NASUWT President visits union colleagues in Colombia
On Sunday, 26 February I joined the JFC delegation of trade unionists and advocates on a trip to Colombia to raise awareness and campaign for civil rights and the rights of unions and their members.
After 20 hours travelling we landed in Bogota. We saw some of the city on the drive from the airport. There were lots of street food vendors alongside more familiar sights such as Subway, but the thing that struck was miles of razor wire and steel bars protecting every property en route no matter how small. It did not feel a dangerous city at first, but we were given police escort on every occasion and never allowed to go off on our own. There were armed soldiers, police (I counted six different types of militia) at various points but usually protecting government buildings.
We met some of the Colombians with whom Justice for Colombia works in the evening. This included Carlos Lozano who is the editor of the opposition newspaper and very involved in Colombians for Peace and working towards securing a negotiated peace. He said that whilst there was some improvement under the newer Santos government there were still thousands of political prisoners - agricultural workers, trade unionists, civil society and human rights activists. The government denied their existence but the political prisoners were recognised by the United Nations.
He also said that there were still many threats made against those working for human rights. He still regularly receives death threats and is also subject to false legal proceedings which are consistently dropped.
On the same day we arrived, the Farc guerrilla group announced that they were releasing all remaining hostages they held and ending the practice of kidnapping. Carlos' view was that it was in no small part due to Colombians for Peace that Farc had made this move. The vital thing was how the government now responded.
There is still massive abuse of trade union rights, while land reform to give land back to rural workers is not working.
The British ambassador John Dew said that the new government represented change, a placatory address I felt. He said the big problem was that there was not a majority of public opinion that cared about human rights later I discovered in a private conversation that was due to the lack of any national news paper that was read by the poor. We are due to see him later in the week where we will be able to explore that stance.
Colombia Delegation – Day 2
Our first meeting today was with the CUT and CTC which are 2 trade union confederations. Coupled with that, we spoke to representatives of a range of individual unions. We already knew that the trade unions face many challenges from paramilitary organisations, strict laws which lead to arbitrary arrests for 'rebellion' and increasing intimidation by and on behalf of employers. Hearing the various representatives talk in depth about the experience of them and their members brought it home to us.
Tarcisio Maro the CUT leader said that Colombia had a great wealth of natural resources including oil, coal, gold and rare minerals. From a population of 44 million, 20 million Colombians live in poverty and 8 million of those live in absolute poverty. Of the people in employment 60% work in the 'informal' sector, they do not have permanent contracts. They might be street vendors or increasingly they may be one of a rapidly growing number of Colombians who are self employed sub-contractors or agency staff.
We are used to the concept of agency working or sub-contracting in the UK but in Colombia it goes much further and deeper. Even mainstream jobs such as teaching are sub-contracted. This means that there are fewer employment protections and it is very difficult for unions to organise within that workforce because people do not sustain employment or do not see the point of joining a union. It has gone so far now that in some cases it is trade unions that are the sub contracting body, getting paid by the employer and then paying their members. This makes it impossible to represent the workforce in the normal way and was a concept we were struggling to grasp.
The unions were concerned about a series of free trade agreements that have either been agreed or are being negotiated with Canada, the US and the EU. As part of the negotiations with the US the Obama administration insisted upon a Labour Action Plan that would see an improvement in employment rights and practices. Despite signing up to the plan the Government has not acted upon it. The unions want free trade agreements, but the ones being put in place they say will entrench inequality. A year after the Labour Action Plan being agreed, the latest human rights report still considers Colombia the most dangerous place for trade unionists in the world.
Many parallels were drawn with the economic situation in Europe and elsewhere. Privatisation has seen all of the main industries transferred to the private sector. The first law passed by the Santos government was the Law of Fiscal Sustainability which seemingly allows the Government to withhold any benefit, payment or funding if the money is not considered to be available for it. A typical impact of this is in relation to pensions where a person might have built up 30 years worth of pension rights which might be lost under the new law.
