Why the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia Is Still a Bad
by Diane Lefer
in New Clear Vision
For five years, the proposed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiated between
the administrations of George Bush and Colombian president Alvaro Uribe was stalled in the US
Congress because of violence against Colombian workers, including 51 union
leaders assassinated in 2010 alone.
On April 7, President Obama and current Colombian President Juan Manuel
Santos announced they had reached an agreement that would smooth the way for
passage. Under this plan, actions that violate labor rights would be
criminalized (as though assassination isn’t already criminal); investigators
would be assigned to look into abuses, and leaders could request protection. I
do wonder how Colombia will be able to provide this protection given the extent
of the violence. In the past months, I’ve received word almost every week of new
murders: not only union organizers but small farmers and the honest judges who
hear these cases, while the perpetrators too often are members of or linked to
the security forces.
The attack on labor matters, of course, but the US Congress needs to
understand it’s not the only problem with the FTA. Nothing stands in the way of
our countries negotiating specific trade deals while the plan for so-called
“free trade” actually restricts the parties’ freedom, taking away the freedom to
negotiate and the freedom to set national economic policy.
To consider just a few troubling provisions:
What’s “free” about delaying the introduction and production of generic drugs
in order to protect the profits of Big Pharma in Colombia where at least 50% of
the people live in poverty?
What’s “free” about the US being allowed to continue our generous subsidies
to agribusiness while Colombia would not be allowed to assist its own farmers.
Instead, Colombia’s role would be to export biofuels and specific
plantation-grown products, such as bananas — exactly the products that have led
to some of the worst human rights abuses in the country. Today, 5 million
Colombians — mostly rural people with limited education and no urban skills–are
internally displaced, driven from their land and homes by killings and threats
of violence. Over ten million acres of productive land are now in the hands of
drug traffickers, paramilitary groups and their wealthy allies who plant African
palm and yuca, creating huge monoculture agribusiness plantations to grow food
for machines instead of for people.
The FTA will therefore increase violence and income inequality in a country
where the two most secure founts of income for the masses are the drug trade and
the armed conflict — both of which the US is engaged in fighting at the cost so
far of $6 billion. The FARC guerrilla army today is largely composed of young
teens who join without any ideological indoctrination but in search of regular
In a positive development, both the Colombian courts and the InterAmerican
Court for Human Rights have ordered stolen lands returned to displaced
communities. The US has even provided some financial assistance to implement
return, but these communities face continued violence. In past months, because
of the banana export business, communities in the Urabá region of Chocó have
faced the invasion of their territory. Contractors working in concert with
paramilitaries and Colombian soldiers, lure desperate people to the area where
they are tricked into illegally occupying land in order to grow bananas for
multinational Banacol. The situation is already fraught with danger and
injustice and can only be exacerbated by passage of the FTA.
With the FTA, Colombia would lose the right to enforce environmental
regulations on transnational oil and mining corporations such as Canada-based
multinational Greystar which seeks to create a huge open pit gold mine in the
Andes using explosives and sodium cyanide leaching basins. The proposed site,
the páramos (or high altitude moors) of Santurbán, is the source of water for
the department of Santander. Local people protested. Artist David Navarro got
attention for the cause when he took 17 co-conspirators up to the páramos where
they stripped off their clothes and Navarro photographed an eloquent series of
images: fragile bodies and fragile ecosystem, one woman holding a lamb in her
A few years ago, activists presented 2 million
signatures to the legislature seeking a Constitutional amendment, similar to one
passed in Uruguay, recognizing clean drinking water as a human right. The
proposal would prohibit water supply privatization, something only too likely to
be imposed under “free trade.” So far the activists have not prevailed, but the
environmental movement keeps growing and holds broad appeal as it promises
grassroots empowerment and change without the Marxist orientation that polarized
the population and scared many citizens away from reform.
