Colombia’s Peasants and Workers Under Fire

There has been an alarming escalation of repression against rural populations in Colombia.  Much of this is focused against the National Unified Federation of Agricultural Workers Unions, or Fensuagro–the country’s largest labor organization representing rural workers.  Fensuagro is doubly targeted not only because of the peasant farmers and workers it represents, but because it is the most prominent union in the Marcha Patriótica (Patriotic March), a social movement demanding meaningful land reform, an open and safe climate for the political opposition, unionists and human rights advocates, and popular participation in the nation’s peace process.

Repression has also been high in rural settings for unions such as the Colombian Federation of Educators, or Fecode, and for human rights defenders.  It is troubling that this overlaps with the current peace process and with more than two years of the Labor Action Plan (LAP).  The LAP was enacted in April 2011, calling on the Colombian government to fulfill a series of commitments in order for the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement to be passed.  Only one month later, in May, 2011, the US Trade Representative’s office announced ahead of schedule that the Colombian government had fulfilled these commitments and the FTA went into full effect.

The rising repression seems to be motivated by two primary factors:  1)  the desire of the Colombian oligarchy and transnational corporate interests to augment and consolidate the appropriation of peasant land in the event of a successful peace process and land reform; and, 2) an attempt to  prevent the emergence of a strong Left political bloc.

The reality for rural workers has not been one of improved labor or basic human rights.  Besides the repression against labor organizers and human rights advocates, forced displacement has increased by 83% over the past year according to  CODHES (the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement).  Colombia already has the world’s highest number of internally displaced, as many as 6 million, and more than 60% of these are from farming communities.  Also hard hit are indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, with Afro-Colombians disproportionately affected the past year.  Of course, farming communities can also be indigenous or Afro-Colombian, so there is much overlap.

Peasant farmers provide 70% of the food that Colombians eat.  But over the past 15 years of Plan Colombia, the US and Colombia’s “war plan”, Colombians have been dispossessed of 20 million hectares of land and half the country’s land is now in the hands of 1% of the population, , according to Virginia Bouvier of the United States Institute of Peace.  If one looks at the places where farmers are displaced from, without exception the areas are in or near sites wanted for the development of extractive industries, hydroelectric projects built for the export of electricity, or big agribusinesses with operations carried out by foreign corporations.

Regarding the Marcha Patriótica, many fear that this repression portends a possible repeat of the genocide against the Patriotic Union.  The Patriotic Union was a Left political party founded as part of a previous peace process that was derailed when some 5,000 of its leaders, candidates and elected officials were systematically assassinated over a period of ten years.

Over the past three months:

* Two Fensuagro organizers, Alonso Lozano and Gustavo Adolfo Pizo, have been assassinated, both of these leaders of the Fensuagro affiliate in Cauca, Sinpeagric (Union of Small Farmers of Cauca);

* One, Maribel Oviedo, of the Tolima Fensuagro affiliate, Astracatol (Association of Peasant Workers of Tolima) has been threatened with execution and illegally held hostage by members of the Colombian Armed Forces, her release secured when word was leaked to the local community about what was happening, and a national and international campaign was mobilized on her behalf;

* Eight Fensuagro unionists and Marcha Patriótica representatives have been arrested in the Department of Tolima just days after attending the Forum on Political Participation organized by the National University and a United Nations agency.  Among those arrested is Guillermo Cano, Human Rights Coordinator for Astracatol and member of the Executive Board for Fensuagro.

* Seven Fensuagro unionists have been killed in the first year following the installation of the Marcha Patriótica in April 2011.

It is often said that Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a union member.  It follows, then, that Fensuagro is one of the most targeted unions on the planet.  Over the past 30 years there have been more than 3,000 unionists murdered in Colombia.  In the 37 years of Fensuagro’s existence, it has lost over 1,500 of its members. Because Fensuagro represents rural farmers and farm workers, they represent the population hardest hit by forced displacement.

Fecode has also suffered a great deal of repression, and most of that has been targeted against teachers in rural areas.  Teachers are often one of only a few literate adults in many peasant villages, and play an integral role in community cohesion and the flow of information.  Since 1986, Fecode has lost 972 of its members to assassinations, and last year, according to Fecode Pres. Zenen Nino, members of the union received in excess of 500 threats.

