The mule and the driver

Mid April the EU signed a free trade agreement with Colombia. Now it is the turn of the parliaments involved to ratify the agreement. To remove any possible obstacles – Bogota’s human rights situation is controversial – a delegation of Members of the European Parliament paid a visit to Colombia. MO* was there too.

  • MO* A slum in Baranquilla MO*
  • MO* Manuel Castro lost his two daughters in a fire after an electricity cut MO*

European Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht officially attended the initialling of the free trade agreement: ‘This agreement represents an historic step in our trade relations and our relations in general. It will deliver considerable economic benefits to both parties. European exporters will save EUR 250 million in tariffs per year between now and 2020. This will encourage economic growth in this critical period.’ De Gucht evokes the mantra of free trade: ‘I believe that open economies play a key role in strengthening democratic institutions. It is evidence that the legal framework dominates.’ Colombian Minister of Trade Sergio Dìaz-Granados agrees: ‘Trade is one of the most important instruments for stimulating development. The economic growth that will be sparked by this agreement will be good for the stability and development of our people. The best way to help Colombia is to enable free trade that stimulates economic growth and creates jobs. Our economy grew by 4.6% last year; this year we hope 5.5% and once the agreement comes into effect 6%.’

Good news show

At the headquarters of the EU in the Colombian capital Bogota, I meet with Member of European Parliament (MEP) José Manuel Garcìa Margallo, also a member of the European People’s Party and the People’s Party of Spain. He is leading the European delegation of seven MEPs – five of whom are Spaniards. Garcìa Margallo discusses a number of the hot topics in the relations between the EU and Colombia. One of them is that European car manufacturers must be granted easier access to the Colombian market, in his opinion. Colombian cars are suitable to drive with an 85% mixture of ethanol or biodiesel, while European cars require a lower percentage mixture. According to this MEP, the Colombian government would arrange something to make it work. The import of alcoholic beverages also needs to be streamlined. In addition there is the human rights discussion. ‘Everyone in the delegation agrees that Colombia has made great progress compared to a number of years ago. We have met with the High Commissioner for Integration, the High Court and civil society organisations.’ And then Garcìa Margallo echoes the mantra of De Gucht: ‘Trade is the best way to help Colombia. More trade brings more wealth, more opportunity to redistribute this wealth and more chances to fight poverty.’ He is optimistic about the attitude of the European Parliament. ‘The European People’s Party has a majority in favour of the trade agreement, as do the conservatives. In the socialist camp two-thirds are in favour. The United Left is unanimously against it.’

On the topic of Colombia’s new president, Juan Manuel Santos, Garcìa Margallo is full of praise. ‘His willingness to fight lawlessness is indisputable. Personally I am very sympathetic towards the Santos administration.’ The proponents of the free trade agreement point to the new perspectives that the Santos administration opens up in the battle against human rights violations and lawlessness. Nevertheless, the figures are not in accordance with expectations. Since 2008 violence statistics have been rising again.

Unequal partners

Expectations are that the Colombian parliament will approve the trade agreement. Still, criticism is also being voiced in Colombia. According to Enrique Daza, the coordinator of Recalca, the free trade agreement is not taking into account the unequal positions of EU and Colombia. Recalca is a network of Colombian civil society organisations who feel sceptical about the free trade agreement. Recalca was not invited to the meeting held between the European delegation and Colombian civil society.

Daza emphasises the differences between the two agreement partners: the GNP of Europe is EUR 10,642,000; Colombia EUR 160,572 (2009). The average income in the EU is EUR 21,222, in Colombia EUR 3,429. Moreover, the agreement will again reduce Colombia to an export country of raw materials and natural resources – as colonisation did, 500 years ago. Colombia after all will mainly be exporting coal, minerals, energy crops, and flowers, while Europe will be exporting finished products such as machines, vehicles and chemical products.

The Colombian federation of dairy farmers, Fedegan, is also strongly agitating against the agreement. According to Fedegan, 400,000 small farmers could go bankrupt if the Colombian market is flooded with European dairy products. Europe refused to exclude these products from the treaty. For bananas, however, a special arrangement was reached; they will not fall under completely free trade, only a small tariff reduction is arranged. The reason is that the EU must respect earlier banana import agreements with a series of countries in Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP countries).

The trade agreement also provides for liberalisation of all kinds of services: energy, water, healthcare, transport, telecommunications and financial services. A considerable portion of domestic services provision (gas, water, electric) is already being supplied by European multinationals such as Union Fenosa-Gas Natural, Endesa and Aguas de Barcelona. Europe itself, however, has always protected its services sector. Only 10% of public service provision is carried out by companies from outside the EU.

