Secret Service Fiasco: President Obama's Missed Opportunity in Colombia

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal's column.

The last week has been somewhat controversial for President Obama and the U.S. Secret Service. What most people have been hearing about is the behavior of the Secret Service members responsible for looking after the president of the United States during his recent visit to Colombia. Since the facts of the situation are widely known, I will forego repeating information that has embarrassed our country.  

Last year, I traveled to Cali, Colombia, for the second time in my tenure as an elected official, and more importantly as an official that has a unique perspective when it comes to Afro-Latino issues throughout the Americas and the Caribbean.

The purpose of my trips was to offer the perspective of political leadership in the United States as a minority and to also bring back information for our government when it comes to the status of Afro-Latinos in South America. Cali, Colombia, has the largest percentage of Afro-Latinos in South America, right behind Brazil. Much of what I found was the fact these citizens have retained a great amount of their African heritage, more so than African-Americans in the United States, as each has similar histories.

I wrote about the status of Afro-Latinos four years ago, and I am writing about it again because the bad behavior of a few agents has overshadowed the reason the president traveled to Colombia. You can read my report about my first visit in 2007 by following this link.

During my most recent trip in 2011, I met Vice President Angelino Garzon, who is a former union organizer. As an organizer, he saw many union members, their families and their friends targeted and often killed while fighting for equal rights and sound working conditions. This vice president is one elected by people who have suffered terrible working conditions and violent hostility. Even though party identity is very different in South America, the current V.P. could be closely identified as a conservative Democrat in some areas.

Vice President Garzon has worked diligently to ensure the Afro-Latino population has more support than in past administrations, many of which ignored this population. Union members and Afro-Colombians have been kicked around and displaced for more than five centuries. They have been killed and made to feel as if they were third-class citizens. They were forced to move to an area called the Pacifico, isolated miles away from inland access. The Pacifico is made up mainly of Afro-Latinos. Now that paramilitary groups are “non-existent,” former members have resorted to living off the land where Afro-Latinos have lived for centuries. The clash between these two groups has increased the number of deaths among Afro-Colombians because some refuse to leave what is now known to be very valuable land. 

Afro-Colombians have tried to sustain their lives by creating and manufacturing products derived from the land they’ve lived on. Colombia’s informal market is one where poor people can make a decent living without government interference. Government interference has historically meant that business is shut down and people starve. 

In the United States, the informal market can be equated to the Black Market, but without a negative connotation – one cultural difference between the two countries. As I attended several events while in Colombia, I was approached by people who had products they wanted to sell overseas. Many of these business people asked for guidance and wanted me to encourage our federal government to sign the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement so their people would have a mechanism to thrive economically.

The significance of the free trade agreement between our two countries is that President Obama convinced Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to approve Colombia’s fulfillment of the terms protecting its workers, allowing both sides to proceed with putting the free trade agreement into effect. The agreement provides a valuable opportunity to stand up for the rights of workers throughout Colombia, including the Pacifico. The free trade deal between our two nations could provide as much as $1.1 billion for U.S. exports when it takes full effect on May 15, 2012.

According to U.S. trade representatives, the new Colombian labor certification will lead to the establishment of a new labor ministry, give workers the right to organize, prosecute past cases of violence against union organizations and provide protections for them. The United State will offer Colombia assistance as it implements the new labor protections and rules. Obviously this agreement is a work in progress, but it is a step in the right direction. Hopefully this agreement can be used as a blueprint for neighboring nations as they enter the global marketplace, while still protecting their citizens and workers from unfair working conditions and economic barriers.

During my time in Colombia, I met citizens who understand the value of hard work, but they have no way to bear the fruits of their labor. I am proud of our President in this instance and the men and women of Colombia who are standing up for their rights. Hopefully I will be able to travel back someday and revisit some of the people who made my trip so enjoyable.

I will remember my trips to Colombia as positive experiences, and I hope you understand the significance of the agreement our two nations have signed. Trade agreements between the United States and developing countries benefit each in their own way, but we must ensure that the workers in these developing nations enjoy the same protections and rights that American workers have secured over the years. Signing trade agreements with nations that exploit their workers benefits no one and harms America’s reputation as a global beacon of fairness and justice. When workers in other countries, like Colombia, are protected, so are American workers, because then American companies do not have an incentive to go relocate to places where they don't have to worry about the rights of employees.

Juanita Carl April 22, 2012 at 02:20 PM
Another excellent article. I am especially pleased that our government has helped to solidify safeguards for Columbian union members and workers.
SHAMEKA April 22, 2012 at 05:03 PM


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