Shut Up Or Die!
Trade Unions / HUMAN RIGHTS
The year 1987 ended bloodily for the oil port of Barranca. There had been strikes – and people knew only too well that when the oil unions took action retribution would surely follow. Manuel Gustavo Chacón, the father of four children, was a driver for the national oil company, Ecopetrol. He’d escaped two murder attempts a few months earlier. On the morning of 18 January 1988 he received a phone message asking him to call in at his bank in town. When he got there the bank knew nothing about it. Outside, a blue Toyota pickup carrying four men drove up and riddled him with machine-gun bullets.
Manuel Gustavo was a non-conformist, a member of the leadership of Unión Sindical Obrera (USO – one of Colombia’s trade-union congresses) and of the leftist party A Luchar. So he offered ‘sufficient reason’ for assassination, in a country where even dancing to the music of Rubén Blades is considered subversive.
His death marked the early stages of a process that has, since 1987, seen the assassination of 3,100 trade union leaders in Colombia. During the past four years alone there have also been 100 failed attempts on the lives of trade unionists, 60 ‘disappearances’, 161 illegal detentions, roughly 1,600 death threats and 14 attempted bombings of union offices.
Why is this happening? As elsewhere in Latin America, powerful oligarchies are allied to the military and US strategic interests. In Colombia the reaction has taken a particular form, with the survival of revolutionary guerrillas and the funding of paramilitary groups to do the dirtiest work in a very dirty war. Added to this, Colombia is at the centre of the baleful ‘War on Drugs’ which has now been escalated by the US-backed ‘Plan Colombia’. The level of violence has escalated with it.
Four-fifths of the Colombian people now live in poverty; there’s a shortage of some 3.8 million homes; unemployment leaves just 22 per cent of the population economically active; 2.5 million children are forced to work. Any independent group engaged directly with these issues, like trade unions or human-rights organizations, has become a target for systematic, violent intimidation.
Violations of the right to a decent life have become crimes against life itself: torture, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, genocide… state terrorism. In the last 10 years more than 300,000 people have been assassinated, often in multiple massacres and with appalling savagery. In excess of two million people have been ‘internally displaced’.
The Colombian Constitution emphasizes human rights, but labour laws and government policies have virtually abolished trade-union rights; trade unionism itself now faces physical extinction. Between 1991 and 1994, 514 trade union branches, representing more than 95,000 members, were forced to close down. There remain just 903,000 trade union members – less than 8 per cent of the workforce – of whom more than half are public employees.
Public employees, however, do not have the right to collective bargaining. There is no right to strike in the public sectors of banking, oil, transport, healthcare and domiciliary services. In the event of a strike the Labour Ministry can authorize dismissals and seek to liquidate the unions involved.
Teachers, nurses, workers in the courts and public construction, particularly members affiliated to the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), are routinely the target of violent assault. In conflict zones, health workers are accused of collaborating with guerrillas if they give them medical attention. Some medical staff have been assassinated alongside their patients in ambulances; others have been attacked in emergency and intensive-care wards. According to Jesús González of the CUT Office of Human Rights, almost half his members have been intimidated at one time or another and 500 have had to flee the country.
Rather than uphold human rights, the courts prosecute workers. Thousands have been charged with ‘violating the right to work’, ‘obstructing employees wishing to enter their workplace’, ‘sabotage’ and the like. Workers frequently find themselves charged by the very courts they turn to for redress when their labour rights have been violated.
Violence and intimidation have spread to those who defend trade unionists. The prominent lawyer Eduardo Umaña Mendoza is just one example. He had taken on the case of union members opposing the sale of the Bogotá telecommunications company. They had been accused of ‘terrorism’. He was also defending members of USO charged with sabotaging Colombia’s oil-pipeline network. He received telephone threats. He took no notice because by this time he was used to it: he’d already escaped two kidnappings and several attempts on his life. At the age of 51 he knew he would be killed eventually.
On the morning of 18 April 1998 two men and a woman identified themselves as journalists to the doorman of Umaña’s apartment block in Bogotá. They were let in – it was quite normal for him to receive reporters unannounced. These three shot him several times in the head.
Some 80 per cent of the death threats received by union leaders come from paramilitary groups. Carlos Castaño is leader of the AUC, the ‘United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia’, which has some 30,000 paramilitary members and is by far the largest single group. He has said that trade unionists must be killed because they interfere with the orderly conduct of business.
One might suppose that the Interior Ministry would be protecting people. Many are assassinated, however, while waiting for protection to arrive. The Ministry says the problem is lack of money. But there is no lack of resources. Rather, there are far too many. There is, for example, a veritable avalanche of investigations, sometimes as many as 10 into the same case – but the invariable result is impunity.
So, rather than a faulty judicial system, what we have is the politics of impunity. It compromises the state, the means of communication and all economic groups. When a victim is automatically presumed guilty of subversion, then human rights become relative to the point of extinction.
Mónica del Pilar Uribe is a freelance Colombian journalist
The Colombia Solidarity Campaign has been formed
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.