Not so rose-coloured

Colombia has two decades of experience with privatisation, also involving European companies. In the seven departments of the Caribbean coast, energy provision is in hands of the Spanish multinational Union Fenosa (UF) – Gas Natural Fenosa since 2009. In particular, sister companies Electricaribe and Energìa Social guarantee the distribution and commercialisation of electricity. They cover an area of 132,244 square kilometres, ten million inhabitants and 186 communities. Seventy percent of the population is poor. Energìa Social was created in 2004 with the express purpose of supplying electricity to hundreds of thousands of poor people in the slums (the so-called barrios subnormales). That looks good on paper, but reality turned out less rose-coloured. Between 2004 and 2010 no less than 600 people were electrocuted, including employees as well as customers of Union Fenosa. Out of this number, 450 people did not survive. The cause of these electrical accidents was the poor state of the electricity grid. Electricity poles and houses often are not properly grounded and transformers explode – leaving streets without electricity for hours, sometimes days. To reduce costs and prevent theft, the copper wire has systematically been replaced by aluminium wire, which is less resistant to the salty sea air. Labourers meanwhile are complaining about low wages and the lack of safety measures.

At a very well attended press conference in coast town Barranquilla, several testimonies were heard of eye witnesses and family members of the deceased. In 2009, over a period of two months, twenty people died from electrocution there. The press conference was organised by a Caribbean Network of Users of Public Services, which was founded in part to address the malpractices of Union Fenosa. Two young women tell of the death of their husbands, who died in the same work-related accident. They do not want to give their real names out of fear of reprisals. Next the parents of Wilmer tell their tale. Their son was only nine when he was hit by a fatal electricity surge when opening the fridge. Another man tells how his wife was electrocuted by a ventilator.

What does the company Energìa Social say about these accidents? ‘We are responsible for delivering electricity to the houses,’ says director Miguel Angel Santiesteban to MO*. ‘What happens inside the houses is not our responsibility.’

‘No one can guarantee safe electricity’.

In Riohacha, a coastal town 200 kilometres away from Baranquilla, citizens organised protests against the terrible service of Energìa Social in June 2009. The company responded by turning off the electricity for the entire town for five days. When it was turned on again, it caused such a huge energy surge that an electricity pole fell down on the house of Manuel Castro. The house caught on fire and Manuel’s sleeping daughters of two and three years old were burnt to a cinder.

Director Santiesteban shows a picture of Manuel’s house. ‘Do you see what a lousy wooden hut the man had for a house? Of course it will catch fire easily. We did reimburse Manuel, by the way. He was given a mattress and household goods, so he could make a fresh start. Of course we cannot give him his children back.’ According to Santiesteban his company cannot take any of the blame. ‘The situation in the barrio subnormales is so disastrous that no one can guarantee stable and safe electricity provision there. These slums shouldn’t be allowed at all, the communities shouldn’t permit it. But, people are fleeing the guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug dealers, floods, etc.’ However, Energìa Social was founded precisely for the purpose of providing electricity to these citizens. And it receives subsidies for this precise purpose, too. Energìa Social, moreover, is continually putting the government under pressure for more subsidies. Director Santiesteban confirms this. ‘Two years ago we wanted to leave this area because it is a mission impossible.’ A consultation with the government resulted in new concessions, including a levy on all electricity supplied, paid by Colombians all over the country.


In scorching hot Cartagena, the city of famous novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I meet with Ruben Castro of Asojebol, a trade union of retired employees of the company Electricaribe. Castro complains that the pensions of the employees of Electrocosta – taken over by Electricaribe – are blocked at a trust company. According to Castro, the company, moreover, has done all it can to break syndicalism.

During the privatisation processes on the Caribbean coast, 27 social leaders were killed by the paramilitary. According to Asojebol, there are close ties between the paramilitary and the multinationals. Castro, too, has experienced persecution from close quarters. ‘At a certain moment management asked me to leave Colombia because I was causing too much trouble. I refused. Next they suggested a car with blacked out windows and bodyguards. That too I refused. They called me arrogant. I received numerous threats and finally decided to leave. My wife was kidnapped, intimidated and ultimately left behind somewhere beyond city limits, frightened out of her wits. Our apartment was turned upside down without anything being stolen.’

Don’t these companies have to answer to anyone? Castro: ‘Well yes, there is the Ombudsman Office for Public Domestic Services, but it is financed by the company itself…so the risk of undue influence is large’. Organisations such as the Colombian José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective (Ccajar), the European Coalition for Corporate Justice (ECCJ) and SOMO in the Netherlands track all these malpractices and plan to call the companies in Spain to account.

‘Our money flows to countries abroad’

Senator Robledo of Colombian opposition party Polo Democratico Alternativo sighs: ‘The Colombian economy has become denationalised. All the capital is flowing abroad – to Europe and the USA – and a small elite in Colombia is sharing in the gravy train. We have been a Spanish colony once before. That time they took our land in return for shiny little mirrors. We don’t want that to happen again. Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela do not have any free trade agreements. A free trade agreement ruins the national production structure and destroys regional integration.’

Nevertheless, Robledo makes an effort to clearly state he is not in favour of exclusion. ‘It is very important that we maintain good relations with the USA and Europe. With Europe we already have the GSP+ (General System of Preferences) and that is good. We do not need a free trade agreement. I am against a relationship such as the one between a mule and its driver, where we are the mule and the multinationals are the drivers.’

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Over de auteur

  • Latijns-Amerika & ecologie
    Alma De Walsche schrijft over ecologische thema’s, van klimaat- en energiebeleid, over landbouw- en voedsel tot transitie-initiatieven en baanbrekers. Ze volgt al enkele decennia Latijns-Amerika, met een speciale focus op de Andeslanden.