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Colombian Trade Unionists Speak Out

by Erika Zurawski |
April 1, 2005
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Photo of Meneses and Quijano in St. Paul Minnesota.
Meneses and Quijano speak in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Fight Back! News Meredith Aby)

Erika Zurawski of Fight Back! interviews two Colombian trade unionists who are in the U.S. through the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center. Jhonny Meneses is a union leader from SINCONSTASCAR (a union of taxi drivers in Cartegena) and an outspoken opponent of U.S. free trade and economic policy in Latin America. Nelson Quijano is a union leader from USO (Oil Workers Union). USO is a leading social force in Colombia. In the spring of 2004, USO went on strike for several months to successfully fight the privatization of the national oil company.

The U.S. has spent over $3 billion on military aid through Plan Colombia. International human rights groups agree that this money is being spent on a war against the Colombian people through the funding of government sponsored right-wing paramilitary death squads. The paramilitaries target any progressive activist in the name of ‘national security’ and have made Colombia the most dangerous place to be a trade unionist in the world.

Fight Back!: What is Plan Colombia and how does it affect different sectors of Colombian society?

Meneses: Plan Colombia is a project financed by the United States which claims to help Colombia confront drug trafficking and the guerrilla movement. It’s really a plan that results in declaring war not only against drug trafficking and the guerrilla movement, but also against the Colombian people. It’s a strategic plan that’s based principally on militarizing all the strategic zones where the Colombian economy is driven by the interests of not only the Colombian government, but also of the United States - interests that in the end will mean control of the land, control of industry and of commerce by the capitalists. Plan Colombia is the principal base of trade agreements such as the FTAA [Free Trade Area of the Americas] and the TLC [Free Trade Agreement]. In order for such agreements to take effect, a country must guarantee security to investors and undergo labor reform that hurts the Colombian people - namely the farmer and the small trader. The plan reaches past the Colombian borders. It aims to eventually extend throughout the Andean region, but Colombia is a very strategic point for the entry of commercial development that would only benefit the United States.

Fight Back!: What is neoliberalism and how does it relate to Plan Colombia?

Meneses: Neoliberalism is a political model based on the economy, which has to do with private capital rather than with a state economy. This is a model that has tried to gain ground in Latin America, but has been confronted by different social and popular organizations because it has to do with the control of state goods by private capital. The control of production is in the hands of only a few, not of the workers. The market is controlled by a monopoly - farmers don’t even control their own production. The country has lost the ability to feed its people - Colombia imports the vast majority of the foods it consumes.

The peasant has been directly affected by the great agricultural and technological production of the United States, which has flooded our country with products that, although don’t have the same quality nor human health benefits, are more economical; therefore, the peasants cannot sell their own products. The peasant is not given a space to supply what he produces because everything is based on the ownership of production supplies.

Furthermore, in Colombia there is a huge concentration of wealth. 20% of the richest families own 52% of the country’s income, while 60% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Fight Back!: What is the Free Trade Agreement?

Meneses: It is one of the two trade agreements that the North American government wants to negotiate with the Andean countries. This agreement is actually in the review plan before the Colombian Congress and in other countries such as Ecuador and Peru. The Colombian government wants to have a say in the agreement and is currently criticizing it. Ecuador and Peru have advanced further in the negotiation process. This agreement does not rely on the democratic participation of the Colombian people. It is being carried out behind closed doors. The Colombian people don’t know of the initiative nor even know what it is based on. Its name, as it indicates, deals with bilateral free trade, but it is really free trade for the U.S. and not for the other countries involved, as they are not ready for a commercial development of such magnitude, in which they will find themselves facing the economic and commercial power of the U.S. The agreement aims to restructure the industry of participating countries so that industry favors U.S. companies - not even the American people. At the heart of this agreement you will see an invasion of U.S. products that would enter to compete with the weak economy of the Andean countries. Apart from this, it would further generate low labor wages, thus continuing to increase the misery of the workers.

As a consequence of this commercial plan from the United States government, many civil and union organizations have organized mobilizations which continue to grow larger and include peasants, indigenous peoples and the rest of the civilian population because they are the ones affected most by the trade agreement. Marches have been organized at the national level so that the governments don’t continue to be forced to accept that the agreement be implemented, as it would create more poverty in the Andean countries.

Fight Back!: How have the people of Colombia responded to Plan Colombia?

Quijano: Plan Colombia strengthens the resistance. Based on the consequences that Plan Colombia has brought to the Colombian people, peasant, indigenous, social and union organizations alike say to the world, specifically to Colombians, that the plan only aggravates the armed conflict that we live with in the interior of our country. Plan Colombia does not provide a single benefit to the communities where it is being carried out, such as the communities of Arauca, Putumayo and other zones under the plan’s influence. This resentment toward Plan Colombia can be seen in the different expressions of protest that have come about in our country. For example, we have indigenous and peasant protests in the Colombian southwest and there is constant resistance from the people of Arauca and neighboring zones against this plan.

Fight Back!: How does Plan Colombia affect union members and trade unions?

Quijano: Plan Colombia is basically a military plan in which the civilian population, including trade unions, finds itself in the middle of the conflict. President Uribe wants to polarize the country, because to him there exist only those citizens who are with the government and those who are against the government. He allows no freedom of civil opposition to his policies by community organizations or unions. The president and his cabinet accuse social organizations that criticize the actions of the army and the paramilitaries as being supporters of insurgent [rebel] groups, and is putting these organizations under the watch of paramilitary groups. Add this to Uribe’s military mandate of persecution of insurgent groups and of any person who collaborates with them. Such groups, according to Uribe and to the U.S., are considered terrorist groups, and combating them is one of the objectives of Plan Colombia. Uribe is using judicial power, in this case prosecution, to set up judicial processes against social and union leaders in his eagerness to demonstrate results for the U.S. government.

Fight Back!: What is the relationship between oil and Plan Colombia?

Quijano: One of the clearest objectives of Plan Colombia is to ensure that the oil reserves in Colombia are for the exclusive use of multinationals, primarily U.S. companies. Because of this, the majority of economic aid to Colombia is concentrated in increasing the number of troops surrounding the oil infrastructure of our country. We see a large concentration of troops around the pipeline of Caño Limón Covenas, which is the principal route of oil extraction for the multinationals outside of our country, not forgetting that Plan Colombia also seeks control of the oil reserves of countries such as Venezuela, Brazil and other South American countries, even if military intervention if necessary.

The Colombian union movements, in support of the oil workers who defend our oil as a Colombian resource that should benefit Colombians, constantly reject the deceit of Plan Colombia, primarily because it causes grave situations of violence, like those that occur in Arauca, a very important region for oil. An example of the degradation of the armed conflict that Colombia lives, and that is militarily supported by the United States, is the assassination of three union and social leaders at the hands of the Colombian army on Aug. 5 in the city of Arauca, with the pretext that they had open investigations due to a presumed crime of rebellion. Testimonies by the people of Arauca have been able to prove that the assassination was an extra-judicial execution, which demonstrates the level of persecution by the Colombian government toward social and union movements