Opening of “Remember Me” Art Exhibition and Panel Discussion Recap

If you could stop murders before they happened, would you? What about job loss and increased poverty?

With the Colombian Free Trade Agreement (FTA) still pending you can. According to Arthur Stamoulis, of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign, there is still a week to urge your representatives to vote against the passage of FTA.

70,000 people have died in Colombia over the last 20 years, which has the largest internal displacement in the world. Many of these people were innocent civilians, victimized by paramilitary violence funded by billions of dollars in US aid.

Over the years, US tax dollars as well as money from corporations like Coca-Cola and Chiquita have gone into the hands of anti-union businessmen and paramilitary groups. Despite the violence, these entities have continued to pump aid money into Colombia and are now pushing for a FTA that will further erode the human rights of the Colombian people.

Stamoulis spoke on a panel for the opening night of “Remember Me: Voices of the Silenced in Colombia Art Exhibition,” being held at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Portland. “Remember Me” is presented by Witness for Peace Northwest, Lutheran World Relief and the Latin America Working Group.

The collection of artwork comes from family and friends of those slain in Colombia. It includes quilts with the faces of slain union workers and wooden guns crafted by children.

If you’ve only heard politicians’ rhetoric about the FTA, these images might come as a shock. President Obama, who opposed the deal during his campaign, now claims it will create jobs by loosening trade restrictions and allowing private enterprises to hire Colombians with their expansive wealth.

Anyone familiar with past free trade agreements should know they are characterized by outsourcing and privatization, both recipes for job loss. For example, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which established a partnership between Canada, Mexico and the US, has resulted in the outsourcing of American jobs and the loss of indigenous Mexican workers’ land to private businesses.

Private businesses are loyal to their bottom line first and foremost, which means they cut as many workers as possible to achieve maximum efficiency. This has produced some of the wealthiest entrepreneurs around the world as well as some of the largest wealth gaps.

One unintended (at least I’d like to hope so) consequence of NAFTA was a more empowered drug industry. When Mexicans lost their jobs, a number of people were forced to turn to the drug industry to feed their families. Similarly, Americans, especially in low-income neighborhoods, suffered a similar fate. While this has boosted the prison and defense industry, it’s been catastrophic for countless communities as evidenced by the 40,000 speculated dead in the Mexican Drug War and the millions dead or in prison in the US.

According to the Colombian Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Affairs, full liberalization (proposed by the FTA) would lead to the loss of 35 percent of agricultural employment. In a country like Colombia that is known for its large cocaine industry, it doesn’t take a psychic to see what massive job loss will lead to.

“There’s always someone willing to help you with coke,” says Stamoulis. “If you buy the premise that we’re trying to eradicate drugs the FTA flies in the face of it.”

The US presence in Colombia has been far from helpful for some time now. In 2000, the US launched an aid package called Plan Colombia. According to Vanessa Kritzer of the Latin America Working Group, 80 percent of this package went to military aid, which supported Colombian paramilitary groups.

In addition to supplying more weapons to a country plagued by violence, the US also deployed aerial sprays to supposedly kill coca plants. Over a decade and $8 billion later, Kritzer says the levels of cocaine are the same and in fact, coca plants have become resistant. To add insult to injury she notes that small scale farmers have lost 50-70 percent of their income due to the spraying of legitimate agriculture and some children were born with defects directly related to the chemicals.

Even though a 1991 agreement guaranteed Afro-Colombians the right to their lands, there has been little to stop the right wing, anti-union backlash.

Subsidized grain from the US continues to put small scale Colombian farmers out of work. As a result of being displaced from their land, most often violently, refugees make up ten percent of the population.

Colombia leads the world in trade unionists murdered. If often accounts for more than all other countries combined. 51 were killed in 2010. There are no measures preventing anti-union violence in the FTA.

As the opening night of the “Remember Me” exhibit closed, panelists urged audience members to sign 51 small crosses with the names of slain union members. These crosses will be hung outside the office of Representative Earl Blumenauer, who supports the FTA, during a demonstration on Friday July 15th at 12:30 pm.

The Oregon Fair Trade Campaign also encourages anyone to call Blumenauer and persuade him to vote against the FTA. His office can be reached at (503)-231-2300.

The “Remember Me” exhibit is open from 10 am to 2 pm Monday through Friday and by appointment at First Congrational United Church of Christ, which is located on 1126 SW Park Avenue in downtown Portland.

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One Response to “Opening of “Remember Me” Art Exhibition and Panel Discussion Recap”

  1. 4justice46 Says:

    Telling the other story!

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