Another indicator of the repression aimed at rural populations is the persecution sustained by human rights advocates in rural settings.  According to Somos Defensores (We Are Defenders), 2012 saw the most threats and attacks against human rights advocates in ten years, with an advocate being assaulted every 20 hours and one being killed every five days.  There was a 49% increase in individual assaults over 2011.  Somos Defenores reports that 97% of assassinated human rights advocates are from rural zones.

Despite this heavy repression, solidarity between US unions and Fensuagro is a recent phenomenon, and solidarity with Fecode has been intermittent.  When the Alliance for Global Justice (AfGJ), which is not a labor organization, began its Colombia working group in August 2008, AfGJ was the only US organization with an ongoing program of solidarity with Fensuagro.  That situation began to change when the United Steelworkers (USW) opened official channels of communication with the agricultural union in 2011.  Since that time a series of resolutions of solidarity with Fensuagro have been passed by various labor federations and union bodies, beginning with the South Bay Labor Federation in California and spreading to the statewide California Labor Federation, the Long Island (New York) Labor Federation, the Pima County (Arizona) Labor Federation and the New York State United Auto Workers.  It should be noted that the USW is the largest industrial union in the US and the California Labor Federation represents one out of six US unionists—so this new solidarity is not insignificant.

One can only hope that the USW and/or one of these resolution-sponsoring bodies will take the next step and carry a resolution forward to the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles in September 2013.  However, despite these hopeful developments, the momentum seems to have stopped right when it is most needed.  Rather than official labor delegations, efforts to broaden such solidarity via the entire AFL-CIO, and union-approved denunciations and alerts regarding the escalating repression of the past three months against Fensuagro, this new solidarity seems to have dissipated into silence.

In 2009, the Solidarity Center actually intervened to stop a nascent relationship between Fensuagro and the USW.  The Solidarity Center is associated with the AFL-CIO, but receives more than 90% of its funding from the federal government, and its programs generally reflect US government priorities, rather than those of rank and file unionists.  We do not know if there has been any recent intervention by the Solidarity Center, however, with Fensuagro’s strong criticisms of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and its association with the political opposition, and given that the escalation of violence against this and other unions stands in sharp contrast to the passing grade the USTR gave Colombia regarding labor rights, one can well imagine that those who hold the purse strings of the Solidarity Center in the State Department and USAID might be concerned with high profile solidarity given to Fensuagro.

It has been suggested that certain leaders of the AFL-CIO are taking a step backwards from solidarity with Colombian unions that are not in step with US government goals.  The situation is further exacerbated by the particular reluctance of the AFL-CIO to be in direct contradiction to an administration affiliated with the Democratic Party.  There is some precedence for this concern.  There are 2008 and 2009 Wikileaks cables that reveal that at the very same time that the AFL-CIO was undertaking a campaign to defeat the FTA, the Solidarity Center’s Bogotá office was meeting with the US Embassy to discuss efforts to support the FTA.

There are perhaps internal struggles going on within the AFL-CIO regarding Free Trade Agreements, generally.  In November of 2012, I attended a Labor Caucus at the annual Fort Benning, Georgia protests against the School of the Americas.  At that meeting, I heard Cathy Feingold, the Director of International Affairs for the AFL-CIO, call passionately for a movement to defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would be the largest FTA in the world, including the US, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Japan,Vietnam and New Zealand. However, if one today visits the AFL-CIO website page on the TPP, one encounters a far different tone:

This trade agreement presents the Obama administration with an opportunity to reform U.S. trade policy so it helps U.S. businesses export goods, rather than outsource jobs. The president and his team have an opportunity to deliver a new trade model for the 21st century that creates jobs, protects the environment and ensures safe imports. Negotiations must include provisions that will benefit U.S. workers, not simply the largest global corporations.

In other words, the AFL-CIO is now calling for tinkering with the TPP, rather than defeating it.

There is no such confusion about FTA’s among union families.  According to two separate polls in 2010, one by NBC/Wall Street Journal and one by the Pew Research Center, more than 60% of union families oppose new FTAs.

Besides the simple discomfort that some in the AFL-CIO must feel in regards to opposing the trade positions of the Obama administration, there is the added issue of the thumbs-up the Obama administration gave Colombia about labor rights in order to implement the FTA.

