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Neo-liberal globalization in the l990s has posed enormous challenges to workers world wide. The first challenge involves the identification of a progressive and critically important process of long-standing importance to workers, and to differentiate it from anti-democratic and anti-social interests. The second, just surfacing, is to pay attention to the intellectual challenge entailed in the hegemony of a single-minded neo-liberal religion. The third involves the necessity to put in place concrete strategies to confront these neo-liberal policies in the corporate, commercial legal and social sectors.
The identification of investments and commercial transactions between Canada and Colombia constitutes an exemplary initiative that will enable workers in both countries to articulate a democratic globalization process that will be fair to workers and inclusive of all inhabitants of the world.
- Jorge Giraldo Ramirez
Escuela Nacional Sindical (National Labour School)
Colombia is without doubt the greatest human and labour rights tragedy in the hemisphere. Over the past decade, more than 35,000 Colombians have been murdered in politically-motivated violence, and an estimated 2 million Colombians are now internally displaced as a result of this violence. Put in recent historical perspective, this exceeds the number of Chileans killed during the Pinochet dictatorship and is a higher internal displacement rate than was the case in Rwanda at the height of the genocide.
Unlike these similar human tragedies however, the reality of Colombia is largely unknown by the international community. To make matters worse, the Colombian crisis is consciously and consistently reported through the mainstream media as a crisis that can be reduced to two main factors-the drug trade and guerrilla insurgent movements.
These two factors, while definitely a part of the complexity of Colombia, mask the far more important truth that an estimated 80 to 85 per cent of the violence can be attributed to military and paramilitary forces (and usually collusion between the two) that target institutions of civil society and ordinary Colombians who demand economic, political and social justice.
The purpose of this research report is to make a modest beginning in breaking the silence on Canadian connections to the structural causes of Colombian violence.
In October l997, a Canadian trade union/church delegation visited Colombia to investigate the systematic violation of human and trade union rights of Colombian workers and their organizations. In that year alone, 156 Colombian trade unionists were murdered; those murders represented 52 per cent of all trade unionists killed in the world. (One year later, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) annual survey of violation of trade union rights documented that Colombia accounted for nearly 80 per cent of all trade unionists killed in l998.)
As the Canadian union delegation travelled throughout the country, Colombian trade unionists, peasants, and activists from human rights, church and non-governmental organizations told a common story. With varying degrees of articulation, they all pointed to the external factor-the desire of foreign capital to control and exploit Colombia's vast resources-as the primary reason they face violence or the threat of violence on a daily basis.
This theme was more recently repeated by a prominent Colombian human rights activist as she spoke to a group of CAW members in Windsor, Ontario: "...the majority of human rights violations are not caused by the internal conflict but rather by the economic interests of those who wield national and international power." She continued, "The guerrillas' guns could stop firing and peace might be accomplished, but the violation of human rights would continue!"
This linkage between powerful economic interests on the one hand and military/paramilitary violence on the other is also understood by the progressive ecumenical community. The Franciscans International and Dominicans asked very poignant questions re: right-wing paramilitary violence in their oral submission to the 55th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva on April 16, 1999:
* "In what regions does this violence occur?"
* "Why are the attacks generally in the proximity of military installationsbut are never stopped by military intervention?"
* "What happens to the land once the (forcibly displaced) people leavetheir homes?"
* "Who becomes the new 'owners'?"
* "What natural resources exist in the abandoned land?"
* "What national or foreign companies are present in the region?"
* "Who finances the helicopters, the vehicles and armaments used by the right-wing paramilitaries?"
* "Where are the paramilitaries trained and by whom?"
It is such questions that motivate this research report on Canadian investment in and trade with Colombia.
In sum, this report is our effort to begin to shape a broader understanding of why and for whose benefit the Colombian violence occurs. As an initial report, the data contained here often raises more questions than it answers, and that is to be expected.
Some will say, quite rightly, that a considerable amount of the descriptive information is not directly or even indirectly linked to the violence. It is essential to point out however that the violence which is inflicted on individuals is commonly preceded or paralleled by a broader and deeper form of structural violence. The neo-liberal model which shapes the economic relationship between "north" and "south" is fundamentally a system that denies economic justice and equality within the "southern" nation-state. Increasing unemployment, poverty, class inequality, and privatization schemes (resulting in the loss of access to and control over natural resources by communities)-these are the basic features of the structural violence which are ultimately expressed in the form of physical violence when people resist their conditions of oppression.
