Colombia's Uribe defends his record on trade union murders

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Israel Leal / AP

BOGOTA — Beset by a political scandal at home and tense relations with his left-wing neighbors, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is determined to beat the political odds and secure a prized free-trade agreement with the United States.

In a 50-minute interview, Uribe rattled off data to argue that trade unionists in Colombia are safer now than before -- hoping to neutralize a key argument by opponents to stall the deal.

His comments came amid new official figures showing a sudden rise of labor union murders earlier this year after significant declines in the past four years. Colombian officials said the latest rise in murders may be a statistical blip, and that the overall trend points at progress in the crackdown on violence against labor union leaders.

Uribe said his government's revamping of the justice system, the doubling of prosecutors' budgets, and major financial rewards for citizens who provide information leading to convictions contributed to a record 122 accused killers being held in prison, and 96 convictions.

Five years ago, he said, there were virtually no arrests or convictions in these cases.

'Much of this [progress] happened last year, and now we are working in a three-party agreement between the International Labor Organization, labor unions and prosecutors to overcome impunity of labor union activists' killers,'' Uribe said.

Despite hard lobbying by Uribe and President Bush, the Colombia trade agreement has become bogged down by its association with an unpopular U.S. president and the trade-skeptic mood sweeping America.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has conditioned passage of the Colombia trade deal to first passing ``a legislative package for jobs and economic growth here at home.''

Republicans accuse Democrats, who have refused to bring the agreement to a vote, of making unreasonable demands. They point out that Colombian goods already enter the United States duty-free.

''I really don't understand why the speaker wants to hold hostage American workers, American businesses who could benefit with more free trade with Colombia,'' a frustrated House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday.

Uribe sticks to the numbers to illustrate his government's advances.

Killings of labor union leaders have dropped steadily from about 200 in 2002, to 60 in 2006, to 26 in 2007. But the deaths of 22 labor union activists so far this year have triggered alarm bells in some government quarters and prompted Uribe to raise financial rewards for people who offer valuable information.

''Last month, we started a new national plan of rewards for information to solve these murders, and it's working,'' said Andrés Palacio, vice minister of labor. ``Since then, we have already captured five people linked to four of the most recent killings.''

''As far as we're concerned, there is a clear pattern of violence against trade unionists in certain sectors, and certainly trade unionists who are involved in union disputes,'' said Thea Lee, policy director with the AFL-CIO, which has spearheaded the opposition to the Colombia deal. ``Can a trade unionist do his or her job without fear of his or her life? I think the answer is no.''

Beyond the dueling statistical battles, Uribe expressed confusion over the U.S. Congress' failure to pass the free trade deal. ''As a political signal, it's hard to understand,'' he said.

The treaty 'is not that attractive in terms of the extent to which we could increase our exports to the United States, but because the treaty contributes in generating investors' confidence,'' he said. ``A country that has this drug-trafficking problem, this terrorism problem, is a country that needs a major influx of investments to give our compatriots an alternative.''

In addition, he said, failure to pass the agreement could leave Colombia at a disadvantage with countries such as Peru and Chile and Central American nations that already have free-trade deals with the United States, and can thus export their goods duty-free to the U.S. market. ''It's a good question to ask in the U.S. Congress, whether that's fair,'' he said.

José Miguel Vivanco, a senior Human Rights Watch advocacy group official who recently recommended against congressional passage of the U.S.-Colombia labor deal because of the labor union violence, noted that almost half of the 96 convictions cited by Uribe happened just last year.

''That was because the pressure of the U.S. Congress is working,'' Vivanco said. ``That's why Congress must sustain the pressure by continuing to delay the free-trade agreement.''

Uribe, who despite an 84 percent approval rating in his country is facing multiple political troubles at home and abroad, tried to steer away from his recent squabbles with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa over politically explosive documents found in computers seized by the Colombian army during a March 1 raid on a FARC camp inside Ecuador.

Uribe said it is an issue he has to treat ''with great prudence.'' He stated, however, that — contrary to Chávez and Correa's public skepticism about the computer files' authenticity — the seized rebel computers contain ``what our police found, without erasing nor adding anything.''

A team of Interpol forensic computer experts invited by Colombia to examine the authenticity of the files is scheduled to issue its ruling within the next two weeks, Colombian officials say. The two laptops are being examined by the Interpol exports in Singapore, they say.

The computer files contain, among other things, repeated references to a Chávez promise to give $300 million to the FARC, and to the guerrilla group's financial support of Correa's presidential campaign.

Regarding the arrest of more than 30 current and former congressmen investigated for ties with Colombia's right-wing paramilitary groups, including his second cousin and close associate Sen. Mario Uribe, the president said he will ''go forward'' with his duties without interfering with the investigation.

But he said he was personally hurt by the episode, and suggested that prosecutors are focusing exclusively on the political ties of right-wing paramilitary groups, and failing to look into the political connections of leftist guerrillas.

'In the guerrillas' case, these [political] connections haven't been investigated,'' Uribe said. ``They will have to be investigated in the future.''

On Friday, Colombia's Supreme Court announced it would investigate alleged FARC guerrillas' ties to leftist legislators. The recently seized FARC computer files contain information showing close contacts between rebel leaders and several Colombian politicians, including prominent leftist Sen. Piedad Cordoba.

Bachelet reported from Washington, and Oppenheimer reported from Bogotá.