Union solidarity forces new look at Colombia trade deal

“Honorable Senators and members of the U.S. Congress: The Uribe government refuses to recognize our basic rights and persecutes and punishes us for exercising our right to peaceful protests,” Colombia’s Oil Workers Union charged in an open letter to Congress, Feb. 17. Citing the toll from its 25-year campaign against privatization of the state oil company, the union said, “One hundred one of our members have been murdered, two have disappeared, 10 have been kidnapped, [and] 400 forcefully displaced.”

Prospects for passage of Bush’s free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia are dwindling in the face of pressure on Congress from U.S. and Colombian unions coupled with widespread reports of anti-labor atrocities, and new evidence of Colombian paramilitary and government collusion with the violent union repression. The deadline for passage is June 30.

Congress was supposed to have passed a package of agreements with Peru, Panama and Colombia by March 31. Yet, Colombia’s record “sets it apart from Peru and Panama,” said William Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s legislative director.

U.S. and Colombian trade ministers signed agreements Nov. 22, 2006, calling for elimination of barriers to trade and exchange of services. Bilateral trade amounted to $14.3 billion in 2005.

But with such “free trade” comes workers’ blood. The AFL-CIO said 236 trade unionists were murdered from 2004 through 2006. Only one murderer was convicted. Since 1991, 2,262 unionists have been killed, with only 30 convicted for the murders. During the five years of Alvaro Uribe’s presidency, there have been 400 murder victims.

Negotiations over the FTA resumed on April 16. The AFL-CIO’s Samuel, in a letter to Congress, insisted that Colombia must meet “an established set of human rights benchmarks.” Its government must break ties with paramilitary networks, prosecute crimes against unionists, protect union members and adhere to labor standards set by the International Labor Organization, he said.

Recent confessions by paramilitary leaders in exchange for light sentences — part of a program for demobilizing paramilitary groups — brought to light murders of hundreds of political activists, including labor leaders. They revealed tight paramilitary relationships with legislators, government ministers and local officials.

Uribe’s former intelligence chief Jorge Noguera was arrested in February and charged with allowing paramilitary figures to infiltrate government agencies. Paramilitary operative Rafael Garcia, once part of Noguera’s intelligence service, is prepared to testify that the agency complied lists of union leaders targeted for death and that Noguera gave names to paramilitary enforcers. Garcia, now in protective custody, fears for his life, according to the Washington Post.

He is set to testify also for victims’ families and a Colombian mineworkers’ union at an upcoming trial in Birmingham, Ala., against Alabama-based Drummond coal mining company. The civil suit, joined by the United Steelworkers and the International Labor Rights Fund, charges that Drummond officials ordered the deaths of three labor leaders at its La Loma Mines in Colombia in 2000.

Recent news that Chiquita Banana, with headquarters in Ohio, paid $25,000 to paramilitary groups and may have facilitated delivery to them in 2001 of 3,000 assault rifles pushed Congress to dig a little deeper into the free rein U.S. corporations enjoy in Colombia.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) asked, “The question is who do you have the trade agreement with? The government, or thugs, or who?”

After meeting with labor leaders in Colombia last month, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) reported, “Countless numbers of trade unionists in Colombia have been intimidated, have been threatened and have been murdered.”

He told reporters, “The trade pact is in jeopardy,” adding that the scandal of paramilitary terrorist links with the Uribe government is “too close for comfort.”

In Colombia, workers will be marching on May 1 and going out on a general strike on May 23 to protest the U.S.-Colombia trade deal.

atwhit @ megalink.net