From the tenth-floor balcony of our hotel in Buenaventura, we sit with community leader Miguel Duarte and watch as the sunset over the Pacific Ocean streaks the sky with peach and mauve before fading to a shroud of lavender-gray and darkness. Below us, teenage girls chase a soccer ball. A few hundred yards away, a patch of the island is covered with tree tops like the heads of broccoli. “Take a photo of that island,” says Duarte, pointing at the tree line. “There are thousands of dead bodies buried on it.”
“We need a commission from the Attorney General’s office to count the bodies,” he continues. “The island is controlled by paramilitaries.”
The violence in Buenaventura is staggering, yet reliable statistics are hard to attain: official documentation is lacking and it’s left to community leaders, like 18-year-old Jesús, to try to compile the data independently. At our meeting, he pulls out his notebook and begins reading off his handwritten list of victims from a recent massacre. He gets to the end of his list, glances up, and says, “Children were cut up and heads were found in barrios Santa Monica and Campo Alegro. Last night Alberto’s cousin was killed in a confrontation. That one made the newspaper.”
According to a report issued in January 2014, the city sees two-to-three murders and three-to-six forced disappearances daily. In November 2013 alone, fighting between different armed groups displaced 2,500 families in Buenaventura.
“We’re convinced of one thing,” says Duarte. “This pressure is so that people leave.”
On the heels of shoot-outs in waterfront neighborhoods, city officials arrive and ask residents if they’re ready to sign documents in which they agree to vacate the zone. On February 5 and 6, local security forces staged an elaborately orchestrated tsunami drill for neighborhoods near the port, with armed men blocking off streets and redirecting traffic into the night. According to Colombian Process of Black Communities (PCN), the exercise was yet another effort to brainwash Buenaventura’s Bajamar residents into believing that it’s not safe to live in the area and that they should be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice.
Many point out that Buenaventura is dangerous for people who live in neighborhoods slated for commercial development but that, paradoxically, these same areas are safe for tourists. Below our hotel, a seafood fusion-sushi bar does slow business just yards from a neighborhood where armed groups recently did battle.
It’s Friday night in this commerce town, and clubs cater to weekend carousers with pockets full of pesos. Against a backdrop of giraffe-like cranes, half-built high-rises sprouting rebar, and a balmy breeze dispersing salsa beats, Duarte explains that 15 or 20 years ago, people began to talk about megaprojects in the region: port expansion, a cargo terminal, a tourist boardwalk, and an international airport in nearby Cali. Those conversations coincided with the beginning of the market liberalization process, as the port changed from public to private ownership.
Over the past 15 years, as the armed conflict arrived to nearby rural areas, many residents fled their farming communities at the outskirts of Buenaventura and settled in ocean-front neighborhoods near the city center, joining communities of Afro-Colombians who had arrived generations ago. In 2005, the FARC and Colombian military battled in Buenaventura. In 2006, paramilitaries entered the urban zone to protect businesses and terrorize the local population.
The first interurban displacement in Buenaventura—in which people fled from one neighborhood to another within the city—was in 2009. Today, ground zero for violent displacement coincides perfectly with zones marked for port expansion, a coal warehouse, a massive container storage area, and a tourist promenade. The violence, PCN states, is “part of the war strategy to control territory and clean out the zone to bring in projects.”
Residents in vulnerable neighborhoods are not opposed to the city’s economic growth, per se. But many feel that projects should benefit all people in the area, not bring prosperity to few while forcing misery on most.
That’s what Remedios’ husband, Eduardo believed. Their home in Caucana, about 45 minutes from the port, is along the road being widened to facilitate port expansion and accompanying projects in order to make Buenaventura competitive for Free Trade Agreement projects.
The old road is narrow, windy, and unpaved, meaning that it currently takes a truck seven or eight hours to make the trip from Buenaventura to Bugalagrande, a town along the Pan-American Highway. The new road will reduce the journey to about an hour.
Eduardo opposed the road expansion through their community because small children play there, and the project was contaminating their air and bad for people’s health. Remedios said, “He’d been looking to strengthen the community. He didn’t want to leave people in misery.” He’d been advocating for the community’s right to Free Prior and Informed Consent for new projects on their land guaranteed under Law 70, or the “Law of Black Communities.”
