Colombia is a country on the rise. Lauded by the West as an example of how a country can overcome internal strife and civil conflicts by embracing neo-liberalism and free-trade capitalism, welcoming multi-national corporations, collaborating with the US against drug gangs, and striving for peace with rebel groups. The previously near non-existent tourist industry is booming with the slogan “the only danger is wanting to stay” that serves as a statement to the international community that the days of the FARC and Pablo Escobar terrorising the streets are long gone. Colombia is certainly radically different and much safer now than it was 10 years ago.
All this improvement culminated in landmark trade agreements signed with the US and the EU in 2012-13 worth billions of dollars. They were signed on the basis that the government had implemented vast labour reforms. But as with many things in Colombia the reality has been very different from the promises made.
A damning report produced by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) in April 2014 states that out of the thirty-seven reformist measures proposed by the US, “seven have yet to be implemented” and several others are described “as partial and insufficient”. No system was ever implemented that could monitor compliance with reforms, and big employers have continuously strived to ignore and resist them, encouraged by government indifference. Even Obama , the man responsible for the agreement passing, initially opposed the deal when running for presidency, on the back of Congressional outrage!
Instead Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist, with nearly 3000 assassinated in the last 20 years with an impunity rate of 95%, a trend that continues unabated today. And the culprits aren’t communist guerrillas rampaging through the countryside. The truth is far more sinister.
Coca-Cola, for example, was implicated as far back as 2003 in the wake of claims that its bottling subsidiaries had hired “far-right militias of the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) to murder nine union members at Colombian bottling plants in the past 13 years” (1990-2003).
Chiquita bananas, the biggest distributor of bananas in the US, was successfully sued for $25 million for paying millions of dollars to the AUC. The details of the case make interesting reading too, with one Chiquita executive candidly pointing out that these dealings with the paramilitaries are simply the “cost of doing business in Colombia”, whilst the release of internal company documents demonstrated “government and political involvement with the paramilitary group”.
Nestle has also been accused of complicity in paying paramilitaries to intimidate and murder workers at their Bugalgrande plant. This came off the back of a hunger strike at the same plant that ended due to threats from paramilitaries that promised “no more forgiveness” for workers who continued to “mess with Nestle”.
The list goes on. Everyone’s at it in almost every industry in Colombia. It’s a free-for-all for the country’s riches that’s reminiscent of the days of the conquistadores. The Colombian government prefers to pass these repugnant practices off as a natural legacy of decades of armed struggle, unconnected to themselves.
They’re instead committed by ‘armed gangs’, a loose term, and a mere semantic ploy, that absolves the paramilitaries, well-known to be government-linked, and interestingly, who were supposed to have been demobilised years ago. But just as with the ‘labour reforms’, demobilisation ‘happened’ officially, but the paramilitaries’ structural support was not eliminated, with inequality and economic injustice unaddressed.
The reason being? “The paramilitary structure is part of the state – it has government links”, says former senator Gloria Cuartas. This is illustrated by the ongoing massacres committed against rural communities across Colombia by paramilitaries, who rule the roost in many towns, with horrific reports of beheadings, abductions, mass torture and executions a regular occurrence. Activists and eye-witnesses are adamant all this is at the behest of, and with the compliance of, the (US-funded) army, “for the benefit of foreign multinationals” (the same ones hitting the jackpot with the newly-signed trade deals).
But if the government isn’t complicit, and is instead intent on reform and justice, why did they arrest trade union leader and human right activist Huber Ballesteros (whose plight has reached the UK, albeit clearly not as far as Whitehall)? UK trade unions even visited him in jail, where he has been languishing since August 2013 on trumped-up charges of ‘rebellion’ and ‘financing terrorism’, ironically the sort of charges that he’s fought for years to bring against the multinationals and the army.
The arrest of Ballesteros shows that the repression of unions is merely a symptom of a much broader repression of communities and social movements across Colombia. This has led to it having the most internally-displaced people on the planet (a figure incidentally on the rise in areas opened up to multinationals by the trade agreement) and is evidence of the government’s real intentions.
The communities’ struggle is the same as that of the unions and their beleaguered members and has given birth to the ‘The Patriotic March’, a “reconstruction of progressive movements…Social organisations, trade unions, peasant organisations and student movements” that has swept Colombia. They aim to fill the “vacuum of political representation” on the back of “popular opposition to the practices of multinational companies…as well as against human rights abuses and state violence”.
But typical of Colombia their effort to empower the powerless and give a voice to the voiceless has not been without its dangers. Three Patriotic March leaders have already been assassinated and the movement has been severely cracked down upon by the government and accused of being insurrectionists and terrorists.
So, again, why is the government more interested in condemning and persecuting the marchers than, say, investigating the murder of its leaders and the massacres that it speaks out about? And at a time when human rights abuses are at an all-time high and displacement is on the rise?
The answer is plain to see. They’re all connected. The trade agreement, the exploitation by multinationals, the persecution of trade unions, and the terrorism of local communities. Our governments and Colombia are complicit. The trade agreement is a mere continuation of the status-quo. In addition to the illegitimacy and immorality of the agreements, the damage they cause, not only in human, but in economic terms is disgraceful.
There’s a humanitarian crisis in Colombia. As a UK citizen I would therefore urge our government to stand with the UK trade unions and Colombian civil society in condemning the repression of social movements and economic exploitation. In addition we should re-evaluate the trade agreements as outlined in the WOLA report. We can’t ignore the fact any longer that we, along with the US and the EU, are complicit in this repression and therefore must take steps to address it. Peace in Colombia will not come about solely by peace with the FARC. Holding ourselves and the Colombian government to account is just as necessary.