Even though the Colombian government argues that the level of violence has, in fact, declined, there have been more than 2,500 union members murdered in Colombia since 1985. More than 400 have been killed since 2002, when conservative president Alvaro Uribe took office, and 19 union members and leaders have already been killed this year.
According to statistics compiled by the National Labor School, a research organization located in Medellin, Colombia, of those 2,500 murders, less than 5 per cent of the cases have resulted in convictions.
So who is murdering these union members and why are they doing it? Based on press reports and information supplied by human rights agencies, the murders are being committed by right-wing paramilitary groups and “private armies” who suspect labor unions of harboring left-wing activists or sympathizers, or of being infiltrated by left-wing rebels who actively oppose Uribe’s conservative government.
In Latin America there is a long history of home-grown leftist opposition to government collusion with Yankee-led business interests. Labor unions in the rough and tumble country of Colombia are even less popular with Big Business and Big Government than they are in the United States. At least, these days, in the U.S., business and government interests combine to litigate or legislate a union to death, not murder it outright.
The murderous rampage is, plain enough, the result of an official, government-sanctioned policy. President Uribe’s former intelligence chief, as well as several of his supporters in congress, are under investigation for having associations with paramilitary death squads.
The murders have lately become such an incendiary issue in both Colombia and the United States that the U.S. Congress has temporarily stalled approval of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, a bill strongly favored by American business groups and pushed hard by President Bush.
Given the pressure applied by corporate interests and the unfortunate history of all such free trade treaties being ratified eventually, it’s hard to say how long the Congress will continue to oppose the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The traditional, pro-business argument for establishing expanded trade relations with countries with deplorable human rights and labor records has always been that we can do more to remedy the situation by “engaging” these countries than by snubbing them.
Of course, that’s a myth promulgated by business interests, designed to convince the government to open up as many consumer markets as possible, no matter what the human rights violations and what, if any, progress is ever made to rectify them. While it’s true that boycotts and embargoes don’t always work, they do, in fact, work sometimes. It was economic pressure that succeeded in convincing South Africa to abandon apartheid.
But for now, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has characterized the Trade Agreement as “unacceptable,” and insisted on further study of the situation. Colombian labor and human rights groups oppose the Agreement on the grounds that it will funnel money into the top echelons, and further exploit and marginalize working people.
Colombia is the United States’ closest ally in Latin America and the U.S. is Colombia’s largest trading partner. Until 2006, it had been receiving the third-greatest amount of annual U.S. foreign aid, right behind Israel and Egypt, respectively. In principle, the money the Colombian government was receiving was to be used to fight the cocaine drug trade. In 2006, Colombia slipped to fourth, having fallen behind Pakistan, whom the U.S. began showering with money in an effort to get them to fight terrorism.
If history repeats itself, the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement will be amended slightly, a human rights “mission statement” will be added to it, a special commission will be set up to monitor Colombia’s progress, and the treaty will be ratified. After that, the murders will subside, Colombian businesses will flourish, some union honchos will likely be bought off, and the overwhelming majority of Colombia’s working people will see no benefits whatever.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org