One morning Eduardo got a call that warned him he’d be killed if he ran in upcoming community council elections. For months he lived under the dark cloud of death threats, and on February 23, 2013, he was murdered. A year later, despite the efforts of his wife and other community members to seek justice, the government has made no progress in the investigation of his death.
“It has left me desperate, my kids too. They’re struggling at school. They don’t remember their vowels, just sleep, play, fight, scream….My children want to know why their father was murdered. They’re small, thinking bad thoughts, seeking vengeance. I’m asking for help because I don’t want my kids to become bad people.”
While we are in Buenaventura, a death threat is circulated, naming as military targets indigenous groups, campesinos, Marcha Patriotica members, protestors who block roads, and “guerilla-defending” NGOs—the name often used by paramilitaries to refer to NGOs that work on human rights issues.
Back on the tenth-floor balcony, a man whose community is surrounded by illegal armed groups looks out over the port, past the island of dead bodies, to the green lights blinking at the edge of the bay. He says, “If we don’t act quickly in Buenaventura, there will be more deaths.”
Margaret Boehme is a member of the Witness for Peace Colombia team based in Bogotá.
Canada and Honduras inked a bilateral free trade agreement on November 5, amid political repression, increasing militarization, and controversial Canadian investment in the Central American nation.
Ed Fast, Canada’s Minister of International Trade, and Honduran Minister of Industry and Commerce Adonis Lavaire signed the deal in Ottawa, less than three weeks before general elections are expected to change the political landscape in Honduras.
“It’s really uncertain what’s going to happen with the elections,” said Karen Spring, a Canadian human rights activist living in Honduras. “It’s a lot less likely for [Canada] to have a government – and the political conditions and the economic conditions – in [Honduras] that would approve the free trade agreement or would allow it to be approved.”
Recent polls show two leading presidential candidates: LIBRE candidate Xiomara Castro, the wife of Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted as President in a coup d’état in June 2009 and the ruling National Party’s Juan Orlando Hernández, former President of the National Congress who resigned in order to run for office.
The November 24 general elections are expected to mark the end of a longstanding two-party system. Nine political parties are participating, and it is unlikely that any one party will hold a majority of seats in Congress.
“Because of the strong political force of the LIBRE party and its bases, the National Front of Popular Resistance, there’s a really good chance they can either gain a lot of seats in Congress or they can win the presidency,” Spring told Upside Down World. Whether or not LIBRE congressional representatives would pass the free trade agreement or not is uncertain, but the political landscape will undoubtedly change. “I think the Canadian government knows very well that after the elections on November 24, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to pass any free trade agreements,” she added.
Negotiations leading to the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement (FTA) began back in 2001, though they were initially for a deal between Canada and the C4 countries: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. After nearly a decade of multilateral talks and a number of impasses, Canada and Honduras decided to pursue a bilateral agreement in 2010, the year following the coup d’état.
Before it comes into effect, the Canada-Honduras FTA must be approved by both Canadian Parliament and Honduran Congress. Current representatives of the latter will sit until a few days before the new administration assumes power on January 27, 2014.
Canada exported $38 million in goods to Honduras in 2012, and imported $218 million. Top Honduran exports to Canada are agricultural products and apparel, and the leading product Canadian exports to Honduras is fertilizers. Recent government figures on Canadian direct foreign investment are unavailable.
In its official press release announcing the signing of the FTA, the Canadian government focused on the elimination of tariffs and improved access for the export of Canadian pork and beef. However, controversial Canadian mining, sweatshop, and tourism sectors also stand to benefit from investment protection measures contained in Chapter 10 of the bilateral free trade agreement.
“In a country like Honduras, using free trade agreements to open the domestic economy to competition with countries with asymmetrical economies has only attracted transnational companies which operate and implement work systems that exploit Honduran women workers,” wrote the Honduran Women’s Collective (CODEMUH), in a statement in response to the signing of the Canada-Honduras FTA.
The organization is currently dealing with more than 100 textile factory workers who are suffering from work-related injuries and health conditions related to their employment by Gildan Activewear, a Montreal-based clothing manufacturer. The company operates several sewing and manufacturing facilities in northwestern Honduras, as well as others in Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Bangladesh. Gildan’s gross profits in 2012 were just shy of $400 million, while net earnings reached $148.5 million.
“Exploitative and enslaving working conditions – such as those which exist in Gildan Activewear headquartered in Canada and promoted by nation states and trade agreements – involve normal work days of an illegal 11 and a half hours, with obligatory overtime, bringing the work week to up to 69 hours,” according to the statement by CODEMUH.
