In response to a comment about the beauty of Colombia, 7-year-old Daniela said, “Yes, but it is so violent.” Daniela should know. She has seen the violence up close. Her father, a left-wing city council member, was murdered by right-wing paramilitaries when he answered the door to their home one day.
Unfortunately, violence is a way of life in Colombian politics and social life. Not in the sense that the different political forces vie for influence by violence, but that all progressive movements, including labor unions, are targets for right-wing paramilitary forces organized and supported by the wealthy oligarchy and the transnational corporations they are allied with.
Even though many say that the paramilitaries were organized to combat left-wing guerrilla forces active in Colombia, “the paramilitaries were born before the guerilla” movements, said Ivan Cepeda, director of the Manuel Cepeda Vargas Foundation. Cepeda met with our U.S.-Cuba Labor Exchange delegation during our visit to Bogotá in January. He said the paramilitaries trace their origins back to the “war against the native people” under Spanish colonialism and the theft of the country’s natural resources.
Some recent history
Cepeda’s organization is named for his father, a union organizer and the last elected senator of the Patriotic Union, a political organization formed in 1985 by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s biggest guerilla movement, and other left-wing organizations, including the Colombian Communist Party.
The Patriotic Union emerged as a legal opposition party as a result of a pact with the government of then-President Belisario Betancourt. The pact provided for the FARC to demobilize its army and enter the peaceful political life of the country.
In the 1986 elections, the Patriotic Union won the biggest vote the left had ever received in Colombia, winning over 400 positions from city hall to Parliament. Two years later, together with other left groupings, they won over 500 positions, and were poised to directly challenge the longstanding political monopoly held by the Liberal and Conservative parties.
Brutal turn of events
Nevertheless, this entry into the “peaceful political life” of the country was anything but peaceful. From 1985 to 1988, at least 500 leaders, candidates and other members of the Patriotic Union were assassinated by paramilitary and government forces acting in concert with the drug cartels. The killings mushroomed during election campaigns.
Cepeda said the paramilitaries used (and still use) two methods to terrorize the people’s movements. One is to kill its leaders, the other, to “remove the movements’ social base.” He said paramilitary forces would often enter a town that voted for the Patriotic Union or other left forces, gather up the people, and select “40 to 60 people whom they would torture or rape.”
“The rest they would kill,” he said. “It sent a message: ‘This could happen to you.’ People would leave the area.”
By 2002, Cepeda said, some 4,500 members of the Patriotic Union had been murdered, including two of its presidential candidates. His father was killed in 1995. “Three generations of political leaders were destroyed,” he said. The Patriotic Union went from 1,250 branches to almost none, he said. “It was so commonplace to kill Patriotic Union members that it was no longer reported in the news.”
As a consequence, the FARC declared that it had no choice but to return to the armed struggle.
Many family members of assassinated Patriotic Union members are fighting to have political killings of this type declared a form of genocide. “If this was to happen to any religious, ethnic or nationality it would be called genocide,” Cepeda said. Many have had to flee into exile.
The killing of Patriotic Union activists also created conditions in which the victims’ survivors have been stigmatized, said Cepeda. For example, he said, “they are denied credit or insurance.”
No let-up in repression
Today political violence and political murders against the left continue. Last year, when the left was discussing how to participate in the electoral process, a delegate to the congress of the Colombian Communist Party was slain. Since the congress, another 50 members have been killed, said a party activist.
Recently elected Sen. Gloria Inés Ramírez, a former president of the teachers union and currently a member of the leadership of the national trade union federation, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), reported that in just one month’s time, three of her campaign workers were murdered. Ramírez said the killings were attempts to stop her campaign. She ran on the united left Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA) ticket.
Wilson Borja, former head of the main public sector union who won re-election to the House of Representatives on the PDA ticket, was attacked when he was first running for the House in 2001. One of his bodyguards was killed and Borja was badly injured, almost losing one of his legs.
Labor a special target
But one does not have to be running for office to be a target of the paramilitaries, who have close connections with the armed forces. There have been at least 4,000 labor leaders and activists killed since the mid-1980s just for trying to organize a union. It is not uncommon for progressives and trade union leaders to travel in armored cars.
The United Steelworkers and other unions have sent solidarity delegations to Colombia to show their support for the embattled workers there.