Trade unions are subjected to violence and repression on a daily basis. Already 6 trade unionists have been executed in 2012. Every trade union leader that spoke reported incidence of their trade union in terms of the number of activists that had been assassinated. Teachers had suffered the worst and just in the last 15 months, 44 members of FECODE had been killed. The agricultural workers' union has seen 1,000 members assassinated. 106 members of the oil workers union and 50 construction workers have lost their lives. There is talk of tackling the paramilitary groups behind all of this, but only recently a paramilitary group declared a 'paramilitary strike’ which effectively shut down a whole region. They effectively control 31 of 32 regions and are linked to congressmen and senators.
Many others face death threats - which in Colombia are not idle threats. A number of unions described how they have at times had to shut down their entire operation in a particular region. Other face imprisonment or even just dismissal for union activity. One of the most striking things was that the unions and the people involved do not give up in the face of everything. Assassinations and death threats are so commonplace that there is almost a banality to them that belies the very real tragedy. I wonder how many of us would have been trade union activists in the face of such adversity.
The Santos government wants to repair the international reputation. The unions made it clear more effort was being put into international affairs than solving the human and trade rights issues in Colombia.
In the afternoon we went to Soacha a poor suburb south of Bogota. We met the Mothers of Soacha whose relatives mostly young men have been murdered in what has become known as the false positives scandal. This relates to a scheme under the last government where soldiers were rewarded for the number of guerrilla fighters they killed. Under the false positives scandal young men were lured away from home with the promise of work, murdered and then made to look like they were guerrillas killed in action. When the scandal came to light a number of senior army officers resigned. Despite now knowing what happened to their sons the Mothers of Soacha still wait for justice to be done more than 4 years after the killings.
The delegation visited the home of one of the mothers to meet her and others from the group, cramming into her living room. One by one they told us what happened to their loved ones. All the young men disappeared in the same way, taken to a region some distance away, before being murdered by members of the armed forces.
At first the police and authorities ignored the desperate family members, suggesting other reasons for leaving home. After 6 or 8 months later the bodies of the missing boys from the Soacha district were discovered. The families are still waiting justice.
Each and every story was heartbreaking. Not just in terms of the loss, but the bureaucratic indifference and obstruction that came with it. There was a single mother who lost her only son, who broke down in tears and now has to stay with relatives rather than be alone. Another lost her 16 year old son and gets death threats in an attempt to silence her. One woman who has lost both her partner and her cousin has paramilitaries ringing her up and taunting her and laughing at her loss over the phone while making death threats
No one we met has seen the legal case conclude. The lawyers acting for the military have slowed the process, at times to a standstill. Attempts to get the government authorities to intervene have got nowhere. It was hard to relate to the experience of the trade unionists we spoke to in the morning, their lives so very different from our own. In the afternoon, listening to the Mothers' testimony, dignified but uncompromising, is something I will never forget.
Colombia Delegation – Day 3
Got up at 4am! We flew to Puerto Asis the main town in Putumayo in the far south of the country bordering Ecuador and Peru. It is a tropical region which is part of the Amazon Basin. It is rich in natural minerals such as oil, gold, coal and cobalt. Despite that the region has very little infrastructure, a poor road network and virtually no links to the centre of the country.
The region has a population of 400,000 of which 50,000 are indigenous people. In the 70s and 80s the Putumayo area saw increasing development in the Coca trade such that it is the main cocaine producing area. It also remains a conflict area where there is an on-going war involving the army, Farc guerrillas and paramilitary groups. The day before our visit the fighting was about an hour away from Puerto Asis. We were met by armed forces at the airport, while gunships floated around overhead in the distance.
The area was declared a mining area in 2008. This means that it is open to multinational companies to exploit the natural resources of the country. There has been a significant knock on effect on the population. There are 14 indigenous tribes in Putumayo, until recently they were all based on tribal lands. There are only two remaining indigenous tribes who have not been displaced. This is largely attributed to the development of multinationals coming into the area and wanting to exploit the natural resources.