Canadian companies and investors in Honduras have not only come under fire for their treatment of workers, but also for their impacts on communities.
“We have come to see that Canadian tourism has been the most aggressive in Garifuna communities in recent years,” said Miriam Miranda, General Coordinator of OFRANEH, an indigenous Garifuna federation. The lands and traditional territories of the 46 Garifuna communities spread up and down the Caribbean coast of Honduras are prime targets for tourism and real estate development projects. “There’s no respect whatsoever for the rights of Indigenous peoples,” said Miranda.
Canadian investor Randy Jorgensen’s Banana Coast project near the coastal city of Trujillo took off after the 2009 coup. Dubbed the “Porn King” for amassing a fortune from his Canadian porn chain, Jorgenson pressured Rio Negro residents to sell parcels of land they inhabited in order to secure coastal property in Trujillo for the construction of a Panamax cruise ship pier and massive commercial center.
“They used the Law of Forced Expropriation in the case of Trujillo, but it was used to impact Garifuna communities. They never use it to return land to Garifuna communities,” Miranda told Upside Down World. “The last people who refused to sell [their land] were told ‘if you don’t sell, we’ll take your land away.’”
The first phase of the Banana Coast pier was inaugurated in June 2013. Jorgensen has also invested in a mountainside gated community of villas in the traditional territories of the Garifuna communities of Santa Fe, Barrio Cristales and Rio Negro. They’re not the only Canadian projects in the area, said Miranda. There have been incursions by Canadian investors into Garifuna territory in and between the Garifuna communities of Rio Esteban, Guadalupe, San Antonio, Santa Fe, Rio Negro and Barrio Cristales, linking a stretch of coast from Rio Esteban to Trujillo. And it’s a phenomenon that’s not limited to the coast.
“All of the territories are kind of on the table right now to see how they can be exploited – not just mining, not just tourism, but anything where public goods, resources can be exploited,” said Miranda. There’s currently an unparalleled exploitation of resources by transnational foreign capital in Honduras, she said, and the post-coup government has gone out of its way to protect foreign investment.
“These days, Canadians – together with the Taiwanese and Chinese – are the ones with the most aggression towards the territories,” said Miranda.
As with many FTAs, the Canada-Honduras agreement is accompanied by parallel agreements on labor and the environment, but Common Frontiers Program Director Raul Burbano and Americas Policy Group Coordinator Stacey Gomez maintain they’re just for show. “The labor and environmental side agreements are mere window dressing given that they are not accompanied by any real enforcement mechanism to ensure they are adhered to,” they wrote in a November 5 Open Letter.
Chapter 10 of FTA itself includes a brief mention of labour, environmental and human rights, but – unlike the investment protection measures – there are no enforcement measures. “Each Party should encourage enterprises operating within its territory, or entreprises [sic] subject to its jurisdiction, to voluntarily incorporate internationally recognized standards of corporate social responsibility in their internal policies,” according to Article 10:16. The full text of the agreement was only made public after it was signed.
While the FTA was signed in Ottawa, the reality on the ground in Honduras remained one of increasing militarization and ongoing repression.
Murders of journalists, lawyers, and Indigenous and campesino people involved in land and resource struggles continue in the country, which has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world. People involved with the LIBRE party have also become targets. Rights Action’s Spring has been researching pre-electoral political violence and compiled a list of murders and armed attacks on political party-affiliated candidates, campaigners, and activists between May 2012 and October 19, 2013.
“The list shows that the LIBRE party has suffered more armed attacks and killings in the last year and a half than all other eight political parties combined,” said Spring. “Those are just armed attacks and killings. That doesn’t include political persecution, death threats, disappearances, and then killings and armed attacks of people that aren’t part of the political campaigning process but that are really important in the social movement.”
Militarization has increased hand-in-hand with repression since the 2009 coup. Not only are soldiers patrolling the streets alongside the national police force, but a new military police force hit the streets in October 2013. Legal challenges to the constitutionality of the new security force, operating directly under military command, are currently underway. In response, on November 6 the National Party’s presidential candidate Hernández introduced a proposal to Congress to reform Article 274 of the Constitution in order to grant constitutional standing to the military police force. This has become a cornerstone of his electoral campaign.