Leaders of the National Union of Food Industry Workers (Sinaltrainal) say that owners of Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia routinely use paramilitaries to kill union leaders to stop them from organizing. Sinaltrainal’s national president, Javier Correa, said that because of the repression, union membership has gone down from 5,400 in 1996 to 1,400 today.
The union’s campaign for an international boycott of Coca-Cola products seems to be having some effect, judging by the company’s web site, which challenges the union’s claims. About a dozen U.S. universities have taken Coca-Cola products off campus, and campaigns to get Coke off campus are taking place at over a dozen others.
Correa takes issue with Coca-Cola’s “lies to undermine the campaign.” He said, “What Coca-Cola is doing is unethical and inmoral. They want to make the world believe that they have changed and now respect human rights.”
Correa noted that the U.S. government is an accomplice in all this. “The union was called to a meeting with U.S. government officials who offered to mediate … They were never concerned when it was the union being attacked. Now that Coca-Cola is hurting, they want to get involved.”
Correa said the union is facing a similar situation with Nestlé, another company with extensive holdings in the U.S. Sinaltrainal says Nestlé, together with the Colombian government, is guilty of “the systematic violation of the human rights of workers and communities,” resulting in killings, displacements, and firings as well as the environmental contamination of poor communities.
Women, communities fight back
It is not just unions and political organizations that are trying to change the situation in Colombia. The people in Bolivar City, a poor working-class suburb just south of Bogotá, are just one example of how whole communities are fighting back.
In a number of neighborhoods, the Women’s Popular Organization (OFP, Organización Femenina Popular) is working with community residents. The OFP started in the state of Barrancabermeja in the 1980s as a response violence directed against women. While it was originally connected to the Catholic Church, it is independent now.
The OFP runs “people’s dining halls” that provide daily low-cost meals for neighbors. It also conducts educational sessions on healthy living. But its members don’t stop there. In their educational programs they teach women analytical skills, how to organize and how to defend their legal rights.
The OFP community center in Bolivar City houses a number of other groups. One of these is the Youth Association, headed by Emily Rincon, which holds a variety of cultural and educational activities, many of them linked to defending human rights. The group has about 150 members.
Another group is made up of farmers who have been displaced from their land, fleeing the paramilitaries. They remain vigilant, as paramilitary forces are still active in the area at night.
The OFP center also aids the “Grandmothers’ House,” a small meeting place where women in their 60s and 70s run programs for their peers. The house also features a library for children who do not attend school in the neighborhood.
Politics again in the fore
There are many other stories of popular resistance to exploitation and the struggle for a better Colombia among indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians, farm workers, oil workers, urban employees and others — too many to relate here.
Some of the resistance is once again spilling into the electoral arena. On the other side of the political fence, right-wing President Alvaro Uribe is recasting his re-election campaign by calling himself a “man of peace.” When he first ran in 2002, Uribe blasted the previous government’s negotiations with the FARC as “appeasement” and swore he would defeat the FARC militarily. But he has not been able to crush the movement, and people are more concerned about seeing improvements in their daily lives.
Uribe has been connected to the right-wing paramilitaries and the drug cartels. In their unauthorized biography of Uribe, Newsweek’s Joseph Contreres and Bogota’s Fernando Garavito, who writes for El Espectador, said that when the Colombian president headed one of the country’s civil aviation agencies, he authorized the building of 100 airstrips and approved over 500 pilots licenses. Many of the licenses went to people connected to drug trafficking, they charge.
Uribe himself refuses to deny or even to discuss these charges, saying they are merely rumors.
Besides protecting the interests of transnational corporations in Colombia, the paramilitaries are also active in controlling the trade routes for drug trafficking, according to union and people’s organizations. Paramilitary chief Carlos Castaños has admitted this is where they have gotten the bulk of their financing.
Uribe boasts that he has been able to “negotiate” the demobilization of a number of paramilitary forces. Basically what happens, critics say, is the paramilitaries “put down their arms” but get to keep whatever ill-begotten monies they have accumulated. This amounts to legitimizing drug profits.
Using these monies, paramilitary leaders have run for political office. In the recent elections, for example, paramilitary-linked candidates won 35 percent of the seats. Together with other conservative forces, they were able to win a majority of seats for the right wing.
But that is not the whole story. The left in Colombia launched a united slate in the elections and increased its representation in Congress by a third, garnering 1 million votes, its highest tally ever.
The struggle continues.
José A. Cruz (email@example.com) is editor of Nuestro Mundo.