Jul 1 2008

Selling the Colombia Trade Pact

Papers spin deal into a ‘no-brainer’

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Public Citizen

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Public Citizen

In an April 10 editorial headlined “Drop Dead, Colombia,” the Washington Post excoriated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for holding up passage of a proposed trade promotion deal with Colombia. With the hyperbole the paper seems to reserve for this issue, the Post declared, “The year 2008 may enter history as the time when the Democratic Party lost its way on trade.”

Refusing to wave the deal through without challenge is an error of historic proportion, the Post declared, because “economically, it should be a no-brainer—especially at a time of rising U.S. joblessness.” Perhaps more significantly, the deal deserves support as “a reward to a friendly, democratic government that has made tremendous strides on human rights, despite harassment from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.”

The Post thus hit on the key points that seemed to recur in corporate media editorials on the Colombia trade pact: that the deal will indisputably create U.S. jobs while also being good for Colombia—which is doing just fine on human rights—as well as having the added benefit of being an affront to favored media target Chávez (Extra!, 11-12/06).

Economic win/win

It might be hard to understand how any deal with an economy the size of Colombia’s—which is about 1/36th as big as the U.S.’s—could really create jobs in the U.S. on any appreciable scale, much less how turning one down would be “damaging the U.S. economy” (L.A. Times, 4/8/08). But such grandiose promotional claims dominate discussion of trade deals in elite media outlets, along with often vitriolic dismissals of anyone who raises concerns.

So the Colombia deal, eliminating most tariffs on U.S. exports to the country, would be a “win/win for the United States” (L.A. Times, 4/8/08), “good for all Americans” (Orlando Sentinel, 5/12/08) and “produce clear benefits for American businesses and their workers” (New York Times, 4/12/08). Memorably, for the Las Vegas Review-Journal (4/9/08), “This is about feeding the world, and getting paid for it.”

The deal’s opponents are “Democrats [who] pander to Big Labor, flirt with return to protectionism” (USA Today, 4/9/08) and “spit NAFTA out of their mouths as if the acronym were a synonym for the Antichrist” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/8/08). Their concerns amount to “anti-trade fervor” (Washington Post, 4/8/08) and betray their “intellectual poverty” (Washington Post, 4/20/08).

Perspectives that would complicate that picture are disappeared; in this case, that includes Colombians, many of whom have serious concerns about the deal. In 2006, a group of local Afro-Colombian groups, largely subsistence farmers, sent a letter to the U.S. Congress declaring what the deal meant to them: “Our families will have to compete with heavily subsidized agricultural products from the United States, pushing us toward economic and cultural extinction.” AFRODES, an organization representing such groups, asserts they were not even consulted in pact negotiations, in violation of Colombian law (CounterPunch, 5/3/08).

NAFTA as proven success

Key to elite editorializing on the Colombia deal is the presumption that NAFTA (on which subsequent regional deals have been modeled) has been an unequivocal success. “There is no compelling reason to reopen NAFTA, or to think that the United States could do any better on second effort,” USA Today declared flatly (4/9/08), while the Washington Post (4/8/08) demanded of Senators Obama and Clinton, who were critical of the Colombia deal, “Are they each unaware of the real statistics on NAFTA’s effects?” No need to cite any of those statistics; by questioning the wondrous glory that is NAFTA, the candidates proved themselves either “misguided” or “insincere.”

Economists, as opposed to editorial writers, don’t see things that way. Even a generally positive report from the Council on Foreign Relations (“NAFTA’s Economic Impact,” 3/21/08) begins by acknowledging, “It is difficult to quantify NAFTA’s effect very precisely, given the complexities involved in assigning direct causality between NAFTA’s implementation and economic shifts.”

The obvious truth is that trade deals affect different people differently, making claims that they are “good for all Americans” specious on their face. An inclusive assessment would note that if it is true that the U.S. GDP has grown slightly, it is also true that the benefits of those gains have gone overwhelmingly to corporate profits, with (particularly non-college-educated) workers’ share of productivity gains actually declining. Whether you see that as acceptable or not depends entirely on your perspective; overwhelming majorities of Americans have said they do not. When the Washington Post declares the Colombia deal to be “manifestly in America’s interest” (4/10/08), the question being avoided is: Whose America?