The controversy surrounding the military police has been subject to recent media coverage in Honduras, but the involvement of mining companies and other private sector corporations in financing public security forces no longer makes headlines. The General Mining and Hydrocarbons Law ratified in January 2013, after a review by advisors paid by the Canadian government, includes as part of its royalty regime a two percent payment to the Security Tax (Tasa de Seguridad) fund. The fund is helping to finance the increasing militarization of Honduran streets.
Who will win the November 24 elections is uncertain at this point. But no matter which political party comes out on top, if the Honduran Congress passes the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement into law, it will be a win for Canadian companies.
Sandra Cuffe is a vagabond freelance journalist currently based in Honduras.
When President Obama speaks, most Americans hear what he wants them to hear: lofty rhetoric and a “progressive” vision. But just below the surface the president has a subtly-delivered message for the 1%, whose ears prick up when their buzzwords are mentioned.
Obama’s state of the union address was such a speech – a pro-corporate agenda packaged with chocolate covered rhetoric for the masses; easy to swallow, but deadly poisonous.
Much of Obama’s speech was pleasant to the ears, but there were key moments where he was speaking exclusively to the 1%. Exposing these hidden agenda points in the speech requires that we ignore the fluff and use English the way the 1% does. Every time Obama says the words “reform” or “savings,” insert the word “cuts.”
Here are some of the more nefarious moments of Obama’s state for the union speech:
“And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms [cuts]…”
“On Medicare, I’m prepared to enact reforms [cuts] that will achieve the same amount of health care savings [cuts] by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms [cuts] proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission.”
This ultra-vague sentence was meant exclusively for the 1%. What are some of the recommendations from the right-wing Simpson-Bowles commission? Obama doesn’t say. Talking Points Memo explains:
-Force more low-income individuals into Medicaid managed care.
-Increase Medicaid co-pays.
-Accelerate already-planned cuts to Medicare Advantage and home health care programs.
-Create a cap for Medicaid/Medicare growth that will force Congress and the president to increase premiums or co-pays or raise the Medicare eligibility age (among other options) if the system encounters cost overruns over the course of 5 years.
There were many other subtly-delivered attacks on Medicare in Obama’s speech, all ignored by most labor and progressive groups, who clung tightly to the “progressive” smoke Obama blew in their face.
Obama’s speech also included a frightening vision of a national privatization scheme to previously publicly owned resources. But it was phrased so inspirationally that only the 1% seemed to notice:
“I’m also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital [wealthy investors] to upgrade what our businesses need most: modern ports to move our goods; modern pipelines to withstand a storm; modern schools worthy of our children…we’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers [corporations]…”
Obama’s proposal plans to “rebuild America” in the image of the wealthy and corporations, who only put forth their “private capital” when it results in a profitable investment; resources that previously functioned for the public good will now be channeled into the pockets of the rich, to the detriment of everyone else.
Allowing the rich to privatize and profit from public education and publicly owned infrastructure (ports and pipelines, etc.) has been a right-wing dream for years. This will result in massive user fees for the rest of us, while further dismembering public education, which Obama’s ill-named Race to the Top education reform is already successfully accomplishing.
Obama’s speech also put forth two massive pro-corporate international free trade deals, which would further drive down wages in the United States:
“We intend to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership [a massive free trade deal focused mainly on Asian nations]. And tonight, I am announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership [free trade deal] with the European Union – because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.”
While praising free trade Obama disarmed labor and progressive groups by throwing in the meaningless word “fair.”
Lastly, Obama’s drone assassination policy was further enshrined in his speech. Drone assassinations are obvious war crimes — see the Geneva Convention — while also ignoring that pesky due process clause — innocent until proven guilty — of the constitution.
But Obama said that these programs will be “legal” and “transparent,” apparently good enough to keep most progressive groups quiet on the issue.
There were plenty of other examples of sugar-coated poison in Obama’s speech. It outlined a thoroughly right-wing agenda with no plan to address the jobs crisis — sprinkled with pretty words and “inspiring” catchphrases.
Some labor leaders and “progressive” groups seem dazzled by the speech. President of the union federation, AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, praised Obama’s anti-worker speech:
“Tonight President Obama sent a clear message to the world that he will stand and fight for working America’s values and priorities. And with the foundation he laid, working families will fight by his side to build an economy that works for all.”
