Mission Not Accomplished

By Elizabeth Palmberg 04-13-2012
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama disembarks from Marine One, en route to Cartegena, Colombia. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Whatever President Obama does at the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia this weekend may not be front-page news in the U.S—but for many Colombians trying to make an honest living in their homeland, it could just be Obama's "Mission Accomplished" banner moment.

President George W. Bush's May 2003 speech in front of a giant "Mission Accomplished" sign was, to put it mildly, a premature declaration of triumph in the U.S. war with Iraq, an enterprise that was a bad idea in the first place. In Cartagena this weekend, word is that Obama may declare that, after one year of a promised four-year plan, Colombia has met its commitments to crack down on offenses against Colombian workers' rights and lives.

If Obama makes such a declaration, it would mean that the the U.S.-Colombia Trade Agreement could move full steam ahead. Colombia only signed onto the four-year labor action plan to begin with in order to persuade Congress to pass the trade accord, which had been held up by U.S. concerns about Colombia's abysmal human rights record (as Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli wrote last summer in Sojourners magazine).

It's definitely not a good time to declare victory for the hard-working laborers of Colombia. Four trade unionists have been murdered in the first months of 2012 alone, and despite the labor plan's promises there is still widespread use of the illegal practice of setting up shell organizations (called "cooperatives") to separate workers from their protections and pension rights under Colombian law.  While I was in Colombia last year, I heard firsthand from advocates for sugar cane workers who had suffered from this legal dodge.

If the Obama administration gives Colombia a green light on its extremely dubious labor record, it just might be the biggest tall tale set in Cartagena since Romancing the Stone. But, in stark contrast to that popcorn flick, it will have a lot less happy of an ending.

Elizabeth Palmberg is an associate editor of Sojourners magazine.

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