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Fact Check: Obama’s Colombia Mistake

Senator Barack Obama's arguments against the Colombia free trade agreement mislead the progress made on union safety.


In the presidential debate last week between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, free trade with Latin America was one of the topics discussed. McCain criticized Obama's plans to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and his opposition to the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement signed in November 2006. Obama defended his position on Colombia by pointing to the assassination of union leaders there.

OBAMA: "The history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis and there have not been prosecutions. And what I have said, because the free trade -- the trade agreement itself does have labor and environmental protections, but we have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn't being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights, which is why, for example, I supported the Peruvian Free Trade Agreement which was a well-structured agreement."

THE FACTS: Obama's comments give the impression that Colombia's government is not doing anything against assassinations of labor leaders. In fact, thanks to the government's security policies the past six years, assassinations of union leaders (and other groups) have declined dramatically. In 2002, the first year of President Alvaro Uribe's administration, there were a total of 196 union deaths in Colombia, according to the office of the vice president. (See Multimedia document Colombia Victims Sept 2008). That includes 97 teacher union members and 99 union members from other sectors. Last year, the total number of unionists assassinated fell to 26, of which 18 were teacher unionists and eight were unionists from other sectors. That means that assassinations of unionists have fallen by 87 percent in the six year period 2002-07.  This year, the numbers are going up, however. In the first nine months this year, there have been 32 union assassinations, of which half were teachers. Compared to the same period last year, this represents an increase of 52 percent. Even this year’s results, though, are a far cry from the rates during the years before Uribe.


The progress has led other Democrats, including former president Bill Clinton to support the Colombia free trade agreement. (See Multimedia document).  Similarly, Clinton cabinet members such as former Commerce Secretary William Daley and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, have praised Uribe's progress.  "While the situation in Colombia is far from perfect, there has been substantial progress on all fronts since President Uribe took office," they said in an open letter in April. "For example, the number of homicides of trade unionists in Colombia continues to be far lower than the overall homicide rate for the general population."

Another group of Democrats, including President Clinton's former chiefs of staff, Leon Panetta and Thomas McLarty as well as Richard Feinberg and Robert Pastor — Latin America advisors for Presidents Clinton and Jimmy Carter, respectively — expressed similar views in an open letter to Congressional Democrats last fall. "The level of violence in Colombia—though still too high—has steadily and significantly declined under President Uribe," they wrote. "Rather than hiding the scandals or minimizing them, Colombia is taking steps to root them out and cleanse the political system, even while recognizing that more must be done, including bringing to justice those who have committed crimes against unionists.”

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