Angelino Garzon, the vice president of Colombia, is one of the most unlikely defenders of the free-trade agreement that the U.S. Congress passed late Wednesday and that this Andean nation had been awaiting for nearly five years.
A former union organizer that faced off with the government during the 1970s, Garzon led the local Communist Party for more than two decades and witnessed the systematic assassination of leftist politicians during some of the darkest days in Colombia’s decades-old civil war with Marxist guerillas.
Yet Garzon is now a steadfast defender of a deal that has been scorned by the most powerful unions in the U.S.
Since the trade talks started in 2004, unions in the U.S. and Colombia launched a fierce attack against the agreement, citing Colombia’s long list of murdered union leaders as evidence that the country was unprepared and undeserving of the trade benefits in the deal.
Led by the U.S. labor federation AFL-CIO, the unions gave a black eye to the reputation of Colombia on Capitol Hill. Colombia had to wait longer than South Korea and Panama, which also had their trade deals approved Wednesday, and it received the fewest votes in favor.
In an interview Wednesday, shortly before the free-trade agreement was approved, Garzon, 65, said the long delay for the passage of the trade agreement with Colombia, which was originally signed in November 2006, was the result of U.S political jockeying and a policy of protectionism in Congress rather than to Colombia’s human-rights record.
The delay in passing the trade deal was also a blemish in the strong relationship between Colombian and Washington, which has spent more than $6 billion over the last nine years financing Colombia’s crackdown on narcotrafficking and Marxisit guerrillas.
“We have made tremendous progress in defending human rights and in protecting and working with unions,” Garzon said.
Garzon stands in stark contrast with the rest of President Juan Manuel Santos’ government, which is dominated by economists, many of them trained in the U.S.
Garzon’s blue-collar demeanor and his background as the son of a market-shop owner could not be more different than the patrician Santos, the scion of one of Colombia’s most influential families who was educated at the London School of Economics and Harvard University.
Despite the differences, Garzon shares the government’s belief that the trade agreement will help reinforce Colombia’s progress by creating more jobs and also allowing U.S. authorities to closely monitor the country’s policy on unions and human rights.
The deal will create some 250,000 jobs in Colombia and boost exports by 6%, according to government estimates.
The murder of union leaders, something that has been regularly cited by detractors of the trade deal, has been declining in recent years as the government has bolstered the protection of activists, he said. Ten years ago there were 205 union leaders murdered in Colombia. For the first six months of the year, that figure stands at 17.
“We know that one is one too many, but we are making progress,” Garzon said. “These murders are an expression of the irrational violence that Colombia has suffered for so long,” he added.
Colombia has been mired in a civil war for nearly five decades now, with cocaine money serving to fuel a leftist insurgency. Right-wing paramilitary death squads, which demobilized in the last few years, emerged in the early 1990s and targeted labor leaders for their leftist ideas.
The attacks led to a steady drop in union membership and today the country’s largest union estimates that only 3.5% of workers are unionized. But workers are once again joining unions as the country has improved security, argues Garzon.
“There’s a state policy that is the defense of unions as a democratic institution,” he said.
Recent labor protests that halted output at Colombia’s largest oil field for several days is evidence that unions are gaining new strength, Garzon added.
The vice president publicly sided with the protesters, who were demanding better working conditions and more jobs for local residents, while other government officials condemned the blockade, which affected nearly a quarter of the country’s oil output.
Being a union leader in Colombia has changed dramatically in the last few years, according to Garzon, who defines himself as a center-left politician. “I know first hand what repression looks like and that ended several yeas ago,” he said.
“There was a time when a union wanted to carry out a demonstration and the riot police would attack us before we even started,” he said. “Any strike was declared illegal immediately and the leaders were imprisoned,” Garzon said. “As a union leader, I would have wanted to be in the situation we are in now.”