But corporate media editorialists can’t afford too clear-eyed an assessment of NAFTA’s record, lest they be forced to acknowledge that their own confident claims about the pact, such as the Washington Post’s promise (5/11/93) that it would “create twice as many jobs in this country as it will threaten,” have proved wildly off-base.

Eliminate the negative

Elite media’s promotional zeal on trade deals far outstrips any interest in monitoring actual, disparate impacts. For instance, a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Labor in April charging that Guatemala has failed to uphold labor laws as required by the Central American Free Trade Agreement (L.A. Times, 4/24/08) got no traction from a press corps busily promoting a similar deal with Colombia, though AFL-CIO policy director Thea Lee’s comment—that she “would like to see some evidence that our government is willing to enforce the labor provisions in any existing” trade deals before it agrees to new ones—would seem to be germane.

This approach—presenting trade deals as “winners” by erasing the losers—begins before the deals are passed. Here’s the New York Times concluding its April 12 editorial, “Time for the Colombian Trade Pact”:

The Democrats are right to demand assistance for American workers, and the Bush administration should work with Congress to expand the safety net for workers displaced by globalization. But this should not stop the Colombian trade pact from coming to fruition.

Likewise, the Orlando Sentinel (4/8/08) editorialized that a program to help people who lose jobs “is important, but an agreement to broaden it could take a while. The Colombia deal is too time-sensitive to hold hostage.” Those vitally harmed by the deal “should” be helped, but nothing should hinge on it, the absence of any record of government actually responding this way in the wake of previous deals notwithstanding. It hardly needs saying that these outlets are unlikely to take up the cause of these “important” worker-assistance programs again (Extra!, 7-8/98).

A laudable number of murders

Major media were especially dismissive of pact critics’ concerns about violence and human rights violations in Colombia. USA Today (4/9/08) declared murders of unionists a “red herring,” because, after all, “Colombia is an unusually violent place,” while the Washington Post (4/8/08) called the concerns “flimsy,” arguing that the country under president Álvaro Uribe has had “remarkable success in quelling civil conflict and restoring order and human rights”—so much so that, the paper triumphantly noted, regular folks are getting killed now at a higher rate than labor organizers!

To question whether politicians are really concerned about what they say they are is fine, though in this case the question appears only to be asked of the pact’s opponents. And, of course, context is all. The Economic Policy Institute released numbers in February (2/26/08) showing that, under Uribe, there has been

a decrease in guerrilla violence, but there has been an increase in extrajudicial executions perpetrated by right-wing death squads and security forces. Assassinations of trade unionists have decreased, but so have prosecutions of the assassins.

For the past two years, none of the killers of trade unionists has been brought to trial in Colombia, and the circumstances of few cases have been clarified, a reality the Washington Post (4/20/08) obscured with language like “evidence is sparse that all, or even most, of the union dead were killed because of their labor organizing.”

However you parse it, though, Colombia’s record of 39 unionists killed in 2007 is still the highest in the world. A New York Times news story (4/14/08) even noted that the argument that Colombian unionists are killed at lower rates than the general population “ignores geographic and socioeconomic factors—poor rural residents in the country’s war zones bear a disproportionate risk from violence—and it is clear that the union officials continue to be specific targets for intimidation and violence.”

“No fair-minded person can fail to note that Colombian unionists are far safer today than they used to be,” sniffed the Washington Post (4/20/08). But what fair-minded editorialist would fail to acknowledge that the killing with virtual impunity of labor activists has effects beyond the murders themselves, terrorizing activists and effectively squashing organizing activity?

Engage the corrupt

If editorialists found it possible to spin the violence numbers, it was harder to deny increasing charges of corruption, in which some 32 members of Colombia’s Congress have been arrested and another 30 under investigation for ties to right-wing paramilitary groups that have trafficked drugs and killed thousands of people. The scandal has enveloped some of Uribe’s most influential legislative supporters, with the president’s cousin accused of links to death squads (Washington Post, 12/19/06, 4/23/08).

