CHICAGO – Liliany Obando is an official of the National Federation of United Agricultural Workers (FENSUAGRO) in Colombia. On a recent visit to Chicago she made several presentations, and was interviewed by the World.

Obando gave a vivid description of the way Colombian farm workers have to fight against the twin forces of neo-liberal, NAFTA-like economic policy and brutal governmental repression, both instigated by the U.S. government.

Obando’s federation is active all over Colombia, organizing small farmers, landless agricultural workers and those who, having been pushed off their farmland by aggressively expanding estates, have been forced to cultivate illicit crops on the margins of the jungle. The federation is part of the CUT, the main Colombian union federation, and also works with other kinds of farmers’ organizations. Obando says that its main task right now is to help farmers to unionize and to link hands with sectors of society that are resisting the reactionary and repressive policies of Colombia’s right-wing president, Alvaro Uribe.

“Conditions in the agricultural sector are getting worse and worse,” she explained. Since the presidency of Cesar Gaviria a decade ago, “neo-liberal policies such as the free market and privatization” have been pushed by the Colombian government, at the instigation of the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund. President Uribe has continued this process, and backed it with a great increase in repression. Colombian farmers have not been able to compete with subsidized imports from wealthier countries, and are being ruined.

Under the U.S. promoted and financed Plan Colombia, Uribe has instituted a program called “Democratic Security,” which Obando compares to the USA Patriot Act in the U.S. “He has created ‘zones of rehabilitation and consolidation,’ where authority is given to military-appointed mayors.” In these areas, the whole population is controlled and scrutinized, leading to massive violations of human rights. This policy is used to protect the investments of foreign corporations, which also are implicated in paying right-wing paramilitaries to displace the local population.

Obando described in detail the way in which the U.S.-sponsored drug eradication programs have backfired. In cavalier disregard of the warnings of its own scientists, the Colombian government has allowed spraying of vast areas supposedly to get rid of poppy, marijuana and coca leaf fields. These crops are grown by desperate Colombian farmers who have been pushed off better quality land (where they used to grow food) by the expansion of big landholdings and by means of the violent tactics of the AUC, the right-wing paramilitary death squads. But studies show that some of the illicit crops actually increase after the spraying, while food crops, the environment and the health of adults and children in the affected areas are severely damaged.

Obando explained that President Uribe is a big landowner himself and comes from the sector of society that finances the right-wing paramilitaries and is most highly implicated in the drug traffic. She scoffed at recent news that Carlos Castano, head of the right-wing AUC death squads, had agreed to a peace agreement with the Uribe government. “The government and the paramilitaries are two aspects of the same things, so you can’t talk about a ‘peace agreement’ between them,” she said.

The Colombian people, with agricultural workers playing a key part, are fighting hard against the Free Trade Area of the Americas. On Sept. 16, 2002, there was a huge national mobilization against the pact, which was followed by increased repression against peasant and trade union leaders all over the country.

Although 76 percent of the billions of dollars the U.S. is sending under Plan Colombia is being used for repressive military action, Obando has a positive message for the people of the U.S., and for U.S. workers in particular: “We Colombians are profoundly anti-imperialist, and we always will be. However, we make a distinction between the U.S. government and its intelligence agencies on the one hand, and the U.S. people and the role they can play on the other. We want to develop a relationship of solidarity with the people of the United States, and for them to understand our struggle.”

Emile Schepers can be reached at