Colombia—the most dangerous place to be a union activist
By Larry Kuehn, BCTF Director of Research and Technology
Representing a teacher union on a “Committee for Threatened Teachers” hardly seems like a desirable role. However, it was hotly contested in an election by five teachers in Cali, Colombia, recently. The very name of the committee tells a story about the situation of teachers in Colombia—nearly 900 have been murdered in the past 25 years, thousands threatened, many forced into internal or overseas exile.
The fact that there was a contest for the position of working with threatened teachers also tells a story about the determination of these teachers to prevail, regardless of the consequences.
The national teachers’ union, FECODE, is at the centre of many of the social struggles in Colombia. It is by far the largest union in the country, still having about 300,000 members. Nearly all other public services and publicly owned industries have been privatized and their unions smashed.
The remaining unions are involved in a desperate campaign to stop the government’s plan to finish privatizing health care. Education is being privatized as well. Small schools are being closed, moving the students to large centralized schools which are then contracted to churches and private companies to run.
A delegation of Canadian teacher union officers and staff went to Colombia in February to hear about the situation and identify how Canadian unions can provide solidarity support to teacher colleagues. BCTF president Irene Lanzinger and staff member Larry Kuehn were joined by two representatives from the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and an executive member of the CSQ, the francophone teacher union in Quebec. The delegation was organized by Steve Stewart from the BCTF partner organization, CoDevelopment Canada.
The contradictions of Colombia were reflected in the very first meeting with the union’s General Secretary, Luis Eduardo Varela. He told us that he hoped that we would appreciate the good things about Colombia. And there are many good things. The city of Bogota is beautiful. It has bicycle paths throughout the city, a good public transit system, streets downtown are closed off on the weekends. The crowds on the streets seemed very safe, more so than many other cities.
In contrast, around these modern, busy cities are “rings of misery,” as they were described by a leader of the campesino movement. Between three and four million people are internal refugees living in scrap wood and iron sheet shacks with rutted dirt roads that turn to muck in the rain.
What could possibly lead millions of people to leave their small subsistence farms to live in hovels, without jobs and very little access to the good life lived in the middle of the cities? Fear and safety is clearly the answer.
Millions have been forced off their land by fear. They are caught in the middle of a number of forces—the left-wing FARC guerillas, the government’s army, drug dealers and right-wing paramilitaries. This is exemplified by what happens in the schools: the guerillas call the community together in the school to demand their support, the army chasing guerillas lands helicopters on the school grounds, the soldiers use the school as place to sleep at night, drug dealers use schools as warehouses for drugs and the paramilitaries target key people in the community.
Being caught in the middle of a war zone makes even the slums encircling cities seem relatively safe.
Why are people being forced to give up their homes to be part of the displaced mass? Land seems to be the answer. The small farms being abandoned are brought together into large, mechanized plantations to grow crops such as African palms, primarily for bio-fuels. Some indigenous communities have been massacred to force people off land that mining companies want to develop. Trans-national corporations and mining interests have been the winners. In the mining sector, it is Canadian companies involved here, as they are throughout Latin America.
Much of the violence has been perpetrated by paramilitaries. These are men given guns and paid to terrorize and create enough fear to drive people from the land. Transnational corporations and the local elite that stand to gain from access to the land are accused of funding the paramilitaries.
The government claims to have demobilized the paramilitaries. If individuals confess to all the killings and torture that they carried out, they face less jail time and receive help in reintegrating into the community. Some of the paramilitary leaders were extradited to the U.S. for trial—convenient for the people who do not want them to tell all about the real “intellectual authors” of the violence, whose plans direct the foot soldiers who carry out the violence. Many in the middle ranks have themselves been the victims of assassination, also evidently from fear of them telling what they know about who financed and ordered the actions they led.
Many of the lowest level of the paramilitaries are in the process of re-establishing their role by creating “emerging gangs.” These groups often engage in violence against each other in the struggle for dominance, as well as in their communities.
School as “Zones of Peace”
Teachers are caught in the middle. They are in every corner of the country and often play a leadership role in the community. Any and all of the competing groups may see teachers as enemies and threaten or eliminate them.
They are targeted as union activists by a government that seeks to remove trade unionists as active opponents of the neo-liberal program of privatization. Threats come in a number of forms—funeral wreaths being delivered to their homes, calls claiming that the person has been killed, emailed threats to harm families.
