Nova Scotia Liberal Scott Brison is usually a careful politician who knows exactly what he's talking about when he debates. That is my impression of the man over some years now.
That is why it is surprising to learn what Brison said in the House of Commons last week about C-23, the bill to implement a free trade agreement with Colombia. It would appear the Liberals, among them key proponents Brison and Toronto Centre MP Bob Rae, who visited Colombia briefly in August, support the bill without the extensive rights review demanded by critics. (There is apparently dissension in Liberal ranks though, including among a couple of prominent MPs.)
Here's a part of what Brison said (with the bold being mine) last week during debate in the Commons:
Madam Speaker, the hon. member claims that paramilitary groups have murdered trade unionists this year. She should be aware that paramilitary groups have been disbanded in Colombia, but there are drug gangsters who continue to exist. There continues to be a battle between FARC, the leftist guerrillas who philosophically are closer to her party, and the drug lords who continue to operate in what has become not an ideological war today but a drug war.
To say that paramilitary forces are murdering union leaders today is false, because everybody who has been studying the issue recognizes that the paramilitary forces have been disbanded, and in fact the trend line on these attacks has decreased tremendously. The fact is that there is a drug war in Colombia and the best way to provide an alternative to the narco-economy is through legitimate trade.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe would like nothing more than for Canadian parliamentarians to praise his efforts to restore peace to his country and disband the paramilitaries. The politically correct image is one in which FARC and other guerrilla groups, as well as drug traffickers, kill civilians. That is, however, not the full story.
The paramilitaries - let's be frank here, the death squads
- are linked to the army and they are doing their fair share of the killing, according to the dogwork of respected rights and labour organizations (both national and international) and, among other journalistic endeavours, my own extensive reporting from and about Colombia. In fact, the latest figures
provided to the Canadian Labour Congress by rights groups in Colombia says 460 unionists have been murdered since 2002 when Uribe came to power, 49 in 2008 alone. The CLC made its own submission to Parliament on Bill C-23.
Brison called alleged connections between legislators and paramilitary groups "hallucinations" but there's nothing hallucinatory about these deaths.
Nobody argues the guerrillas - notably FARC - haven't become corrupted and entangled in the drug business since the early days of idealism, or that they're not doing their own share of kidnapping and killing. (It's too bad that point even has to be made, but given the level of debate it's the equivalent of the customary, "That doesn't mean I support Saddam," when decrying the U.S. bombing of Iraq).
Brison and I talked today and he made the point the information was provided to him in Colombia: that the paramilitaries have been disbanded and operate completely independently of the government and that most of them are actually drug gangsters. He said he listened to a wide range of views and makes the point "paramilitaries implies linkage to the government and the military" and he doesn't believe that to be the case.
We differ on concept here. Yes, "paramilitaries" does imply links to the government and military but by their very nature they work in the shadows and the government claims to be clean. To repeat: that's standard operating procedure. It's called deniability; you know the drill. I remember interviewing nuns in a mountain village - literally a day's rough going up into the mountains on muleback - north of Apartado in northern Colombia. Here, the death squads are very strong, with names like the "headcutters" to describe their modus operandi. A death squad arrived on a Saturday afternoon, lined up several old men and youths in the village common and gunned them down. Overhead, military helicopters circled during the entire massacre. I got there within a day or two of the massacre and, yes, I later interviewed government and the military brass and they all claimed these squads operated independently of the government. They were shocked - shocked and outraged. (Going back down the mountain on muleback was frightening because military helicopters circles overhead for most of the 10-12 hours; I was pretty scared.) Since the word of nuns is not considered credible - compared to high-falutin' government officials and their contacts who welcome foreign dignataries - such stories are collected by rights groups and journalists and too often ignored. Human rights reports, by the way, aren't compiled from offices in Bogota; eye-witness testimony is searched out and verified by highly trained and brave field workers.
The other point is that paramilitaries, guerrillas, corrupt politicians = drug trade. What's new? They are all multi-dextrous, involved to some degree or another in trafficking, making the "drug trade" the excuse of choice by governments for coming down hard on legitimate opposition in much of Latin America. That, and the "threat of terrorism." The reason the death squads have motivation to kill peasants, unionists, religious workers, teachers and other civic leaders is to keep people too frightened to rise up and protest against governments who sign away their crops in international agreements and save the best resources for foreign corporations. Keep them in their place.
Going to Colombia is certainly better than not going and, for that reason, I applaud Brison and Rae for making the effort. But, as is often the case, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and it would appear there is a full-court press campaign to bring legislators onside in the U.S. and, oh yeah, in Canada. Brison is a respected MP with integrity and his opinions are taken seriously. This blog post attests to the authority and influence I believe he carries (as does Rae).
A final note: Trade agreements are controversial, including this one with Colombia
. I've always found it strange there's an embargo against, say, Cuba, and not, say, China. If you are inclined to favor trade agreements, fine, do so on Colombia. Brison argues trade can only help (a point that is hotly debated not because it's trade but by the nature of the neo-liberal deals adopted by the Colombians who benefit, notably wealthy landowners). But don't whitewash the actions of a government led by a president accused by Colombian human rights groups of sanctioning death squad activity when he was governor of Antioquia (where Apartado is located) in order to sell free trade. Rights groups claim workers trying to organize on Uribe's own family ranch were assassinated by the death squads. He is very well-known for his tirades against human rights organizations and the slick operations of his sales team.
For more reading, there are scores of reports about what's really going on in Colombia although it must be said the information has not been sanctioned by the Presidencia in Bogota. Here's a small sample.
The struggle against the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is far from over, however. While members of the Colombia Trade Reference Group of the Americas Policy Group—to which CPT belongs—have credited civil society’s opposition to the Bill for having an impact on the Liberal position, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s office continues to circulate a letter stating that “we support the principle of free trade with Colombia and will vote to send this legislation to committee for an in depth analysis.
The letter claims that the International Crisis Group (ICG) acknowledges that the human rights situation has improved under the current Colombian government. In fact, ICG’s most recent report on Colombia, released 25 May 2009, states that “serious abuses, including of international humanitarian law, persist and in some instances are even increasing