In Colombia today, that everyday oppression is rooted in gross economic inequality measures. It is estimated that 3 per cent of Colombians own 70 per cent of the arable land. Four out of ten Colombians live below the poverty line. The top one-third income earners account for 70 per cent of the national income, while the bottom one-third receive less than 10 percent.
The increase in foreign investment and control of resources in "southern" nations by "northern" capital needs to be understood as a larger process than just a particular investment that must be protected by state agents or paramilitary forces at any given moment. For this reason, this study tries to understand Canadian-Colombian economic connections in their fullest dimension.
What appears to be an innocent fact of normal economic intercourse today may become the basis of a denial of human and trade union rights or greater atrocities tomorrow.
Finally, the most compelling reason for including as much as we know on Canadian-Colombian economic connections in this initial report is that Colombian trade union and human rights organizations asked the Canadian trade union delegation to provide them with as much information as possible on the economic relationship between our two countries. The statement from Colombian labour that begins this preface is a reassertion of the desire for this information and, with it, the basis of a stronger solidarity between Colombian and Canadian workers.
Lacking knowledge of this Canadian investment and trade patterns, our Colombian partners will be limited in their ability to understand the global dimension of their struggle and their capacity to develop effective strategies to resist capital's agenda.
For a small number of Canadians, the importance and urgency of sharing this information with our Colombian counterparts was made frighteningly clear on June 1, l999 in downtown Toronto. On that day, the Canadian Council of the Americas, a business lobby that promotes Canadian investment and trade in the Americas, hosted a lavish luncheon for Colombian and Canadian government ministers and corporate nabobs.
It was, for a few of us who paid the obscene price of admission, a sickening display of the leaders of one country (Colombia) selling their people's birthright to the leaders of another country (Canada) who were only too interested in buying it. Conditioning his remarks within the context of an imminent Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, Canadian Trade Minister Sergio Marchi praised the virtues of Colombia's privatization scheme and mentioned many of the Canadian corporations investing in this neo-liberal rummage sale that you will learn more about in this report. As Marchi said in closing, "...the full potential of Canadian-Colombian relations is still in front of us. There is no time to lose."
Marchi was followed by Fernandes DeSoto, Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs, who proceeded to outline a litany of "advantages for your (Canadian) capital". He spoke of a "competitive labour force" and even mentioned some of the northern retailers (Liz Claiborne, Levi-Strauss and Fruit of the Loom) involved in Colombia's maquila zones. Not shy in defining the global reality, the Foreign Minister emphasized that "the state must be at the service of theprivate sector, not the other way around."
DeSoto might have been less confident describing Colombia as a "safe country" (since the Colombian President, Andres Pastrana, had been forced to leave Canada to return home that morning to deal with the latest round of violence). However, he waxed with sexist eloquence when he remarked, "We need businessmen like you." Most appropriate to such an occasion were DeSoto's concluding words: "Invest in Colombia-it is a good business."
Private capital and political power had spoken from both sides of the border, and then it was time for dessert. In another world, the world of the powerless on both sides of the same border, it is time for serious analysis and strategies for securing social justice, democracy and equality. We believe this research report is one small step towards that goal.
About the Researcher/Author:
Asad Ismi is an excellent researcher and prolific writer on social and economic justice issues both in Canada and in the "south". He taught for two years in Vietnam. While employed by the now defunct Jesuit Centre in Toronto, Asad was the primary researcher for the wall poster "Exposing the Face of Corporate Rule". He is currently one of the key organizers in Canada for the "School of the Americas (SOA) Watch", the coalition that is campaigning to close down the infamous U.S. military training program at Fort Benning, Georgia where thousands of Latin American military officers (the largest number coming from Colombia) are trained in the techniques of repression and counterinsurgency to be used against popular organizations in their respective countries.
We, the Canadian trade unionists who travelled to Colombia in l997, extend our thanks to Asad for his thorough and efficient effort in documenting theCanadian-Colombian connection.