But this story, while reported, was kept largely separate from editorial talk about the trade deal, so much so that the Washington Post (4/8/08) accused Barack Obama of “a particularly egregious libel” for asserting that Uribe’s government is “under a cloud of potentially having supported violence against unions, against labor, against opposition.” “Does Mr. Obama really believe that?” they asked incredulously. Maybe he just reads the paper?

The L.A. Times (5/28/08) valiantly tried to turn the situation to an advantage, saying the extradition to the U.S. of 14 paramilitary leaders was “an encouraging sign” of Uribe’s “independence and impartiality,” and the arrest of Uribe’s cousin “equally heartening,” though “cynics will probably not be placated.” (Actually, it can be argued that the extradition of paramilitary leaders on drug charges is to Uribe’s advantage, since U.S. prosecutors are unlikely to pursue their links to his administration.)

One could more justifiably label cynical elite media’s whole “leverage” argument, which posits (New York Times, 4/12/08) that

pressure from the United States Congress has contributed to [Colombia’s] progress, nudging the Colombian government with its offer that gains on the human rights front would lead to ratification of the trade agreement. . . . Rejecting or putting on ice the trade agreement would reduce the United States’ credibility and leverage.

The problem here, besides media’s demonstrable lack of interest in following up on the actual success of such leverage, is the ideological double standard. Some countries are bad and engagement equals appeasement (Cuba); in other places (Colombia), corruption and rights violations are offered as reasons for engagement. (See “Doublethink on the Editorial Page,” Extra!, 7-8/98.) If these editorialists really believe that trade deals help struggling workers and improve human rights, it’s curious, shall we say, how they can blithely consign millions to ostensible poverty and injustice because they live in a country the editorial writers don’t like. Concern for people would seem to be something less than a principle.

The really important part

Editorialists made no pretense of hiding the political element on the Colombia deal, though it remained a totally unexplored given that the U.S. should use economic policy, with its far-reaching impact on U.S. lives and livelihoods, as a political chit to punish or favor a particular regime.

One point—maybe the main point—made about the Colombia deal was that Uribe is “a solid ally and a counterweight to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez” (USA Today, 4/9/08), and failing to ratify it would push Latin American governments “closer to hostile leftist rivals such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez” (L.A. Times, 4/8/08). It’s all about strengthening “institutional bonds” to “one of America’s few allies in an important region that has become increasingly hostile to the United States’ interests” (New York Times, 4/12/08)—or, if you prefer, is “teeming with anti-American sentiment” (L.A. Times, 5/28/08).

“There are two important countries at the north of South America,” the Washington Post explained (4/20/08). (Screw you, Guyana!) One of them, Colombia, has

a democratic government that . . . has bravely sought to defeat brutal militias of the left and right and to safeguard human rights. The other, Venezuela, has a repressive government that has undermined media freedoms, forcibly nationalized industries, rallied opposition to the United States and, recent evidence suggests, supported terrorist groups inside Colombia.

At the same time, then, as we were told that the deal was a “no-brainer” that should be waved through in a hurry, editorialists also made clear that it was about something much bigger. As indeed it is, though corporate media’s “good vs. evil” caricature is as off-base as it is offensive.

The fight over the Colombia deal is about which model of globalization will prevail in South America, whether the continent will continue to move toward regional economic integration or whether countries can be induced to instead tie themselves to the U.S. and its preferred policies. The problem for promoters of NAFTA-style deals, perhaps the reason for the near-hysteria of their presentation of things, is that, as Mark Weisbrot explained (CounterSpin, 4/11/08), such deals are falling out of favor, hard, in Latin America, where “countries have had a lot of experience now with this particular model and it has failed pretty badly.” In particular,

the countries that have integrated with the United States either through NAFTA or CAFTA . . . are going to be the hardest hit of all by this recession the U.S. is in. So the general lesson that people are drawing is that it isn’t really safe to tie yourself that closely to the U.S. market, especially at a time when the U.S. has this unsustainable trade deficit.

What coverage of the Colombia deal made clear is that major U.S. media outlets see their job not as bringing the public a range of informed perspectives on these important decisions, but simply telling us, loudly and repeatedly, which side to be on.