And here is the real problem; as President Obama follows in the footsteps of President Bush, labor and progressive groups have found their independent voice stifled. The close ties between these groups and the Democratic Party have become heavy chains for working people, who find themselves under assault with no leadership willing to educate them about the truth, let alone organize a national fightback to win a massive jobs-creation program, prevent cuts to social programs, and fully fund public education. Obama’s second term will teach millions these lessons via experience.
- Obama’s State of the Corporate Union (alethonews.wordpress.com)
In its 2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights released June 6, 2012, the International Trade Union Confederation found that Latin America remains the most dangerous region of the world for trade unionists, with Colombia again leading the world, followed by Guatemala.
The ITUC says 29 trade unionists were reported murdered in Colombia in 2011, with 10 more in Guatemala, together accounting for a bit over half of the 76 trade unionists reported murdered in 2011. Colombia’s share of total murders dropped significantly, however, reflecting a decreased in 2010 murders of 51, representing 55% of the 92 trade unionists murdered in 2010.
Ironically, Colombia and Guatemala are also the two countries in Latin America that have been at the heart of U.S. policy on worker rights and Free Trade Agreements, with the Obama Administration pushing forward with implementation of the Colombia FTA in mid-May despite insufficient progress on worker rights while continuing to deal with a CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement) labor complaint on Guatemala filed over four years ago that has yielded little progress even as violence against Guatemala unionists has escalated.
In a welcome and some say historic development, the conservative Guatemalan agribusiness sector has called on its own government to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the violence that has been directed at the country’s largest union, Sitrabi, which represents Del Monte banana workers and is a filer of the CAFTA labor complaint. Sitrabi reports that seven members of its union members have been murdered since April 2011. The Camara del Agro released its remarkable letter [ English translation here] in late May; no response from the government has been reported as yet.
- Colombia: Obama’s Bloodiest Betrayal? (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Progress or Promises? Free Trade and Labor Rights in Colombia (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Eight years after negotiations began in May 2004, the U.S.Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) came into force on May 15.
Negotiations began together with the four member countries of the Andean Community that are beneficiaries of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), which permits the entry of products not traditionally tariff-free into the U.S. market. One of Colombia’s central reasons for the FTA lay in ensuring that such tariff preferences were made permanent, since ATPDEA officially expired on December 31, 2006.
Businesses that exported under this program—especially in the textile and floriculture sectors in the case of Colombia—pushed hard for the FTA. They believed that it would allow them to gain competitiveness against other countries that did not enjoy similar preferences, and to be on equal terms with those who already had them.
The governments sought to shield important aspects of economic policy—like the treatment to foreign investment, liberalization of the services sector and strengthening intellectual property protection, among others—against the probable intent that a new administration would try to change them. The consolidation of economic liberalization would, according to authorities, attract foreign investments that generate jobs.
In this evaluation, the Andean governments dismissed the fact that tariffs are not currently the main barriers to access to industrialized country markets. They also did not consider that as the United States continued to sign FTAs such with other countries, as it was clear they would, the Andean region would lose its advantages.
Indeed, the U.S. government, as well as the European Union and Japan, use free trade agreements as a way to establish trade and economic rules that in the multilateral World Trade Organization cannot be implemented because of the resistance of a significant number of developing countries.
The Trade Act or Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) of 2002-which authorized the United States government to negotiate FTAs with other countries, says that the expansion of international trade “is vital to national security. Trade is critical to the country’s economic growth and leadership in the world.”
The same act states that trade agreements maximize opportunities for critical sectors of the U.S. economy, such as information technology, telecommunications, basic industries, capital equipment, medical equipment, services, agriculture, environmental technology and intellectual property. The TPA indicates that trade creates new opportunities for the United States, thus preserving its economic, political and military strength.
The process of meetings to achieve the FTA was extensive. What started as a joint negotiation (Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, with Bolivia as an observer) ended with individual negotiations. Peru was the first to secure the signatures of presidents Toledo and Bush in December 2007 and came into force in February 2009, while Bolivia and Ecuador rejected the FTA following changes in their governments.
Venezuela withdrew from the Andean Community in April 2006 and applied for incorporation into Mercosur, arguing that “the free trade agreements by Colombia and Peru with the United States of America have formed a new legal body that attempts to assimilate the rules of the FTA within the Andean Community, changing de facto its nature and original principles.”