We spent most of the day in a meeting with people from across the region, sweating profusely. About 200 people attended in all some with long journeys - in some cases by canoe. The groups included trade unionists, civil societies, human rights groups and indigenous people. Over the space of about 4 hours we heard numerous testimonials of their treatment or that of their families or colleagues.
The Permanent Committee for Human Rights (CPDH) talked about their work in the region. In February 2011 a hearing was held in Putumayo to document and receive testimony of human rights abuses. Over 800 people testified, speaking of assassination, forced displacement, torture, false court proceedings, massacres, mass graves and more. Despite CDPH presenting the evidence there has been little if any follow up by the Government. All of the groups involved in setting up the hearing have subsequently been subjected to threats and public accusation of involvement with terrorism.
Exploitation of the natural resources has seen increasing and severe damage to the environment. The Amazon is considered the 'lungs' of the planet. Within the Colombian Constitution there is a requirement for the local population to be consulted before any new mining takes place. Local residents explained this often does not happen. Rivers, water sources and marshland have all been contaminated by oil production through spillage and other factors.
The agricultural workers union Fensuagro is one of the few trade unions active in the area. As well as damage from the oil industry, widespread damage has been caused to legitimate farming by 'fumigation', spraying herbicide designed to tackle the Coca industry as part of the US sponsored Plan Colombia. 40,000 hectares have been sprayed in Putumayo and the chemicals have caused widespread displacement of communities as well as health problems.
The oil workers union USO talked about industrial action they had taken in 2011. Following this on 17 January 2012, Mauricio Redondo, one of the USO leaders was assassinated along with his wife in Puerto Asis where we were. Teaching unions have been targeted and we heard cases of the Colombian army occupying local schools on the premise that the school was a 'terrorist' Farc school.
We heard about systematic displacement of indigenous populations and other communities. The pattern followed is paramilitaries enter an area; several people disappear over a series of days, followed by assassination of community leaders. Panic sets in, the paramilitaries tell them to leave or suffer the same fate.
About 5 million people or more than 10% of the Colombian population has been forcibly displaced. The local people explained that once displaced it is impossible to return. Most displaced people live in shanty towns around Bogota or other major cities in conditions of desperate poverty. The practice was described as reverse land reform - taking land from the poorest in society and giving it to the richest.
The people and organisations have sought to protest about the situation they face. Protests have always prompted retaliation, either public accusations or stigmatisations which can typically form the basis for death threats or more serious violence. At the same time as the human rights hearings in February 2011 several people were massacred including the vice-president of a neighbourhood association and a 5 year old girl. At the meeting 21 attendees were arrested.
The March of Silence 2012
At the end of the meeting the groups attending held a silent march to commemorate the people killed in the region. We joined them on the march. Seeing the people who had spoken to us walking silently through the streets of Puerto Asis was really moving. Joining them felt a small thing to do but also an incredible privilege.
The last thing we did in Puerto Asis was to go to the Mayor's office. The Mayor was not available and we spoke to the Vice Mayor.
We asked him about the state involvement in repression, the state use of 'slander' as a tool against trade unions and activists and the problem of political prisoners in Putumayo. The Vice Mayor said there was categorically no involvement of the state in repression. Where soldiers or police had done something wrong they had been prosecuted and these were isolated incidents. There was no slandering of opponents and no political prisoners. Rob Flello one of the two MPs on the delegation replied that the Vice Mayor was describing a wonderful country that sounded like a place we would like to visit one day but it was not the country we were visiting now. The army took photographs of the delegation and asked me to fill our details in on a form – I refused. There were four of them in the room throughout!
Colombia Delegation – Day 4
The first place we were due to visit today was Buen Pastor, Women's Prison in Bogota. The Justice for Colombia delegations have visited prisons on their visits before. We were told that only 5 of our group would be allowed to enter the prison and there would be restrictions on the visit. Whist there had often been difficulties in arranging visits before there had never been such a restriction of access.
The party that went in was disturbed by the harsh conditions in what was supposed to be one of the better prisons. Steve Gillan the General Secretary of the Prison Officers Association in the UK has seen many prisons, but said that he was shocked by the conditions in Buen Pastor. The prison was heavily over crowded, there were insufficient and inadequate sanitary facilities and the prisoners had little or no opportunity for education or recreation. Children are kept in the prison with their mothers until the age of four.