There’s potential here to transform a long-suffering country. In the 1960s,
inspired by the Cuban Revolution and spurred on by unconscionable exploitation
and injustice and the all-too-frequent and predictable murders of political
reformers, many of the most idealistic Colombians concluded there was no
alternative to violent resistance. They went to the mountains and the jungles to
join the armed struggle. Today, it seems when activists head for mountains and
rainforest they go peacefully in defense of the environment. On March 14th, to
mark the International Day of Action for Rivers, communities around the country,
with significant youth participation, protested against dams and hydroelectric
megaprojects. In January, in Putumayo in the Amazon basin (where no paved road
exists between the department capital and its major city), a nonviolent
coalition of indigenous people and Afro-Colombians blocked — at least so far —
the construction of a highway through their territory for the benefit of an oil
Meanwhile, back in Santander, after a groundswell of protest against the
Greystar gold mine, Carlos Rodado, the minister of Mines and Energy, reviewed
the company’s environmental impact and technical study and said the gold mining
project was not viable. Translating his words: “If the operation of Greystar’s
mine is going to be of the same quality as the studies that have been presented,
we have serious reason to be worried.”
The Uribe administration seemed more interested in catering to foreign
investors than in protecting the environment. Under Santos, there are signs of
change but this welcome shift is threatened by passage of the FTA. Does it make
any sense for Colombia to lose the right to protect the environment at the very
moment when that power is being used?
in LA Progressive, May 13
“Drug prohibition is the biggest failed policy in the history of the United States second only to slavery.”
Maybe that was not a surprising claim to hear at the Pasadena-Foothills ACLU chapter’s
public forum held at Neighborhood Church on May 10th. After all, the chapter was
co-sponsor of Michelle Alexander’s appearance in March at the Pasadena Public
Library where she reported, as detailed in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass
Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness , that largely as an intentional consequence of the “war on drugs,” there are more African American men under correctional control now than were enslaved in 1850.
What was maybe unexpected was to hear the claim from James P. Gray–a white guy
from Orange County who is a retired judge, former Navy man, and a former federal
prosecutor who put people away after major drug busts. Gray was a featured
speaker, along with Pasadena police chief Phillip Sanchez and public defender Shelan Joseph. Each brought a distinct perspective to address how to respond to the mass incarceration of men (and women) of color.
The United States today locks up more of its citizens than any other country.Pew Center surveys concluded that one in every 100 Americans now lives behind bars.
Alexander reported on people of color rounded up en masse for relatively minor, non-violent drug offenses. In 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for
possession. She has written that most people in state prison have no history of violence or even of significant selling activity and that during the 1990s, nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession.
It’s easy to understand why this isn’t generally understood in middle-class white communities: As long as white college students and middle-class recreational users aren’t being busted for pot, it’s easy to assume the war on drugs targets only the violent cartels and the worst of the worst.
What does this have to do with Jim Crow? Prisoners and in many states felons lose the right to vote and serve on juries. Felons, upon release from prison, face legal — often mandated — discrimination in housing, employment, education, and eligibility for benefits. Their broken families and poverty perpetuate the existence of an underclass and a caste system.
So we’re not in a post-racial utopia. As Michelle Alexander has reminded her readers and her audiences, even in slavery days, some exceptional African Americans attained wealth and status and power. Some even enslaved others.
How can we be so quick today to deprive our fellow Americans of freedom?
Shelan Joseph, who represents youthful offenders, said“We’re starting the incarceration cycle at a much earlier age.” She asked rhetorically, “What happened in school when you were growing up?” If you misbehaved, the school called your parents. “Now the first
call goes to the police.”
Nationwide, 90,000 kids are locked up and Latinos are two times as likely to be locked up as white kids; African American kids five times as likely. When it comes to kids with no prior criminal record, the racial disparity is even greater.
Coincidentally, the morning after the forum, the LA Times ran an op ed by Father Gregory Boyle about how a young person’s criminal record can mean being sentenced to lifetime unemployment. One of the first comments to appear in response on the newspaper’s website read in part,“These are scumbags. I wish they would exterminate
themselves at a faster rate in the hood.”