While the presidents of Colombia and the United States, Uribe and Bush signed in 2006, the U.S. Congress did not ratify the act because of complaints from some quarters in Congress and civil organizations that pointed to violations of human rights and labor laws. After lengthy negotiations, and commitments made by acting President Santos, the act was ratified by Congress in October 2011. Meanwhile, the tariff advantages achieved under the ATPDEA were renewed annually.
Myth of the “special relationship” under FTA
With the enforcement of the FTA, Colombian authorities hope to convert the country into an export platform for those countries that “do not enjoy privileged relations with this large market, such as Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela.” Government officials from Peru and Chile had previously expressed the same hope.
However, experience shows that these hopes did not become reality for Colombia’s neighbors. Sales to the U.S. market have lost momentum. In Peru, for example, exports to the United States fell 4% in 2011 over the previous year, although the total exports increased by 28% in that period.
The United States dropped from being the top destination for Peruvian exports, to the third–after China and Switzerland. In 2006 24.2% of Peruvian exports were destined for the U.S. market, in 2011 they were only for 12.7%. By contrast, imports from the United States, which in 2006 represented 16.4% of total imports, in 2011 increased to 19.5%. The U.S. has managed to reverse its trade balance with Peru, which has gone from a surplus favorable to Peru of $3.26 million in 2006 to a deficit of $1.52 million.
It is true that in this evolution the [exchange rates] of local Latin American currencies against the dollar have had a major impact, but the slowdown in growth and consumption in the United States does not predict a scenario favorable for emphasizing exports to the United States.
In his speech to the State of the Union in January this year, President Obama proposed a recovery of the economy based on boosting local manufacturing. He proposed tax cuts to companies that invest in the country, tax increases to those established abroad and measures to increase U.S. global market share, creating “millions of new customers for U.S. products in Panama, Colombia and South Korea.”
Colombia should be asking itself: Who really benefits from the Free Trade Agreement?
Ariela Ruiz Caro is an economics graduate of the Humboldt University in Berlin, with an MA in Economic Integration from the University of Buenos Aires. She does international consulting on trade, integration, and natural resources for ECLAC, the Latin American Economic System (SELA), the Institute for the Integration of Latin America and the Caribbean (INTAL), and other organizations. She worked for the Comunidad Andina from 1985 to 1994, as an advisor to the Commission of Permanent Representatives of MERCOSUR from 2006 to 2008, and is a writer for the Americas Program.
Translated by Yasmin Khan
- Imperialism and Violence in Colombia (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Rodolfo Vecino has a death sentence on his head. He has been told he will be kidnapped, tortured and his family will be murdered. Already this year one of Vecino’s colleagues has been killed – in January, Mauricio Arrendondo and his wife Janeth were gunned down in front of their children.
Vecino is the president of Colombian oil workers union (USO), which was last year declared a “military target” by right-wing paramilitaries for its campaigns against what the union says are the abusive labor practices of Canadian oil giant Pacific Rubiales. The union’s campaign began last summer; just two months after Colombia signed a Labor Action Plan (LAP) with the U.S. pledging to tackle the very practices used by Rubiales and the type of anti-union violence that USO has suffered. The signing of the pact unblocked negotiations over the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the countries, which had stalled over Colombia’s abysmal labor rights record.
A year on, and at last weekend’s Summit of the Americas, the U.S. declared it was satisfied that Colombia had complied with the LAP and was enacting the reforms called for. The decision opens the way for full implementation of the FTA in May, even as unions and human rights groups in both countries continue to accuse the U.S. of “rewarding promises not actions”. Meanwhile, USO’s campaign against Rubiales continues and it is far from an isolated case. Unions across Colombia maintain they face the same problems of violence, worker abuse and anti-union practices, all committed with seeming impunity.
Protests against Rubiales began after workers at the company’s Puerto Gaitan site contacted USO and described how 12,000 sub-contracted workers – the overwhelming majority of the workforce – were enduring low pay, appalling conditions and instability while being denied the right to bargain collectively and associate freely.
Ending the abusive sub-contracting system commonly used in Colombia was one of the principal aims of the LAP. The practice began in the late 70s, when businesses began to take advantage of the fact that many of Colombia’s labor regulations did not apply to worker cooperatives. Companies fired their entire workforce then forced workers to sign on with contractors calling themselves cooperatives. As the workers were then classified as temporary employees and could be laid off without cause, the cooperatives forced them to accept whatever pay and conditions were on the table. It was also a useful tool for preventing unionization as any worker who began organizing or agitating could be immediately fired. “They lost their rights, they lost money [and] they lost their working stability,” said Andres Sanchez from Colombia’s National Union School (ENS). The practice continues today, utilizing Colombia’s army of the unemployed and underemployed as ready replacements for sacked workers.
