison, MP for Kings-Hants. Brison, the Liberal International Trade Critic, was targeted because of his support of Bill C-23—an Act to implement the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA). The rally also came only days after the Conservative government cut funding to a well-known NGO critical of Canadian foreign policy.

Free trade critics say the CCFTA, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), serve the interests of capital. They describe free trade agreements (FTAs) as a mechanism that allows soaring profits and reduced labour costs through the super-exploitation of workers in economically and politically oppressed areas. Labour unions, human rights organizations and church groups across Canada have decried the 38 assassinations of trade unionists in Colombia this year as reason enough to oppose the deal.

Brison sits on the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade. Earlier this year, Brison and the committee “called for a full independent human rights impact assessment of the proposed FTA with Colombia,” said Kathryn Anderson of the Church in Action Committee of the Maritime Conference of the United Church of Canada.

“Brison no longer supports this and his uncritical support for the CCFTA today is beyond the pale,” she says.

Liberal MP Scott Brison attempts to take the microphone from an organizer at a rally criticising his support for the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Photo: Emma Van Rooyen

Brison made a brief appearance before the rally began, and attempted to physically grab the microphone from Council of Canadians Atlantic Organizer Angela Giles. Brison told the crowd that he would not be staying for the rally and that they could meet him to have a discussion a half an hour later at Acadia University.

Large puppets of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez and paramilitaries mingled with protesters. Demonstrators held white masks with flowing red streamers to represent the victims of Colombia's state-supported armed violence.

Following songs by the Raging Grannies and speeches from representatives of labour unions and church and social justice groups, the crowd marched to Acadia University. Protesters chanted, “Hey Scott, just say No!” as they entered the building and room where Brison was waiting.

Brison asked the crowd if they supported market-based economies, free trade agreements and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

“I was deeply disturbed by Mr. Brison's comments. Instead of taking the opportunity to listen to those with in-depth historical knowledge, Mr. Brison insisted on sharing with us a shallow and distorted understanding of the history and present reality in Colombia. It was particularly frustrating to have Mr. Brison read selectively from a UN document without stating the concerns and recommendations of the UN Rapporteur,” said Anderson.

One man in the room told Brison that his support for the CCFTA meant he “support[s] murderers.” Another, Tom Walsh, a Wolfville resident, asked Brison how, as a gay man, he could support the Uribe government that tolerates the organized murder of homosexual and vulnerable people in Colombia.

Colombian mining critic denied visa

The day before the rally, over 90 people attended a panel discussion about Colombia and the CCFTA. While the panel featured a broad range of speakers, one person was notably absent: Jairo Epiayu Fuentes, an Indigenous Wayuu man from Tamaquito, Colombia. Epiayu was scheduled to speak about the imminent eviction of his community for the expansion of the Cerrejon coal mine—the mine that supplies New Brunswick's Belledune coal plant and is on the list of approved suppliers for Nova Scotia Power. His two attempts at receiving a Canadian visa were denied.

Initially he was told that his form was not legible. The second rejection letter claimed the government was unconvinced that he would leave Canada at the end of his visit. "Family ties in Canada and country of residence," "purpose of visit," "limited employment in his country of residence" and “personal assets and current financial status" were listed as factors in the decision to deny his visa.

Although he was denied entry to Canada, the community leader was granted a multiple-entry visa into the United States. The two applications were filed within weeks of each other.

Last September, after a three-day visit to Colombia, Brison stated that “paramilitary groups have been disbanded in Colombia,” and that “to say that paramilitary forces are murdering union leaders today is false.” This stance has been highly disputed. Common Frontiers, a coalition critical of free trade, and which is working to propose alternative economic models, called on Brison for a public apology “to the long suffering Colombian people, and...the families and work colleagues of the murdered trade union leaders.”

James Brittain, author of the upcoming book Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia: The Origin and Direction of the FARC-EP, also disagrees with Brison's proclamations that the Colombian state under President Uribe has curbed corruption and violence and enhanced opportunity and security.

"Like Harper, Brison heralds the free trade agreement between Canada and Colombia as the way to improve living conditions in Colombia. Brison says the CCFTA will help reduce poverty, prevent the resurgence of illegal armed groups and help prevent more Colombians from entering the narco-economy.

"Such ideological pronouncements are interesting because they demonstrate a shocking lack of information... concerning Colombia's economic, political and social conditions. Colombia has participated in formal FTAs for over two decades. Each FTA claims to bring prosperity, development, sustainability and an end to the country's half-century of civil war. However, after a thorough investigation one becomes aware that very different outcomes have arisen as a partial result of liberalized economic policies."

