Colombia has just emerged from 50 years of civil war, but its future is still uncertain.
Amid the optimism prompted by the peace deal between the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos, it is easy to assume the slaughter of trade unionists and other activists is a thing of the past.
However, 534 people were murdered from 2011 to last year — 134 of those trade unionists — according to Justice for Colombia, the British trade union-based campaign against paramilitary violence against the Colombian labour movement.
At the July policy conference of Britain's largest trade union, Unite, Colombian Oil Workers' Union (USO) president Cesar Loza and international secretary Hector Vaca told delegates how their comrades continue to face death threats.
They said the struggle for social justice had not ended with the ceasefire.
In particular, USO is fighting attempts to privatise the oilfields and mines. The aim is to sell them to the foreign companies, Loza says, that have brought war, poverty and environmental damage rather than development.
“Trade union activity in Colombia is not easy,” he told the Morning Star. “There is a lot of violence against us. It's very sad for us to say our country criminalises trade unionism. In fact we are treated worse than criminals.”
They have recorded 2730 violent incidents against trade unionists in the last five years — murders, disappearances and arrests.
“Four years ago we had 23,000 members,” he continued, “but because of the impact of anti-union activities and the oil price crash we now only have 2000.”
In the last three years 55,000 workers have had their contracts terminated. “There is a very definite strategy to avoid social organisation in Colombia,” said Vaca.
The first part of this strategy is the labour “reform” law that makes subcontracting to third-party employers easier. This has made trade union organisation more difficult.
The second part is to penalise trade union organisation through a series of laws, particularly those criminalising protest. The Esmad mobile riot police group is carrying out constant attacks on trade unions.
The third is the reinforcing and rebuilding of the paramilitary death squads across the country.
Loza said trade unionists welcome the peace — in which representatives from all sides in Northern Ireland and from South Africa's ANC acted as advisers — but see it bringing new challenges.
“The trade union movement and USO in particular, completely backs the peace process in Havana, but that is not to say we support the economic policies of President Santos,” Loza said.
“We are fighting for the profits of these companies to go towards the social development of our country,” he emphasised.
“After the peace agreement we will have a huge responsibility as trade unions. It cannot just be about silencing the guns — the peace has to be a peace with social justice.
“Transnational corporations are hoping the peace will allow them to take Colombia's natural resources — oil, coal, gold and water,” Loza said. “We as trade union leaders have to organise with communities to avoid this sack and plunder of our resources.”
“The transnationals pay less in taxes than they cost us in environmental damage,” added Vaca. “We need rational exploitation as only about six years' worth of oil reserves remain at the current rate of extraction.
“We are working to strengthen our base in the oil sector, because we want to make sure these resources are used to benefit our society and not the multinationals. There are social and environmental consequences.”
Recently USO won an important battle to remove a transnational from one oilfield and ensure the state oil company Ecopetrol took over construction.
“But we want to go further than that,” explained Vaca. “We want to take control of all the mining and energy resources so we can use them for the benefit of all Colombians.
Loza said: “Smuggling petrol and diesel from Venezuela, where fuel is very cheap even after the recent price hike, is a problem for the Colombian oil industry but only near the eastern borders — still, some 40,000 barrels a day come across the Venezuelan frontier.”
What Colombia needs, Loza said, was economic diversification away from a reliance on oil — which accounts for a quarter of the economy — mining and cash crop agriculture, along with the adoption of “clean” renewable energy.
What about hydroelectric power, I asked? “Hydroelectric has too much impact — environmental and human displacement, damage to fishing,” Loza pointed out.
To illustrate the madness of the market, he added that electricity is generated for export to neighbouring countries, while Colombia is forced to import energy.
“Building a new Colombia after 50 years of war — after more than 220,000 deaths — is most important for the trade union movement,” he said, “and is very important for us to have the companionship of the international union movement.
“It is, after all, a result of this attention and international solidarity that the trade union movement has become more visible.”
[Reprinted from Morning Star.]