Trade union leaders have rejected government claims that human rights and trade unionist protection has improved. The rejection denigrates symbolic gestures aimed at securing a free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States. The trade union leaders say the FTA will help multinational companies over Colombian workers.
Justice minister German Vargas Lleras announced on May 16 that Colombia had complied with the requisite of ensuring safety for union leaders. Vargas Lleras expressed hope the US-Colombian FTA will go through shortly, coinciding with consistent proclamations from President Juan Manuel Santos's administration that have sought to demarcate Santos's government from that of former president Alvaro Uribe.
Francisco Ramirez Cuellar, the president of trade union Sintraminercol-Funtraenergetica, rejected the notion of human rights progress in Colombia.
He said the situation has deteriorated, but a manipulation of the figures allows the government to present a hollow picture of progress.
He told Colombia Reports: “Twenty five years ago when there were 14% of workers affiliated to trade unions, on average a trade unionist was murdered every three days.
“Although the number of deaths has 'fallen' in comparison ... the government does not make note of the fact that the rate of unionization has fallen to 3.9%."
He said the fact 51 unionists were killed last year, equivalent to about one every week, signifies that, in reality, "the situation now is much more serious than before".
"International human rights law defines it as genocide."
Edgar Paez, a Sinaltrainal union leader, agreed that violence and impunity continues to undermine the symbolic progress. Paez said that, despite government claims, the workers are "exploited more and paid less" as "terror continues to be used by corporations to keep robbing the Colombian people for their natural resources".
Impunity for perpetrators of violence, as high as 99% by some estimates, remains a consistent theme in the dialogue of Colombian judicial and human rights progress.
Ramirez Cuellar cited the implication in violence of many state agents as the key hindrance to substantial advances in protecting trade unionists.
“In the majority of trade unionist murder cases, the military forces and security of the establishment committed them ...[the same people] who are going to be those who investigate," he said.
The law condemns the perpetrators but not the "intellectual authors" who finance the crimes, he said.
Paez noted how hundreds of trade unionists celebrating International Workers' Day on May 1 were "arrested, beaten, tortured and vilified" by the regime, as "state crimes continue".
Asked who would benefit from the FTA, the union leaders adamantly told Colombia Reports that it would not be trade unionists, workers, or even the wider Colombia population.
Instead, they said the large multinational corporations, and those who align with them, stand to gain.
These would be the same corporations, such as US banana company Chiquita, that have long been accused of being the "intellectual authors" and financiers behind numerous paramilitary crimes against unionists over the years.
The free trade agreement between the two countries was originally signed in 2006, but has long been stalled in the US Congress. The state of human rights in Colombia is a central issue.
US unions have consistently opposed the passage of the FTA in solidarity with their Colombian counterparts. US President Barack Obama stated his opposition to the agreement while on the campaign trail on grounds of anti-union violence and impunity.
The recent release of previously-classified Chiquita documents by the National Security Archive, however, illustrate that the US justice department has been tacitly complicit in Chiquita's crimes by turning a blind eye and potentially aiding the corporation avoid serious punishment.
Santos and Obama signed a labour deal on April 6 that set out preconditions before the FTA can pass. These included the protection of trade unionists and other threatened members of society, such as teachers.
With most Republicans in the US Congress favouring the FTA, the agreement has appeared to make significant progress towards its passage. This is despite it being held up in recent days over Obama's insistence that a US worker retraining program is renewed.
If, as expected, the trade deal does ultimately get ratified this year, Colombian unions will be hoping it does not fulfill Paez's prediction that the "FTA will be a far more lethal weapon against the people than the terrorism and war multinationals have implemented".
[Reprinted from ColombiaReports.org.]