For union organizers in Colombia, the dangers of their trade were intensifying. When workers at the country’s largest independent oil company staged a strike in 2011, the Colombian military rounded them up at gunpoint and threatened violence if they failed to disband, according to human rightsorganizations. Similar intimidation tactics against the workers, say labor leaders, amounted to an everyday feature of life.
For the United States, these were precisely the sorts of discomfiting accounts that were supposed to be prevented in Colombia under a labor agreement that accompanied a recently signed free trade pact liberalizing the exchange of goods between the countries. From Washington to Bogota, leaders had promoted the pact as a win for all — a deal that would at once boost trade while strengthening the rights of embattled Colombian labor organizers. That formulation had previously drawn skepticism from many prominent Democrats, among them Hillary Clinton.
Yet as union leaders and human rights activists conveyed these harrowing reports of violence to then-Secretary of State Clinton in late 2011, urging her to pressure the Colombian government to protect labor organizers, she responded first with silence, these organizers say. The State Department publicly praised Colombia’s progress on human rights, thereby permitting hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to flow to the same Colombian military that labor activists say helped intimidate workers.