Colombian Senator and Liberal Party Presidential candidate, Cecilia López Montano, spoke about her ideas for peace and human rights in Colombia while visiting Washington, DC at an event sponsored by the Washington Office on Latin America and the Center for Justice and Environmental Law. Senator Lopez founded the organization ‘Agenda Colombia Foundation’, has taught economics and demography at various universities, and has written numerous publications addressing solutions to the conflict. She described the current situation in Colombia as a human rights catastrophe.
Her platform, titled ‘Security with Rights’, combines safety with social concerns – “there is no real peace without development”. The elimination of poverty is not simply humane, it is essential for ending the conflict. This is no simple task. In the book she contributed to: “Colombia: Essays on Conflict, Peace and Development”, she says that poverty is an effect of limited democracy and is not the driving force of the conflict. Poverty alone does not cause violence, “the cause… and the resulting escalation in violence, is the insufficiently acknowledged political, economic, and social exclusion which has characterized its [Colombia’s] society.” The solution is to fundamentally change the power structures and opportunities for citizen participation. Unless citizens have a greater say in determining their own fate, the cycle of poverty and violence will continue.
Some of those rights include the rights to form a union. Intimidation, violence, threats and displacement characterize workers’ daily lives. USLEAP has documented that even though there has been improvements, more unionists are killed in Colombia than the entire world put together – still! Less than 2% of these cases are ever prosecuted. Fighting for small protections has always been an uphill battle, yet companies’ have still found ways around them. Like in many other countries, contract labor has substantially increased in Colombia. Contract laborers do not have access to any of the protections of being in a union, and are often used as ‘union busters’ through mass firing of workers and re-hiring of contract laborers. According to an ILO report, one of the bottling plants in Bogota was found to have contracted more than 70% of its workforce from associated work cooperatives. One of our previous blogs discusses the five worst offenders of worker rights, and what we, as consumers, can do about it.
The Colombian Free Trade Agreement, which is not expected to be debated in Congress this session, has been criticized on many levels. The most common critique is of Colombia’s substantial number of human rights violations. While important, this fails to take into account the causes of these violations as well as the other things inherently wrong with the agreement. (And as if being the worst offender in the world by a small margin rather than a large margin implies victory!) Upside Down World activist, Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes, notes that heavily subsidized US goods would be allowed to enter Colombia duty free. The service and agricultural workers could not possibly compete, and job loss is estimated at 250,000 – mostly rural farmers. In an open letter to Obama and Nancy Pelosi last year, the Association of Indigenous Authorities of Northern Cauca Council adamantly rejected the FTA. In a popular referendum, 98% of the people responded unfavorably towards the agreement. They say that, “We want an agreement that has real trade as its content, trade that guarantees reciprocal opportunity, so that the well-being of peoples is realized in a manner that is autonomous and sovereign and protects nature and life.”
As Colombia becomes integrated in the global economy, worker rights are even more important. This includes the right to land. Agrarian reform is essential for environmental and cultural protections, as well as moving towards a more egalitarian society. Colombia’s roots are derived from unequal land distribution which has left a lasting legacy of inequality. The conflict continues to drive people off their lands, and the millions of people internally displaced have also been driven from their livelihood.
Senator López declares “the rights of the people are a duty of the state and not a favor”. While current President Alvaro Uribe has dismissed unionists concerns and human rights groups as ‘guerrillas’, she says that it is precisely these things that a democratic government should defend. Laws protecting trade unionists should be enforced and backed by the government. These bold statements will serve as a challenge to Uribe in 2010, arguing that he has put security ahead of everything else, including peace.