US leans on Guatemala to enforce trade pact
The Obama administration's case against Guatemala, over its failure to protect unions within its borders, is seen as an attempt to garner US union support for stalled trade agreements.
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Seven years after Guatemala signed a free-trade pact with the US that included an agreement to enforce its labor laws, Guatemalan union leaders complain that they are still assassination targets, and that businessmen still illegally fire workers.
The apparent failure to protect union workers has prompted the US to take unprecedented steps to force Guatemala to respond, in what may be part of President Obama's broader strategy to win support from US unions and Democrats in Congress for stalled trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. Those deals are key to his bid to boost job creation via trade.
"It's an effort to send a signal to Obama's labor allies that the administration will enforce the labor provisions that are in trade agreements," says Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas in New York.
'An anti-labor culture'
Despite the increased external pressure, Guatemalan union leaders say their government continues to exclude them from talks with the US. The country has a long history of aggression against organized labor, which is a common theme cited by opponents of new trade agreements, especially in Latin America.
"Union leaders continue to be assassinated," says Carlos Mancilla, secretary general of the CUSG union organization, whose home was riddled with bullets in 2007, presumably due to his union activities. He said investigators let 27 days pass before coming to inspect the scene, and no one was ever charged. "In Guatemala, there's an anti-union culture."
Business groups say violence against union members is a symptom of a surge in violence that has affected companies as well, but given the high levels of impunity in Guatemala, it is impossible to say exactly who is behind the assassinations and threats. The Public Ministry, comparable to an attorney general's office, rarely carries out a proper investigation into union murders, Mr. Mancilla says, and an AFL-CIO complaint says there is evidence that the government itself may have even been involved in at least one assassination.