One of the prisoners the group was able to speak to was Liliany Obando who is an academic who carried out research into violence against trade unionists. She was arrested in a raid on her house on 8 August 2008 and has been held since then without conviction. At the time of her arrest she was about to publish an in depth report into human rights abuses. Liliany is a single mother.
The group who entered the prison met the Governor and forcefully expressed their concern about what they had seen or heard.
We went to the National University of Colombia to meet student representatives. Last year students and academics campaigned against proposals to reform education to privatise higher education and also focus state subsidy for students on technical and vocational courses. In October students demonstrated in Bogota and around the country in the face of tear gas, water cannon and tanks. The Government has said the reforms will not be introduced yet but they have far from gone away altogether.
The police and armed forces are officially not permitted onto University campuses in Colombia or in other countries across Latin America. This practice dates back to an atrocity in the early 20th Century which led to Universities being considered space free of state interference. In Colombia the police regularly contravene this, particularly when there are protests on campus. One of the police officers that have formed our escort for the week said that they would not therefore be able to accompany us onto the campus, and told us it was a very dangerous place and that our lives would be in danger.
We had a little trouble getting into the campus. The security guards (and all the support services) have been privatised. We were told that many of the guards are 'rehabilitated' paramilitaries although the students fear that they are still active and form one means of watching the activists. I felt safer there than at any time.
We were met by representatives of the Association for Colombian University Students (ACEU) which is one of the largest student groups and was founded in 1988. They explained that entry to one of the 33 state universities was by entrance exam or a sufficiently good score on high school matriculation. All students have to pay for their education and in the state universities the fees are means tested and go up to £1,500 per term. In the 1980s all the student halls of residence were closed and private lodging costs about £100 per month. The average monthly wage in Colombia is £175. There is some limited charitable provision of food assistance, but only 1,000 of the 28,000 students can get places on the food programme.
Most students, those who do not pass entry requirements, are in one of the 70 private universities. Fees are about 4 times as high as the state sector. In addition there are also 'garage' universities which are less formal, often poor quality institutions in what the students called 'shacks'.
As we walked further into the university we started to see more and more graffiti. The walls everywhere were covered with graffiti and slogans – BRILLIANT ART WORK. The students explained that because areas for freedom of expression had been closed down the walls had become their space for expression. The graffiti covered everything from quotes from Che Guevara, Simon Bolivar and Marxist leaders, social justice and subversive humour.
The effect of the graffiti was powerful; it was not just covering the outsides of the buildings but into the halls and corridors of the buildings and even into the lecture rooms. We were told that there was a policy of 'white walls' in the university, keeping the walls all painted white. During the weekend before our visit the authorities had been painting over the slogans - our visit was unplanned so it was not for our benefit. By Wednesday the walls were full, the students having reclaimed their space for debate and ideas.
We also saw memorials to students that had been killed. One records the ten names of students killed in 1954 at a demonstration in Bogota, itself to commemorate the killing of the first student in 1929. On the 8 June 1954 protesting students sat down in the road when their way was blocked, leading the security forces to open fire whilst from a balcony the Minister of Justice looked on. Every year the students mark the 8/9 June massacres with a demo.
The most recent student death at the university was 8 March 2006. We were told that Oscar Salas, a languages student was killed when he was hit by a bullet fired by riot police that contained glass crystals, one of which went through his eye causing his death. Our group held a minute's silence at one of the memorials. I thought we had plumbed the depths of our emotions over the past two days but standing in silence with the students was another moving moment.
The university was a source of inspiration. One story was how in the 1960s the students tackled a statue of General Santander - a general who fell out with Bolivar during the independence struggle - in the University's central square. One night the students hired a crane and removed the General, never to return. The spirit of the students was infectious, the way young people had created a space that offered the hope of change. If our police escort was right that the university grounds were a dangerous place, it was not a physical danger but an intellectual one that the students' ideas might be catching!