According to Brittain, “War and the extraction of natural resources have led to the internal displacement of 4.6 million Colombians. Coca cultivation and the narcotics trade have increased since the 1980s. Thousands of workers and community leaders have been violently assassinated, arbitrarily disappeared, and/or harassed by state forces and state-supported paramilitaries.

“Brison neglects to address the fact that the Uribe administration is mired in scandal and murder. There are documented allegations and confessions that far-right paramilitary groups and over 100 government and military leaders—including dozens of Uribe's closest political partners, confidantes and family members—have worked closely together to eliminate state antagonists and threats to economic growth. The 'False Positive' program implemented by the current administration saw Colombian soldiers rewarded for murdering innocent civilians and subsequently dressing them as guerrillas. Under Uribe's tenure as president over 700 unionists have been murdered,” says Brittain.

Brittain is a supporter of the campaign to free Colombian activist Liliany Obando. Obando, a human rights leader in Colombia's agricultural sector, traveled throughout Canada in 2005 and then again in 2006, highlighting how millions of women and children have been displaced by land seizures and state-based violence in Colombia. In August 2008, she was charged with "rebellion," separated from her two children and jailed. After repeated delays, and evidence of state forces tampering with files related to her case, Obando's trial finally began November 27 and is scheduled to continue on December 14 and 21. Her children and people involved in her support campaign have received threats.

Canada stops funding group critical of free trade

KAIROS, an ecumenical and social justice-based organization, was told November 30 by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) that the agency would no longer fund the organization. Mary Corkery, KAIROS' executive director, was told KAIROS no longer fits CIDA's funding priorities.

“We are disheartened that this longstanding relationship and decades of support by the Canadian government has been ended,” she said in a press release. “KAIROS and the millions of Canadians we represent through our member churches and organizations do not understand why these cuts have been made.”

CIDA funded KAIROS for the past 35 years. As the November 30 deadline for CIDA to approve KAIROS' funding loomed, KAIROS member churches, its partners and other organizations wrote letters of support to Minister of CIDA Bev Oda requesting she approve the organization's contract which had been sitting on her desk since July. One of those letters of support came from Colombia's Popular Women’s Group (OFP).

Yolanda Becerra Vega, OFP's Director General, immediately wrote to Oda when she learned the news about KAIROS' international programs.

She wrote, "As you know, we work in regions in Colombia where armed conflict has resulted in the denial of women’s basic rights. The economic support from KAIROS and CIDA permits us to implement programs which include legal and health services, community kitchens, and other humanitarian assistance that have saved many lives and given possibilities and opportunities to hundreds of women, mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and entire families.”

KAIROS, a vocal critic of FTAs, pointed out in one of their campaign trading cards that 60 per cent of cut flowers in Canada come from Colombia. The roses and carnations are cut by women and children whose bodies are exposed to pesticides long banned in Canada.

CIDA has been criticized in recent years for the kind of financial support it provides to Colombia.

In 2001 and 2002, CIDA’s Colombia branch worked with the University of Calgary-based think tank Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI) to streamline Colombia's mining and petroleum regulations. CERI is funded by various government departments and the mining industry. Critics of the new mining laws say Colombia's environmental regulations have been relaxed and the lands of Indigenous people have opened to more exploitation.

The length of company concessions was extended and royalty rates paid to the Colombian government were slashed. Prior to August, 2001, foreign companies paid 10 per cent for coal exports above three million tons per year and a minimum of five per cent for exports below three million tons. After August, 2001, private interests with rights to Colombia's sub-soil paid 0.4 per cent in royalties, no matter the amount of material they extracted.

Earlier this fall, Brison asked Mining Watch Canada at a hearing of the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade whether they could name mining companies guilty of human rights violations in Colombia. Jamie Kneen, Mining Watch's communications coordinator, told Brison that none of the companies could prove they were not complicit.

“We fear that by granting 'most-favoured nation' status to Canadian mining investments, the CCFTA will restrict the ability of the Colombian government to implement the recommendations of the Ombudsman in Colombia with respect to people who have suffered violence, threats, and forced relocation in the areas the mining companies are operating. As well, without—at minimum—undertaking a human rights impact assessment prior to implementing the Agreement, there is no way of excluding the possibility that these investments could be rewarding people who have undertaken systematic violations, and benefiting from those violations,” stated Kneen.

Tracy Glynn is an organizer with the Atlantic Regional Solidarity Network and a director on the board of the Dominion Newspaper Cooperative.

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