“Only 19% of the youth of color locked up in LA County were locked up for violent offenses,” Joseph said, which is something some members of the public clearly do not understand. In some LA neighborhoods, she said, children show levels of PTSD comparable to children during the worst of the war in Baghdad. “Trauma goes unaddressed at every level of the penal system.” These kids have problems and “schools would rather have them arrested than deal with them.” Arrest has an impact on taxpayers, too: “It costs $252,000/year to keep a youth in state prison where they are not getting an education or vocational training.”
Pasadena is trying alternatives to the early criminalization of kids. One approach is the Youth Accountability Board, based on the model of restorative rather than punitive justice. “When there’s a minor violation of the law, rather than put them in the judicial
system,” Chief Sanchez said, “they meet with a mentor about good decision-making. The youth and the family receive counseling,” he explained. The department is now expanding the program to include young people who commit not just misdemeanors but some felonies. “Restorative justice provides an opportunity for the police department
to invest in a young person so they can see the value of success and make better
Kids need the right kind of mentors. (“Charles Manson was brilliant
at mentoring,”commented Judge Gray.) “Our young people don’t learn one week at
a time for an hour. You better know how to tweet and Facebook and text,” said
Chief Sanchez.“You have to go to their world. They aren’t going to yours.”
But about ten young people, calling themselves “Soldiers of Change,” did attend the
meeting along with Alejandrina Flores who coordinates the city-sponsored
Neighborhood Outreach Workers Program which mentors gang-impacted youth who continue their educations while working part-time doing outreach to their peers to reduce violence.
But what can the individual citizen do? Especially when, as audience members pointed out, some people and corporations make big money through the prison system, and manufacturing drug-testing kits–and products to thwart drug-testing kits, and while the prison system effectively exploits black and brown labor.
Mary Sutton, program director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics
invited audience members to check out the protest images on the laptop set up in
the back of the room, and offered posters created by Californians United for a
Responsible Budget (CURB) that urge reinvesting in communities instead of
But as one audience member said, “We brought someone to the presidency to make a difference and that didn’t work out. How do you make a dent in this?”
Education, according to Shelan Joseph. She means funding our public education system, raising teacher salary and status and keeping class size down so that students can get individual attention. The prison industry is very aware of how lack of good education feeds the system. “They go to schools to check on second-grade reading scores,” she said. “That’s how they come up with projections on how many prisons to build.” Throughout the system–public schools, education in lockup, re-entry services, “we’re cutting costs on the backs of our youth.”
“How do we teach our children today?” asked Chief Sanchez. “Where’s the
critical analysis?” Standardized tests and computerized assessments don’t
prepare kids to use good judgment or live in the real world. “There’s no
scantron when you go to work.”
Joseph also means we must do a better job of educating ourselves and other voters. “You voted for these policies,” she said, referring to ballot initiatives that made it easier to criminalize youth and try them as adults, and the Three Strikes law that has
resulted in life sentences for nonviolent and minor offenses. (Please see
“150 Three Strikes Stories” compiled by Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes to learn who is being locked up and for what.)
The last attempt to amend Three Strikes to impact only violent offenders failed at the ballot box. The 2012 ballot will give us another chance to end the most extreme injustices that have come about since we, as voters, first said yes.
California voters rejected Prop 19 that would have legalized and taxed marijuana sales. Chief Sanchez thinks we voted right. “We have to know how to regulate it and how to dispense it before we legalize it.”
Judge Gray agreed that Prop 19 was poorly written. That’s why he’s drafting the 2012 measure himself, having already written a book laying out his ideas in A Voter’s Handbook: Effective Solutions to America’s Problems:” Right now it’s easier for kids to buy marijuana than alcohol. Dealers don’t ask for ID,” he said. “And it’s a big revenue source for juvenile gangs.”