In the afternoon we met the leaders of the Democratic Pole, an umbrella organisation of groups and political parties that forms the only opposition to the Government in the Senate and Parliament. They form about 10% of the members of Congress, the other 90% being part of the Government of National Unity headed by President Santos. They explained the difficulties they faced with paramilitaries having a far reaching influence in the political scene. This is not just in terms of the process of elections and the way votes are cast but also within Congress. We were told that 35% of Members of Congress have a paramilitary background. There is a men's prison in Colombia where one wing has been filled by former members of Congress who have been convicted of offences under what has been known as the Para Political scandal.
Dr Clara Lopez Obregon, the leader of the Democratic Pole, described the aims of the movement to bring about change. The Santos Government has promoted two laws, the Land Law and Victims Law which are said to be designed to make good the injustices of the past. The Democratic Pole opposed the laws on the basis that they are insufficient and just an attempt to create an appearance of change. In relation to the Land Law for example, she said that there had been 22 judgments concerning the return of stolen land and not one has led to the return of the land.
The organisation has a massive task ahead with limited funds and resources. Another Congressman Ivan Cepeda who we met later over dinner explained that he could not make the meeting because of the demands on their time. In particular, in addition to any work in Congress, the representatives spend much of their time around the country trying to uncover abuses and also supporting and trying to give some protection to the activities of social movements.
At the end of the meeting a lawyer arrived who announced that a court decision had granted Liliany Obando bail on the basis that her detention without conviction for this length of time was against the constitution. There is still a long way to go for Liliany but the news was understandably met with jubilation and shows that pressure works. Hopefully Liliany will be released in the next day or so and will be able to meet the whole delegation.
Our final meeting of a long day was with human rights groups and organisations. This was organised by, amongst others, MOVICE which is an umbrella organisation of groups of victims of state violence including paramilitaries. They work on helping displaced people, the families of disappeared people to locate the bodies of loved ones and getting the bodies returned home for burial and also to combat the impunity that exists in relation to these crimes.
We heard testimony from victims covering a range of crimes and incidents. We heard from the daughter of a Bogota trade union leader who was killed in 2008. She explained he was abducted by the local police. When a trade unionist disappears there is an automatic search procedure that should be triggered. The fact is those searching and holding him were the same, two days after his abduction he was executed.
An Afro Colombian leader from the North of the Colombia described how despite the constitution guaranteeing the rights of indigenous people, they had lost their collective lands. The land was now owned by 3 individuals and has been turned over to commercial palm oil production that will cause irreparable damage the environment.
A trade union leader from southern Colombia faced constant charges of terrorism and rebellion, every single case being dropped when it comes to trial. His wife who was involved in investigating rights abuses was kidnapped by paramilitaries. Both he and his wife and their 10 month old daughter have been declared 'military targets'. A witness we were due to hear from had just been the victim of an assassination attempt and had to flee instead.
The brother of an assassination victim from January 2012 described his abduction, torture and murder which was subsequently reported as being a death in combat. His brother had been the subject of stigmatisation or slander since 2008, an example given was a leaflet distributed in 2010 accusing him and others of being members of Farc. This brought home to us the effect of the policy of stigmatisation. His brother was active in the agricultural workers union.
Another witness described how in 1995 paramilitaries killed two of his brothers and forced his family to flee along with 500 other families. The family had one hour to hurriedly bury his brothers in a single grave before leaving. Twelve years after the incident public records showed that one of his dead brothers had sold the land to a paramilitary leader despite being dead. Evidence has been presented about the injustice to no effect. The owner of the land is now a Congressman.
The meeting also heard a report from the National Committee for Peace on hearings that were held in July 2010 that Justice for Colombia supported. The hearings recorded denouncements of mass graves in the municipality of La Macarena. The hearings forced the Government to act on the issue of unidentified bodies. A directive was issued to mayors around the country to report all unidentified bodies. The forensic science service and holders of medical records had to cooperate in the identification. Some 22,689 bodies have been found so far of those 9,968 have been identified.
It was another long hard day but with moments of real hope.