Last week, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper went on the stump in Latin America, promoting what he likes to call free trade.
His message was that there is no need for people in South America or the Caribbean to choose between the paths of left-wing Venezuela and right-wing America. Canada presents a third way.
It’s hard to know what if anything Harper meant by this claim. Canada is America’s largest trading partner and military ally, and vice versa.
Harper is an avowed right-winger and lover of right-wing America. We are tied to the US by history, geography, language, and culture, and now more than ever by NAFTA and the Security and Prosperity Partnership.
You may believe that the post-9/11 rush to deeper ties with the US makes us all safer and more prosperous, or you may believe it’s a plot by the rich to destroy the social and political networks of both countries in order to enrich themselves at everyone else’s expense, but what you cannot deny is that we swim one hell of a lot closer to America than we do to Venezuela.
In fact, President Bush made more-or-less the same free-trade speeches on the same Latin American tour this March.
Harper may find it wise at present to stay at arm’s length from the drowning Bush administration, but when it comes to trade in the Americas, they’re still reading from the same hymnal.
Don’t expect any hand wringing over morality as Harper promotes the tolerant, kind-hearted Canadian Way.
Challenged by reporters on the issue of human rights in Colombia, Harper said, “We’re not going to say, ‘Fix all your social and political and human rights problems and only then will we engage in trade relations.’ That’s ridiculous.”
This must have come as good news to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
Human rights are not one of his strong points.
Right-wing paramilitary groups who, among other things, torture people to death with chainsaws, thrive under his political protection.
According to the Colombian rights group Justicia y Paz, when Uribe was first elected president in 2002 in what his supporters like to call a “landslide,” only 25 per cent of Colombians voted, the rest kept from the polls by a campaign of intimidation that included murders and “disappearances.”
As for those who did show up to vote: “There was a great deal of fraud,” said Justicia y Paz spokesperson Father Javier Giraldo. “There were paramilitaries in the voting booths. They destroyed a lot of ballots.”
Before he became president, Uribe was governor of the state of Antioquia, home of the infamous Medellin drug cartel.
Three of the governor’s foster brothers were cocaine kingpins, and his chief of staff was the country’s biggest importer of potassium permanganate, the chemical used to refine cocaine.
During his term, thousands of people were murdered by gangsters and paramilitaries, many tortured to death.
Upon assuming the presidency, Uribe declared a “state of unrest,” permitting the police and army to enter homes without a warrant and detain anyone on suspicion of supporting leftist guerrillas.
Paramilitaries have been seen accompanying police, using military transport and equipment and hanging out around military bases. In effect, they function as a free-lance wing of the military, and are all but immune from prosecution.
In Uribe’s Colombia, labour relations are often settled by assassination.
According to Amnesty International, 2,245 trade unionists were murdered in Colombia between 1991 and 2006.
A further 3,400 suffered death threats and 138 disappeared.
Nineteen have been murdered this year, and others have survived multiple attacks.
Uribe has resisted calls by both the US and the WTO for an investigation into the right-wing death squads behind the killings.
Coca-Cola has had to defend itself against evidence that its bottling plants in Colombia used paramilitaries to assassinate union leaders and intimidate members.
Whether Coke condoned the practice or not, it certainly went on, and Uribe’s resistance to action against the paramilitaries more than hints at his complicity.
This is what Colombia has to sell, stability at the point of a gun, labour peace at the price of torture and murder and cheap, unregulated consumer goods produced by people working in conditions that Canadians wouldn’t tolerate.
At least not yet: in a deregulatory race to the bottom, who knows how far things will eventually slide?
The question for North Americans is, why are we interested in this trade deal?
Or more to the point, why are Harper and Bush interested?
When our troops are halfway across the world fighting “despicable murderers and scumbags,”, why are our leaders out shaking equally bloody hands in our own hemisphere?
The only credible answer is that they want to undercut Canadian and American workers by evading safety, environmental and labour standards that get in the way of corporate profits, and they don’t give a damn what kind of criminals they associate with in the process.
It’s globalization’s great lesson, and one that Harper has learned all too well. Lie down with pigs, and you get up stinking of money.