He made it clear that ending drug prohibition “doesn’t mean we condone drug abuse.” If you drive under the influence, that’s a legitimate criminal justice matter, he said. “Hold people accountable for their actions, not for what they put into their
At the start of the meeting, chapter president Michelle White had other suggestions for Pasadena residents. The city is now updating its General Plan, which is the blueprint for the city’s future. While meetings have been held with stakeholders throughout Pasadena, renters and people of color have been noticeably absent and are not being heard. “We’re trying to bring everyone to the table,” she said, “so all of Pasadena gets an opportunity to say what they want out of our city.”
She also asked for outreach to people from NW Pasadena, the area where munity/police tensions have usually been highest. “The city used to do a survey of police/community relations. The city doesn’t do that anymore so now the ACLU does the survey and shares the results with the police department.”
Judge Gray referred to Senator Jim Webb of Virginia who, in looking at the entire criminal justice system in which we hold the world record for the number of people incarcerated, concluded either we are the most evil people in the world or we are doing something seriously wrong.
“There is some evilness behind this,” said Mary Sutton. “White men use drugs at the same rate as black men but aren’t locked up. We have to talk about racism. We
have to talk about the caste system.” If the advances of the civil rights
movement have been undermined by the war on drugs, our path is
As Judge Gray concluded, “The most
patriotic thing I can do for my country–and I served in the Peace Corps and the
Navy–is to work for an end to drug
To see all the photos that accompany this piece in Numero Cinq, please go to:
As a New York City transplant transplant to LA some years back, I dreaded having to drive. I found an apartment a block from a major intersection where I can walk to most of what I need and have pretty good—at least for LA—access to public transportation. But once I got used to being behind the wheel, having a car liberated me. The New
York subway system is such a gift to humanity, it ought to be recognized as such
by UNESCO, but without a car, New Yorkers are confined to urban life. In Los
Angeles, a short drive takes me to canyons, mountains, desert where I can cross
paths with coyotes or turn back on sighting mountain lion tracks. (I also once
cut a hike short when I encountered a Charles Manson lookalike not far from
where The Family once lived.)
Some of my favorite trails are up through the sandstone and shale rock formations and cliffs in the northwest corner of LA at the Ventura County line. I long thought if I could
ever bring myself to leave the center of town, this is where I’d want to be, in
one of the residential communities tucked among the cliffs or at the base of all
this fabulous sedimentary rock that was deposited 65-85 million years ago. I did
wonder if I’d be able to find congenial company in an area where it seemed the
main employers were the adult entertainment industry and various defense
contractors. I haven’t met any porn stars, but whenever I headed up Woolsey
Canyon Road to Sage Ranch Park, it was impossible to miss the Boeing checkpoint
People think of Southern
California as beach and Hollywood glitz (and Hollywood liberals) but a lot of
our economy is based on the military-industrial complex and one day in June
2006, I joined with Physicians for Social Responsibility to visit contractor
sites and talk about how the production of weapons can be as lethal as their
use. So there we were one sunny day at a vista point in Sage Ranch Park where I
liked to wander through chaparral and coastal sage, where yucca plants raise big
white candles straight out of the rock, high in the air and I could watch hawks
overhead and lizards doing pushups half in, half out of the shadows and spot the
tiny pink flowers holding up their tiny heads through sandstone cracks and
clefts. But now we were looking down at the Boeing complex which has been
through various operational hands. The property is well known as the Santa
Susana Field Laboratory, a former nuclear-energy and rocket-testing facility
where, in 1959, a nuclear reactor which had no containment dome whatsoever had a
partial meltdown more severe than what happened at Three Mile Island. The
accident—30 miles from downtown LA—was covered up for twenty years until a
graduate student at UCLA came across documents from the site.
For years before the LA Times or any other mainstream media covered the story, a freelance environmental investigator named Michael Collins was reporting on the meltdown and other accidents at the site. He reported that contamination also came from tests of rocket engines and the burning of radioactive materials in the open. His stories ran in a free weekly giveaway newspaper and on his site. Community activists investigated too, and learned about perchlorate simply dumped out on the ground or burned as waste.
