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Colombian unions fight back


Colombian unions fight back

Colombian workers have been kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured and even assassinated by paramilitary death squads that do the dirty work for the Colombian government. Now an international caravan is to challenge the repression.

10.06.2004 (By Berta Joubert-Ceci, Workers World)

SINALTRAINAL, the Colombian Coca-Cola workers' union, and others will host an International Caravan to Save the Lives of Colombian Workers from June 21-25. Several international delegations have already pledged support for this crucial event, including one from the United States.

The caravan's purpose is to raise global awareness about the courageous women and men who put themselves in the line of fire by defending their jobs, their livelihoods and their unions. In the process, they are also defending human rights and working to build another Colombia where social justice, peace and solidarity prevail.

Workers have been threatened, kidnapped, disappeared, imprisoned, tortured and even assassinated by paramilitary death squads that do the dirty work for the Colombian government and its chief partners, Wall Street and Washington. The threats and violence extend to workers' families. No union leader or activist is immune.

Colombia is the deadliest country for union organizers. Nine out of every 10 union leaders murdered in the world die in Colombia. A recent report released by the International Labor Organization stated: "The workers of Colombia are among the most unprotected of the world as far as their union rights are concerned."

This deliberate policy of exterminating workers' organization has decimated the union movement's ranks. Over the last four years the general membership in trade unions has decreased from 10 percent to less than 5 percent.

Yet the threats haven't deterred the workers' relentless struggle.

Take the strike begun April 22 by oil workers of the Workers Syndicate Union (USO) against the attempted privatization of ECOPETROL. This oil company was nationalized in 1948 through a worker's strike that ended the control of transnational monopolies.

President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, a strong supporter of U.S. neoliberal policies, wanted to rewrite contracts to give U.S. oil companies like Chevron-Texaco and ExxonMobil greater control. He declared the strike illegal.

Unionists and supporters endured a climate of violent harassment for over a month. More than 100 USO members were threatened or fired for their participation in the strike. There were persistent rumors of assassination planned against all the leaders active in the strike. In Colombia, those rumors tend to materialize.

The assassination "rumors" were directed against USO's national board members, SINALTRAINAL, the human rights organization CREDHOS and the Popular Women's Organization.

A written death threat was sent to the home of union leader César Martínez on May 26--just six hours after an accord was signed ending the strike.

Indigenous people attacked

The violence extends to any person or group that interferes with the Colombian government's neoliberal policies, whether by organizing or just residing in a part of the country sought by transnational corporations for their "megaprojects."

More than 400 Indigenous Wayúu people were recently displaced from La Guajira, an oil- and coal-rich department of northern Colombia, on the Venezuelan border.

The testimony of Alberto, a Wayúu, to the Venezuelan newspaper Últimas Noticias on May 23 speaks of the horrendous methods used by the paramilitaries.

"Oh, brother, I feel as if my heart is coming out my mouth. You cannot imagine how it is to have to escape on the run so that they won't kill you, and then hear the cries of the kids, of my two little sons who they burned alive without me being able to do anything.

"They burned them alive inside my pickup. Also, they beheaded my mother and cut my nephews to pieces. They didn't shoot them, they tortured them so we would hear their screams, and they cut them up alive with a chainsaw."

Thirty Wayúu people were massacred to terrorize the rest of the population and render them unable to continue resisting the government/corporate attempt to steal their land. According to the Associated Press, the Wayúu crossed into Venezuela, settling in a poor neighborhood of Maracaibo.

That is standard operating procedure for the paramilitaries.

There is concern now in Colombia that a plan for the so-called demobilization of the paramilitaries will lead to more widespread violence from the "paras," who could now be recruited by the state as "peasant soldiers" to spy on the population.

US targets FARC

The Colombian Self-Defense Forces (AUC) is the paramilitaries' umbrella group. AUC is in bogus "peace negotiations" with President Uribe in an attempt to hush up denunciations by international human rights organizations and make it easier for the U.S. government to aid the war against labor, Indigenous communities and revolutionary guerrilla movements.

General James T. Hill, the U.S. Army Commander of the Southern Command, testified before the House Armed Services Committee on March 24 on the situation in Latin America. He said: "The narcoterrorists in Colombia remain the largest and most well-known threat in our region."

Hill continued: "All three narcoterrorist groups are named on the Department of State's list of designated foreign terrorist organizations: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC; the National Liberation Army, or ELN; and the United Self-Defense Forces, or AUC. The FARC still comprises the largest threat, with an estimated 13,000-15,000 members. Much of the AUC, while still a threat and still heavily involved in narcotics trafficking, is in peace negotiations with the Government of Colombia."

"Narcoterrorist" is a slanderous term used to falsely implicate the Marxist groups FARC and ELN in drug-running.

Hill went on to remind Congress how vital the Andean region is to U.S. business interests and how the Pentagon has been helping the Colombian military in conjunction with Plan Colombia.

The most common accusation against union leaders and other progressive activists, including peasants, Colombians of African descent and the Indigenous people, is aiding the guerrillas. That accusation has led to mass arrests in several regions of the country.

It has also caused the criminalization of protests--which are increasing in frequency and getting more massive, particularly those denouncing privatization and the Free Trade Area of the Americas. On May 18, during talks on the FTAA, demonstrations were called in several cities by a variety of organizations and unions.

Some 60,000 people marched in Bogotá and 20,000 came from different cities in the south to converge on Cartagena, the northern city where the talks were held. The peaceful march in Cartagena was attacked by police with rubber bullets and tear gas.

Colombia's people are under constant assault by the U.S.-backed Colombian military, paramilitaries and police. They show continued determination to struggle in the face of the almost unimaginable repression imposed by "Democratic Security," Uribe's plan to eliminate dissent.

Their courage must be supported internationally. This is a case where solidarity can truly make a difference. As long as news of the violence against union leaders, activists and communities remains confined to Colombia's borders, they will face extermination. Their voices must be heard and answered by the international community.

For more information about the International Caravan to Save the Lives of Colombian Workers, visit the International Action Center: http://www.iacenter.org

Read also "US activists plan trip to Colombia": http://www.anncol.org/side/619

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