According to the National Labor School in Colombia, there were 20 assassinations of unionists in 2012, while the International Trade Union Confederation reported 35.  These numbers are lower than the previous years, but, as noted in an article by Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, of WOLA, and Dan Kovalik, of the USW (who, among USW leaders, has been especially committed to Colombia solidarity),

While this is an improvement from prior years…Colombia still remains number one in the world for total number of trade unionists killed.  Moreover…one should keep in mind the fact, as previously observed by Colombia’s Jesuit Father Javier Giraldo, that after years of killing unionist in the hundreds—for a total of well over 3,000 since 1986—there are simply less unionists in Colombia to kill and killing tens of unionists a year now still elicits the requisite terror in the hearts and minds of Colombian workers to deter them from union activity.

Furthermore, a Public Citizen report on the aftermath of two years of the Labor Action Plan shows that “…union members in Colombia received 471 death threats—exactly the same number as the average annual level of death threats in the two years before the Plan….”  And, as mentioned earlier, Fecode reports that it alone has received 500 threats in just the last year.  Today the rate of unionization in Colombia is 4%, one of the lowest rates in the world, even below the rate of unionization in countries where labor unions are considered illegal.

It is well known that the Solidarity Center actively discourages political activity by labor unions.  This position is, of course, selective.  Anyone familiar with labor unions in the US knows how thoroughly allied the AFL-CIO is with the Democratic Party, and that it devotes huge resources in funds and people power to campaigning for chosen candidates.

On an international basis, the Solidarity Center showed little restraint when it acted as a conduit for US political interference in Venezuela in 2002. The Solidarity Center funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) while they were plotting a failed coup against the elected government of Pres. Hugo Chávez.  Curiously, a month before the coup actually took place, the Caracas office moved its operations to Bogotá, Colombia, where it remains today, continuing to coordinate activities in both Colombia and Venezuela.  To this day the AFL-CIO still has posted on its website a defense not only of Carlos Ortega, the former President of the CTV who helped plan the 2002 coup attempt, but also of Carlos Fernandez, former President of Fedecamaras, the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce, and Ortega’s partner in the failed overthrow.   The CTV and Fedecamaras not only worked together toward the coup attempt of April , 2002, but in a lockout of oil workers in December, 2002 designed to cripple the Venezuelan economy.  This is one of the few examples in international labor history where a  labor union took its orders from a bosses organization in helping keep workers from their jobs.

In Haiti, we see an example of how the Solidarity Center rewards behavior in accordance with US government designs, and withholds solidarity from workers most in need, based on political reasons.  The country’s largest union, the Confederation of Haitian Workers (CTH), was brutally persecuted during and after the US sponsored coup against the elected government of President Jean Bertrand Aristide.  During this period, the Solidarity Center did nothing to support the CTH, but rather gave over $300,000 to a small labor organization that in the midst of the coup was calling for the resignation of Pres. Aristide.

However, when I went to Haiti in 2010, I found out that not only had the CTH been “rehabilitated”, but that its President was now part of the National Electoral Council that had prohibited Lavalas, Haiti’s largest political party, from participating in elections.  The CTH had formerly been associated with Lavalas. The CTH had also dropped its objection to the development of a free trade zone employing factory workers for wages significantly below the minimum wage.  Suddenly, the Solidarity Center started giving the CTH hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants.

The Solidarity Center is a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).  NED co-founder Alan Weinstein told the Washington Post in 1999 that, “A lot of what we do was done 25 years ago covertly by the CIA.”  So we can see clearly that the Solidarity Center concern about union political activity is thoroughly selective and based on US government priorities.

But in regards to unions associated with Left political orientations, the mantra of the Solidarity Center is almost endless, calling on unions to focus on particular labor struggles rather than political objectives.  A September 14, 2004 cable from the US Embassy in Colombia speaks of a US Department of Labor (DOL) funded study conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Colombia.  The title of the cable was REMOVING POLITCS FROM LABOR RELATIONS REDUCES VIOLENCE AND STRENGTHENS DIALOGUE.   The cable notes that,

…removing politics from labor relations can play an important role in…reducing levels of violence against trade unionists and management.…The ILO study does more than support our conclusions about the nature of labor violence in Colombia [the emphasis is mine] ….The ILO study provides models for future action through which unions may be convinced to leave politics to Colombia’s political parties and focus instead on labor relations and the promotion of traditional labor priorities….We urge that serious consideration be given to extending this program or funding other programs — perhaps under FTA-related capacity building assistance….