I won’t even try to unravel how the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) was and then wasn’t considered a Superfund site, how it’s not the EPA’s responsibility but the Department of Energy’s, how it may or may not have been political machinations by the Bush administration that prevented any cleanup, and how the site was more recently
targeted for remediation under a comprehensive Consent Order issued in 2007.
The site and its history became part of my recently completed novel—much easier to treat all this in fiction than to have to stick to the facts. But I live here. Facts matter.
Right now, groundwater at the site is being studied for contamination, and Boeing, the Department of Energy, NASA, and the California Department of Toxic Substance Control have joined together to offer a series of lectures so that the public will be
intellectually equipped to understand and comment on the Groundwater
Investigation Report once it’s released.
This, incidentally, is one of the reasons I love living in LA. If you’re not trying to become a movie star, people welcome you without hesitation into their specialized worlds. I’ve been invited to attend symposia on germline engineering, primate behavior,
nanoscience, and public health. I’ve attended whole-day seminars on military law
and immigration law alongside law students getting course credit and attorneys
fulfilling their continuing ed requirements. Los Angeles is a dilettante’s
utopia. So now I am learning about groundwater, the water below the earth’s
surface, the stuff you can’t see. (And if you will consider the graph of
Corehole C-7 Characterization DFN™ Data Sets, we will pretend that I understand
it and am not explaining it only because I assume you won’t.)
On Saturday, April 30, I was allowed past Boeing’s checkpoint for the first time as part of the hydrogeologic tour of SSFL. I snapped a quick photo from the outside, as cameras
weren’t allowed at the site.
We were warned to watch out
for rattlesnakes, ticks, spiders, and poison oak, then wearing our name badges
and Groundwater U bandanas we boarded buses that took us throughout almost
2,850-acre site. At stops along the way, we (and display posters) were buffeted
by 40 mph wind gusts as professors on the Groundwater Advisory Panel along with
Ph.D. candidates from the University of Guelph in Ontario—yes, Doug, we
Californians are relying at least in part on Canadian expertise—explained how
they are trying to learn how the contaminants got to where they are and to
figure out where they are going.
e saw equipment used to drill to a depth of 419′ to extract 5′ long continuous core samples of rock which are studied for physical characteristics, crushed and tested for
contaminants, especially trichloroethylene (TCE), the industrial solvent that
was in constant use at the rocket testing site. The current studies find it
mostly at a depth of 100-200′. What looked like Tibetan prayer flags flapping in
the high winds turned out to be little Home Depot tags in blue, green, and red
stuck in the sampling trays to draw our attention to specific core samples,
showing shale, sandstone, and fractures.
Peter Pehme, a Canadian geophysicist (who, as a non-US-citizen must be escorted when he shows up to conduct his specialized testing) showed us the methods he’s developed using temperature profiling, gamma probes and pulses of energy and TV probes outfitted with magnetometers in his quest to figure out which fractures in the rock are
moving water, and how much, and in what direction—in other words, to understand
“contaminant transport and fate.” (I know this is serious business, but writers,
don’t you just love the language?)
We learned shale, with low porosity, serves as a barrier. Sandstone acts more like a sponge, soaking up chemicals. It holds onto the contaminants—which is good for the groundwater, but not good if the goal is getting the toxic stuff out.
We stood in a meadow looking at green rolling hills. This is where the nuclear reactors once stood. The notorious burn pit was nearby.
We drove past big corrugated metal industrial barns with silos and cranes and huge white spheres on stands, past pipelines and transmission lines and into verdant Bell Canyon, a wonderland of the most fantastical rock formations yet and willows and oaks and wildflowers lining gullies leading down to the seeps, where groundwater comes up
to the surface and can at last be seen. Bell Canyon is the “undeveloped area” of
the site as no operations were ever carried out here. “Paradise,” whispered a
woman standing behind me. Not quite. Monitoring has found volatile organic
contaminants (such as TCE) in some of these seeps. After rains, the TCE becomes
diluted and isn’t detected. At times, the water in the seeps start to bubble and
the TCE volatilizes and gets into the air so the water shows no contamination.