The LAP called for Colombia to enforce pre-existing but widely ignored legislation banning the cooperatives. However, as the Rubiales workers testified, in many sectors little has changed. Because the cooperatives are now banned, most of the contractors have simply changed names and become Simplified Stock Companies or Temporary Service Companies. “The phenomenon continues the same,” said Sanchez. “It is the same dynamic, they do the same things, workers [still] can’t demand that they benefit from their labor and not the third party,” he added. According to Sanchez, over 2 million workers in Colombia are still employed through these sub-contractors.
In Puerto Gaitan, the sub-contracted Rubiales’ workers have been forced to accept what Rodolfo Vecino called, “truly humiliating and poverty stricken” conditions. “They don’t have the conditions of a dignified life, they don’t have dignified salaries, they don’t have contracts that genuinely give the workers respectable levels of stability,” he said.
The workers have also testified to being pressured and threatened because of their association with the union and being told they would not be employed again while they were still members. “Although I am aware of my rights,” said one worker in a letter to USO, “in this case my need to survive and stay in work is more important.”
The ENS and USO both say they have persistently informed the government of the continued use of the cooperative style sub-contracting but little action has been taken despite the harsh penalties now demanded by law. So far, one company has been hit with a $6.5 million dollar fine over its use of contractors in the African palm sector. However, the fine was only imposed after a 107-day strike and came a week before Colombia’s labor minister traveled to the U.S. to discuss progress on labor rights. According to Sanchez, several months later and the fine has yet to be paid.
The paramilitary right and anti-union violence
After five months of strikes, blockades, occupations and violent clashes between riot police and protesters in USO’s confrontation with Pacific Rubiales, Rodolfo Vecino announced he had been threatened by four men claiming to be from the Auto-defensas (Self-defense forces). According to Vecino, the men told him he had been “sentenced” because USO’s confrontation with Pacific Rubiales made him an “obstacle to development.”
The term Auto-Defensas refers to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), an umbrella group for Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary movement that controlled vast criminal networks and infiltrated the core of Colombia’s political and economic systems. Its stated mission was to combat Colombia’s leftist guerrilla groups, something it did in part by waging a dirty war against “guerrilla collaborators” – members of leftist political parties, community organizers, human rights workers and unionists. From 1986–2011, nearly 3000 unionists were murdered, and although most of the cases remain unsolved, in Colombia there is little doubt that paramilitary groups such as the AUC were responsible for the overwhelming majority of the killings.
The AUC officially demobilized in 2006 after negotiations with the government of Alvaro Uribe. However, the much criticized process gave rise to a new wave of illegal armed groups. These new organizations mostly consist of former mid-level AUC commanders and foot-soldiers that either never demobilized or simply re-enlisted after demobilization. For the most part they no longer fight the guerrillas – in some cases they even collaborate with them – but instead concentrate on drug trafficking and maintaining the AUC’s criminal networks and commercial interests. However, the end of the ideological war between the paramilitaries and the guerrillas did not lead to a significant drop in anti-union violence and Colombia remains by far and away the most dangerous place in the world for unionists.
According to Vecino, three of these groups operate in the same areas as USO – the Rastrojos, the Urabeños and the Popular Revolutionary Anti-terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC). He believes the continuing violence against unions is because of the links between businesses and the paramilitaries. “We believe there are links in the zone,” he said. “Today there are no political lines of definition of these groups but interests around drug trafficking [and] they sell themselves to the highest bidder,” he said. “If [the company] gives them money it wouldn’t be the first time multinationals have associated with paramilitaries or common criminals to strike against the union sector.” Vecino also claimed that some of the cooperatives have ties to armed groups and are used to launder drug money.
Pacific Rubiales has adamantly denied any contact with paramilitary groups. Jorge Rodriguez, the company’s head of corporate affairs, told news website Colombia Reports: “We are very sorry for the USO union. We reject any type of threat, any type of intimidation, not only to trade unionists but to anyone in the country.”