By the time we get to August 11, 2008, we find another Embassy cable describing meetings that include Rhett Doumitt of the Solidarity Center’s Bogotá Office.  The cable notes that, “Doumitt complains that the politics of the labor movement in Colombia impede positive, practical advances on labor issues.”  It was during this same period that the Bogotá office of the Solidarity Center was participating in meetings with the Embassy to discuss the founding of a Colombian labor federation that would promote the US-Colombia FTA, despite a clear majority of unions in both Colombia and the US opposed to the FTA.

On April 9, 2013, I observed more than one million people marching in Bogotá, Colombia in support of the peace process.  It is of some note that most Colombian unions did not endorse the march, although thousands of unionists participated in it.  One labor activist told me it is because of the growing perception that unions should focus on specific labor issues and not on larger political struggles.  With a major increase over the past year in Solidarity Center and US Department of Labor funding and activity in Colombia,  one can only wonder what role they are playing today in efforts to de-politicize Colombian unions.  ( and )

Three unions did endorse the march:  Fensuagro, Fecode and USO.  Fecode and USO have received some limited support from the Solidarity Center.  Fensuagro has been summarily ignored or, worse, undermined.

The reality is that for these unions, it is simply impossible and unrealistic to divorce labor from political struggle.  To suggest that it is political struggle that is the reason that these unions are targeted is an example of blaming the victim.  Workers in Colombia have the same right to organize around their political interests as the AFL-CIO has to endorse and work for Democratic Party candidates.  The problem is not that these unions are politically involved.  The problem is that there is a political climate of violent repression for those who get involved in opposition activities.

The idea that Colombian labor unions should “leave politics to Colombia’s political parties and focus instead on labor relations” is especially cynical, given not only the ineffectiveness of Colombia’s traditional parties in protecting unionists, but, worse, the fact that they are the very ones who have ordered so many unionists to be put in jail, and given that the Colombian Armed Forces continue to be implicated in the repression of rural labor unionists and human rights advocates.  For instance, in Tolima and Cauca, two of the Departments where Fensuagro unions are most targeted, the majority of threats and attacks against unionists are committed by the Colombian military.

We also hear of transnational corporations such as Drummond Coal, Coca-Cola, Chiquita Banana, Dole and others literally paying paramilitaries and looking the other way when these death squads intimidate and kill unionists.  The idea that labor should isolate from political struggle is tantamount to saying that labor unions should not defend themselves from what constitutes a frontal assault by corporate supported paramilitaries and from the repression of the state.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with the political orientation of unions like Fensuagro or of movements such as the Marcha Patriótica, any defender of civil liberties and labor rights and any proponent of peace must recognize that there is no just peace when nonviolent political dissent is violently crushed and workers are denied a voice in the nation’s affairs.

Let me make clear that the AFL-CIO and the Solidarity Center have also both acted at various times to defend Colombian unionists from repression.  However, that defense was sharper during the Bush administration than during the Obama one.  And there have indeed been some examples of US labor solidarity over the years with unions such as Fecode and USO.  But there can be no doubt that the lion’s share of US labor solidarity has been reserved for union bodies that have refrained from active participation in political activities at odds with US government objectives.  These have included labor organizations such as the General Confederation of Workers (CGT) and the National Union of Workers in the Agricultural Industry , or Sintrainagro, both supporters of the US-Colombia FTA.  In fact, Sintrainagro in 2010 even offered to accompany the Colombian government in FTA negotiations.

Certainly, any union repressed for its organizing activities deserves international solidarity, including the CGT and Sintrainagro.  Sintrainagro, which represents sugar cane workers, has recently endured its own share of threats and violence.  But Fensuagro, Fecode and USO merit solidarity as well.  Instead, what we are witnessing is the “Haiti model”, aka “carrot and stick approach”, already discussed: selected application of US labor solidarity not to meet the greatest need, but to reward practices that are in line with official US government policies.  Thus, the Solidarity Center is acting as an arm not of labor, but of the US government.  This has been the concern for pro-union critics of the Solidarity Center all along—not that we oppose the idea of a Solidarity Center, but that we want a Solidarity Center that proceeds from the ground up, from the locals to the halls of the AFL-CIO offices in DC, a Solidarity Center that reflects the international concerns of its membership, rather than the policy dictates of the federal government.

