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Colombian President in Canada to woo politicians over free trade

VANCOUVER - If you’ve been following the media's coverage of the Lower Mainland’s drug-fuelled gang wars, you might be forgiven for thinking that the only thing Canada trades with Colombia is cocaine.

But with the President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, in Canada this week, the real debate is whether a free trade agreement between the countries will help fight Colombian drug gangs, or just add legitimacy to a government criticized for allowing human rights abuses to go unpunished.

A formal free trade agreement between the two countries was signed last fall. This spring, the federal government introduced legislation to implement the deal, but it is not clear whether opposition politicians will let it pass.

According to Statistics Canada, Canada’s (legal) trade with Colombia was valued at approximately $640 million in each direction in 2008. That’s about 1.5 per cent of Canada’s total international merchandise trade.

But the reasons both governments want a free trade agreement have as much to do with politics as with economics.

For Uribe and the government of Colombia, it’s about increased legitimacy at home and improved alliances abroad.

For the Harper government, it’s part of a commitment to pursue free trade wherever practical. Canada is negotiating free trade agreements with countries and groups as diverse as the European Union and the Dominican Republic.

A free trade agreement with Peru was signed a week after the agreement with Colombia. Legislation to implement that treaty is passing through Parliament with little opposition.

But when it comes to Colombia, there is plenty of opposition -- from organized labour, environmental groups and even the United Church of Canada.

The federal NDP and Bloc Québecois are also opposing the deal. The federal Liberals have been less clear about their position. As a result, they have been targeted by those trying to block the agreement.

In a detailed summary of arguments against the agreement, Canadian writer Justin Podur of the alternative media source ZNet argued:

If Liberals are motivated by "liberal" principles - of human rights, free expression and assembly, and equal economic opportunity for all - then they should reject the [Canada Colombia Free Trade Agreement].

The Colombian regime violates human rights systematically, and for reasons related to free trade agreements. The [Canadian Council for International Cooperation] Report, "Making a Bad Situation Worse", reports that 46 Colombian unionists were killed in 2008, and 39 in 2007.

These unionists were assassinated by paramilitaries that are organized, trained, and run by the military and have been found to work directly for politicians to "cleanse" territories of indigenous and peasant populations and worker's unions. These are not speculative accusations or claims. The evidence for them has been documented by human rights organizations for decades, but in recent years it has also come out in courts of law, the Colombian media, and the international media.

After one day of debate on May 25, the legislation has disappeared from the parliamentary schedule. Apparently, the Conservatives don’t want to risk having a vote on the bill until they are sure it would pass.

In the meantime, Colombian officials are working to sell the deal.

In advance of the President’s visit, Colombian Foreign Affairs Minister Jamie Bermúdez Merizalde visited Ottawa last week, and spoke with opposition politicians.

He also spoke with reporter Lee Berthiaume of Embassy newspaper, which covers issues involving or of interest to members of Ottawa’s diplomatic community.

In the interview, Merizalde acknowledged Colombia’s problems with violence, including the murder of unionists. However, he also argued:

… every inch that we open up to legitimate trade, for legitimate investment, for legitimate tourism, et cetera, is an inch that we Colombia take away from narco-trafficking and terrorist activities, which is a key issue for Colombia, for the region and for the entire continent. …

[In addition, the agreement] is very important for the two countries to work together hand-in-hand to improve the human rights situation, to improve environmental situation, to improve the labour issues, and so on and so forth. So we can work together in improving the current situation, which is a serious concern for Colombia, for the Colombian government, and I believe for the entire community.

Many of the same themes will likely be covered when President Uribe gives a speech Wednesday morning to the International Economic Forum of the Americas conference in Montreal.

After the speech, Uribe is expected to travel to Ottawa to meet with federal politicians from all parties.

Ready to greet him will be a protest organized by the Canadian Labour Congress.

Amelia Bellamy-Royds reports for The Tyee.

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