Innovative portable drills are being carried into less accessible locations to
drill monitoring wells that check for plumes of bad stuff that might travel.
Next stop we met Debbie Taege, the lead engineer for the Groundwater Extraction and Treatment System. (It was heartening, by the way, to meet her and other women on the site—Beth Parker and Amanda Pierce—with degrees in engineering and the sciences.) Taege has been on-the-job for two years now, ever since the cleanup operation
She showed us how water pumped from the site goes through a prefilter to remove sediment and then passes through a series of vessels, each well higher than my head. First, metals in the water have to be removed so they don’t clog up the works. Using aluminum silicate and dissolved oxygen, metals can be precipitated and filtered out.
Other metals, like iron, manganese, and zinc are caught using tiny plastic beads
with a reactive surface—creating waste materials that must then be disposed of
(safely, I hope). The water then moves through trays where air passes over to
turn some of the contaminants to vapor. The water and contaminated air then pass
through activated carbon which absorbs the bad stuff. The clean air is
released, but the water isn’t done yet. Peroxide starts the breakdown of larger
contaminants and then UV light agitates them more until they break up into safe
compounds so that the treated water now meets or exceeds drinking water
Actually, Taege explained, it’s too clean. Wildlife needs some minerals to survive so she next adds some calcium and other elements before releasing the water back into the
(One tour participant who had many complaints about the federal government objected to the cost of such elaborate treatment: “Why does it have to be cleaned up if no one is going to drink it?”)
Taege loves her job. “It’s a great group of people to work with,” she said. “We’re all
Surely there was terrible damage done more than fifty years ago and workers and nearby residents then suffered cancers and hormonal disturbances and mysterious rashes and central nervous system disorders because of what happened here. But this—to our great
good fortune—is not Fukushima. Maybe the danger is over, gone. But Christine
Rowe of the West Hills Neighborhood Council wanted to know if seeps in the
neighboring residential communities had been tested. Turns out, the water was
indeed tested—but not for contaminants.
As we returned to the bus, I looked at the spectacular view I could only enjoy because I was wearing a Boeing badge and in the company of an escort. What a shame, I thought, the public has no access to this. “That may change soon,” said my escort.
Boeing has no use for beautiful Bell Canyon. When it looked like the company wanted to unload the property—for what? public parkland? a new housing development? farming?—the California legislature in 2007 passed SB 990 to make it illegal for Boeing to
transfer or lease any part of the site without strict clean-up exceeding the
federal requirements. But earlier in the week, just days before I visited SSFL,
a federal judge threw out the California law as unconstitutional and unfair to
Boeing. The state is appealing the decision.
In the meantime, the rocks I love are being studied for their role in holding contaminants, in holding or blocking the flow of groundwater, but none of the experts we met with knew of any studies being done on the air or the soil. I wanted to be reassured but the wind blew hard and it occurred to me I should have used the Groundwater U bandana to shield my nose and mouth.
At home I shower and wonder if I’m washing radioactive dust from my skin and hair. The dirt goes down the drain as waste water, out into the world.
Day, 2011 -- Walking to the busstop, I passed a white guy about my age leaning
against a spanking new, spotless white car. "Fuck Wisconsin workers!" he
shouted. "Nice car," I said. "Fuck you, too, you lazy shit," he said. On the
bus, heading downtown to the march, little children chanted Sí,
The immigrants rights organizations were out in force. The lively LGBT contingent had rainbow flags and chants and signs -- "My Gender Has No Borders" "Keep Binational Couples Together." Organized labor provided great signs and water and sound trucks -- but where were the union workers? Individuals, small groups here and there, but nothing like the outpouring that came into the streets after Wisconsin. Disappointing. Especially considering the 2006 march in LA was the largest May Day march in US history.
Author, Playwright, Troublemaker