Fortunately, there is a movement afoot in US labor  that is standing up in solidarity with Fensuagro, as well as with other targeted unions.  Whether intentionally or unintentionally, it represents a new wind of labor independence in world affairs.

The USW deserves much credit for developing this new form of union to union, worker to worker solidarity.  The USW’s official relationship with Fensuagro comes about as a result of its membership in Workers Uniting, a partnership with the largest unions in the United Kingdom and Ireland.  These unions already had an established relationship with Fensuagro when the USW joined with them.  The USW is also a union that includes not only US but Canadian workers.  Thus the basis of the USW’s solidarity reflects its own increasingly global character.  And while the USW is fully participant in the Solidarity Center, it must be noted that the avenue of this particular solidarity is via an independent and alternative route.  The relationship established by the USW with Fensuagro has opened up the space for other important labor organizations to step forward and declare their solidarity with the embattled union.

All this can be seen as an extension of a process begun in 2005, when the AFL-CIO passed a resolution criticizing the war in Iraq and calling for the “rapid” return home of US troops.  According to a press release by US Labor Against the War (USLAW), “Adoption of this resolution represents the first time in its 50 year history that the federation [AFL-CIO] has taken a position squarely in opposition to a major U.S. foreign policy or military action.”

The majority of the pro-Fensuagro resolutions have also explicitly mentioned Fensuagro’s membership in the Marcha Patriótica as a main reason it is targeted, and thus call for the safety not only of the union, but of the popular movement it is part of.  Even before the peace process had begun, and when both the US and Colombian governments were rejecting the idea of negotiations in favor of a military-only solution, the Marcha Patriótica had been demanding a peace process.  These resolutions  are therefore implicitly critical of US policies that support war and repression in Colombia.


For labor activists in the US, there is another especially historic aspect:  Solidarity with Fensuagro represents a break with the Solidarity Center status quo.

These resolutions actually give the Solidarity Center itself the chance to signal that changes may be taking place within its own structures.  The Solidarity Center was formed in 1997 as part of a reform movement that was in contrast to the history of the AFL-CIO as a front for the CIA in its international relations.  Nevertheless, it was headed formany years by Harry Kamberis, who came to the Solidarity Center not from the ranks of unionists, but from his position at the Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI), from 1986 to 1997.  Kamberis’ main background was originally not with labor, but as a former foreign service officer and international business person.  Kamberis was at AAFLI at a time of bloody repression of unionists in South Korea, the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia—with those most repressed also the most ignored by US labor.  It was under Kamberis that money was funded to coup plotters in Venezuela in 2002.  Kamberis also spoke supportively of Bush administration policies in Iraq.

Kamberis stepped down from his position in September, 2005.  Since then, the Solidarity Center has been less likely to be directly involved in the kinds of questionable activities seen under Kamberis—although it could be that they are just better at hiding them.  One of the most negative aspects of the Solidarity Center is that other than vague descriptions of certain programs, their books are not open for review by the public or by union members.

Nevertheless, there are many new faces at the Solidarity Center and some of these do come out of more progressive labor solidarity movements.  But in Colombia and Venezuela, we still see an “old guard”  in charge.  If the Solidarity Center really wants to show unionists around the world that it is a new and different kind of organization, one thing that it can do is to welcome the USW relationship with Fensuagro, and the pro-Fensuagro resolutions that have been passed, and it can not stand in the way or undermine any efforts to bring a pro-Fensuagro resolution to the AFL-CIO convention this September.

But for the Solidarity Center to ever truly be trusted in Colombia and elsewhere, and if it is to win the confidence of labor’s rank and file and of the international solidarity and peace movements in the US, it must do three things:

1. Open its books on its operations past, present and future;

2. Ween itself off of State Department and USAID funding and fund itself via union monies and independent revenues;

3. Base its policies on actual need and with direction that comes from the bottom up, involving union locals and rank and file unionists, and thus representing the desires and mandates of the union movement itself, rather than that of the federal government.

Meanwhile, for those unions and labor organizations that have taken stands in favor of Fensuagro, we must call on them to stay active and to not back off.  It is a disturbing trend  that even those labor bodies that have publicly expressed their solidarity have slipped back into silence when the need is most acute.  It is time for US labor to show clearly that it is ready to stand up for Fensuagro, stand up for Colombian unionists and, above all, to stand up for peace and justice in Colombia.

James Jordan is National Co-Coordinator for the Alliance for Global Justice.