Andres Sanchez agrees with the theory that the new groups continue to act as the armed wing for powerful commercial interests, pointing to how Chiquita bananas and Coca Cola have been implicated in the murder of unionists. “It is a culture where some businesses have used violence as a way of solving labor relation problems,” he said. “In Colombia, the links between paramilitaries and business have not yet been uncovered.”
For most American politicians and unionists, anti-union violence was the biggest obstacle to the passing of the FTA with Colombia and curbing that violence the LAP’s greatest promise. In the first year of the plan, 27 unionists were murdered and 2 disappeared, according to the ENS. While that remains the highest murder rate for unionists in the world by some distance, it does represent a significant reduction; in 2010, 51 unionists were murdered and 7 disappeared. However, Andres Sanchez believes the drop in homicides does not tell the whole story. “The situation with the violence has shown changes in its logic,” he said. “Now, it is not necessary to murder a unionist to successfully freeze a union. We have seen that threats, injuries and displacement have increased … homicides have gone down a bit [but] the situation persists.”
In the LAP, the Colombian government pledged to increase protection for unionists by broadening the coverage of its protection program, clearing the backlog of applicants for the program and speeding up the application process. According to the U.S. government this is exactly what it has done. However, while the unions acknowledge there have been some improvements, they remain critical. “They say ‘no one in the program has been killed,’” said Sanchez. “So we say the program is badly designed, because they kill the unionists who aren’t in the program.”
The unions complain that the protection program excludes too many people and that the Colombian authorities have cleared the backlog and sped up the process partly by rejecting more people more quickly. According to Sanchez, this has involved turning down unionists who have received death threats. “They say that if they threaten someone it is a salvation because generally, the ones who are murdered have not been threatened, [and] the threat is to silence someone so it is not necessary to take measures after,” he said.
The approach has had a serious impact on USO leaders. Last August, USO received a letter informing them that protection programs for 23 leaders and a number of regional offices would either be terminated immediately or only extended temporarily. Three of those leaders were involved in organizing in Puerto Gaitan.
The LAP also pledged to tackle the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for the anti-union threats and violence. Less than 10% of the more than 3000 cases of murdered unionists have resulted in convictions. Many of those convictions came not from successful investigations but from confessions by paramilitary killers and, while the perpetrators of the crimes identified themselves, the intellectual authors remained hidden.
In 2007, the Attorney General’s Office set up a specialist sub-unit dedicated to anti-union violence. However, of the 195 murders that took place between the start of the sub-unit’s operations and May 2011, only 6 resulted in convictions. The unit did not obtain a single conviction for the 60 homicide attempts, 1,500 threats and 420 forced displacements in the same period.
The prosecutor’s office’s shortcomings in investigating anti-union violence were supposed to be addressed by 15 measures in the LAP, ranging from assigning more full time investigators to the unit to establishing victims assistance centers. As Congress approved the FTA in October, American union AFL-CIO reported that all but three of the obligations had either not been met, had been met insufficiently or there was no evidence of progress.
Progress for labor or for free trade?
Although he believes the LAP has failed to significantly improve the labor rights situation in Colombia, Andres Sanchez says the plan was an important step. “Yes, [the LAP] was to facilitate the unfreezing of the FTA,” said Sanchez, “but it was also a serious attempt.” However, he thinks the LAP will not be effective unless the government does more to involve unions in the process. “They are important measures,” he said, “expensive measures that could be effective but with this great vacuum of not taking into account the unions, they are measures that could fail.”
In the U.S, the implementation of the LAP has been monitored by the AFL-CIO, which has been critical of the government for using it to push through the FTA. “We don’t think the plan was sufficient to accomplish the goals but we do think it was a step in the right direction, a step towards meaningful change,” said the AFL-CIO’s Celeste Drake. “Unfortunately, with the continued violence against unionists and too little progress on cooperatives and other practices like collective pacts [worker agreements used to sideline unions], it is far too soon for the US government to declare victory on the LAP and move ahead on the FTA. Colombian workers will lose whatever leverage they have to make real progress if the US moves too quickly.”
On the front line of the struggle against the violence and abuse suffered by Colombian workers and unionists, Rodolfo Vecino says he has seen very little change since the LAP came into force. “At the moment it is innocuous,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what is written there, they are dead words, they don’t have life because there isn’t anyone who is putting it into place.”
James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Colombia. See jamesbargent.com
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