In Cordoba, a province on the Caribbean, 37 teachers filed complaints that they were told to pay for a “vaccine” against their families being attacked—extortion that was to be 20% of their income. Other teachers who received these extortion demands were too afraid to report them.
The international trade union movement identifies Colombia as the most dangerous place in the world to be a union activist or leader. The majority of union leaders killed annually on a global basis are from this one country. The largest number of these assassinated union leaders are teachers.
In the Cordoba province, two teachers had been killed just days before our arrival to visit the union. As is common, the executioners seem to have impunity. Of 63 teachers killed over the previous 25 years in the province, in only two cases were official investigations successful in identifying the perpetrators.
Teachers want protection from violence for themselves and their students. FECODE has initiated what they hope will be an international campaign to have schools identified as “Zones of Peace.” The message is for everyone to stay out of the school with their arms—guerillas, paramilitary, gangs, army and drug shippers.
The violence is very real to students. Some have seen their teacher gunned down in their classroom. Others have witnessed attacks on their families. Rival gangs trying to establish themselves use violence to stake their place. The children of displaced people forced off the lands are in the same classes as the children of paramilitaries who forced them off their land, and have now been demobilized.
The proposal for schools as neutral territory—Zones of Peace—calls not only for keeping the social violence outside the school, but also to introducing programs on non-violent ways of solving disputes—disputes among adults as well as children.
The Committee on Threatened Teachers
Viviana Alvarado is the teacher representative from SUTEV, the provincial teachers union in Cali, on the Committee on Threatened Teachers. This is the group that a teacher can turn to when they receive a death threat, are attacked, injured, subject to extortion or forced to become another one of the millions displaced. It is also open to working with a teacher’s family when a teacher is assassinated or “disappeared,” probably dead, but without a body being found.
In addition to the teachers’ union, the committee has representatives from the government through the Attorney General and from the municipalities that govern education. This official status is, in effect, an acknowledgment that these threats are real and not to be ignored.
Viviana explained to the Canadian delegation that when a teacher reports on a threat to the committee, the threat is first categorized as light, serious or really serious. Threats can be direct by phone or email or implicit, such as sending a funeral announcement to the home of a teacher.
One level of response is to have the security service or the police accompany the teacher between home and school, but not at other times.
Another level is to have bodyguards on an ongoing basis, although many of the guards assigned by the state to this service may be demobilized paramilitaries. Two of the officers of the union in Cali, the president and the treasurer, have bodyguards supplied by government and at times wear bulletproof vests. Everywhere we went with the Cali executive, the bodyguards came along.
Relocation for safety is another option. In some cases, teachers join the millions of other displaced people and have to move to another part of the country, away from their home and extended families. A few end up going into exile, including in Canada. The Canadian Labour Congress has assisted with union leaders in exile and in the past the Canadian embassy in Bogota had been helpful in these cases.
In addition to participating in the official process to deal with threats, the union has a human rights network. It undertakes investigations and carries out education about human rights, what to do when you receive a threat and how to make a formal complaint. It has even published a handbook for teachers facing threats, although it needs to be updated, Viviana said.
What can Canadians do?
Keep our eyes on Colombia was a common message from all the union and human rights activists we met. International attention saves lives and puts pressure on the government to take action. Responding to appeals for support of individuals provides some protection for them, particularly against state-sanctioned violence.
Calling us to take part in the campaign against free trade agreements with Colombia was also high on everyone’s list. Colombia has reached free trade agreements with the United States, Canada and the European Union—but none of these have been ratified yet.
The lack of human rights and labour rights in Colombia is a good reason for opposing the ratification of these agreements. That has been the basis for a Canadian campaign calling for positive action by Colombia on human and labour rights before ratification.
However, opposition to free trade should go deeper than questioning claims by the Colombian government they are doing better in protecting rights and reducing the number of trade unionists killed each year. The provisions of free trade agreements limit the ability of government to put the interests of its marginalized people over the interests of transnational corporations. This will just add to the millions who have been displaced to free up land for mechanized agriculture and for mining that has proven to be destructive to the environment.
Free trade will only accelerate the situation that has already pushed these millions out of their homes and made them vulnerable to the forces that have used violence.
Opposing the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is one thing that Canadians can do in solidarity with Colombians. Another is to demand accountability of Canadian mining companies for the social and environmental damage created by their practices.