“You know that here in Colombia, there are many human-rights violations,” says José Oney Valencia Llanos, who earns his living cutting sugar cane in Colombia’s fertile Cauca Valley. “Business people, through multinational and transnational corporations, have violated human rights and attacked workers, directly and indirectly.”
Oney told me this on a humid afternoon in El Placer, a small town in the heart of Colombia’s sugar-cane growing region. Among many of the cutters gathered nearby, there was a tangible sense of nervous apprehension. They had every reason to be nervous: about a month previously, the approximately 12,000 sugar-cane cutters in the Cauca Valley had gone back to work after a historic two-month labour strike. Their working situation, from wages to working conditions, was still tenuous. Oney had been a prominent spokesperson for the workers during the strike, a dangerous role to play in Colombia.
“We don’t have the right to free association, or political rights, or the right to unionize,” Oney says. “The government sees that we want to get together so that we can demand our rights, and they call us terrorists. Those of us that have had charges pressed against us, we’re accused of having links with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, even though we have never had links with—and at no time did we have meetings with—illegal armed groups.” Oney told me he hoped to come to Canada as a refugee because he is still being persecuted by the state for his high-profile role during the strike.
Nearby, members of sugar-cane co-operatives were using flip chart paper to plot out their victories and setbacks over the previous year and to plan for the coming months. Heavy rain was intermittent, and while Oney and I talked, an urgent phone call came in: three cane cutters had just been killed when they were struck by lightning while seeking shelter from the rains in the field. The grim news passed from person to person among the gathered cane cutters. Some knew the deceased. And they all knew that lightning is just one of the terrible ways to die in this part of the world. Natural disasters aside, systemic attacks against workers represent an important facet of the generalized violence exercised on the Colombian people.
“It’s important to understand that there is a complete disregard for labour law in Colombia, and the vast majority of workers—around 80 percent—work on informal contracts and have no right to unionize,” says Gustavo Triana, vice-president of the Central Union of Workers. The experience of Colombia’s sugar-cane cutters, the vast majority of whom are not unionized, helps to create a more vivid picture of the repression that Colombia’s large poor population faces on a day-to-day basis.
Sugar-cane cutters cut raw or burned sugar cane with machetes and hand stack it, working as many as seven days a week in conditions that seem like relics of the distant past.
“Today the conditions of sugar-cane workers could even be worse than in the times of slavery, because one has to remember that the large landowners gave to their slaves a roof over their heads and something to eat. Today, even that isn’t the case,” says Mario Valencia, an assistant to a newly formed organization of cane cutters.
“These are people that have absolutely nothing; often the only possession they have is their machete, which they use to cut the cane, and the clothes they’re wearing,” he says. “These are people that lack social security, that receive no benefits from the state, that live in reproachable housing and sanitary conditions.”
Many of the workers and their families live in substandard housing in areas without basic services. Few have job security and most come from historically disadvantaged social groups still battling with the ongoing legacies of slavery and colonization.
Here in Canada, news from Colombia is generally limited to the business section of major papers, with the odd exception when a high-profile delegation touches down on Canadian soil, or when we hear about the country’s powerful drug cartels.
More recently, the proposed Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement has been making the news. Free trade negotiations between Canada and Colombia were announced by David Emerson, former minister of international trade, on June 7, 2007. Negotiations with Peru began on the same day. The move to negotiate with Peru and Colombia signalled the Canadian government’s renewed focus on bilateral trade deals in the Americas. Prior to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s push for new bilateral trade agreements, Canada’s free trade partners were limited to the United States and Mexico through the North America Free Trade Agreement, as well as Chile, Costa Rica, and Israel.
One year to the day after negotiations were opened, Emerson announced that the talks with Colombia had been completed. “These negotiations were extremely rapid, and unlike those with the United States, which lasted 16 rounds, were finalized in the fifth of six rounds initially planned at the outset of negotiations in July of 2007,” reads a press release written by the Colombian Action Network in Response to Free Trade.
The negotiations were completed even before the parliamentary standing committee on international trade released the report they were working on, which was intended to guide the negotiations. The standing committee’s report actually recommended that the government of Canada not sign a free trade agreement with Colombia until an independent human-rights impact assessment was carried out.
Nonetheless, the Conservatives pushed the agreement forward: the texts of the deal were lawyered, translated, and signed on Nov. 21, 2008 by Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, International Trade Minister Stockwell Day, and their Colombian counterparts, Foreign Affairs Minister Jaime Bermudez and Minister of Trade, Tourism and Industry Luis Guillermo Plata.
Shockingly, it was only after the FTA was signed that the text of the agreement was released. Two side agreements, one on labour and a second on the environment, were also signed at the ceremony in Lima. “By expanding our trading relationship with Colombia, we are not only opening up new opportunities for Canadian businesses in a foreign market, we are also helping one of South America’s most historic democracies improve the human rights and security situation in their country,” said Harper, who was at the signing ceremony.
That rhetoric rings hollow for many people in Colombia. “Free trade agreements are never for the benefit of the people,” says Rafael Coicué, a Nasa indigenous leader from Cauca, in the country’s southwest. “These agreements are shaped by economic interests at the expense of life and sovereignty.”
Canadians’ experiences with NAFTA has also shown that free trade deals do not necessarily improve economic conditions for the majority.
“We have seen the results with NAFTA and the Canada-U.S. trade agreement (CUFTA). Since their implementation in 1988, these agreements and their accompanying economic policies have led to lower incomes for most Canadian families,” writes Peter Julian, the New Democratic Party’s international trade critic.
The Canada-Colombia deal was tabled in Parliament on March 26, as part of Bill C-23, and had its second reading in late May. The Conservatives are firmly behind the deal, but during the second reading, the Liberals bowed to public pressure and insisted that a human rights study be carried out before the FTA is ratified. The NDP and the Bloc Québécois have opposed ratifying the deal. Because of its poor reception during its second reading, the bill was removed from the order paper and will likely return to Parliament in the fall.
Given the financial crisis that continues to shake the globalized economy, the economic merit of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is the newest spin in the attempt to sell the deal to Canadians.
“Jobs will be threatened, and especially at a time when we need to open doors, not close them, this would put Canadian producers and Canadian service providers and Canadian workers at a severe disadvantage,” Day told the Canadian Press one day before the deal was tabled in parliament.
The main types of businesses that stand to benefit from a trade agreement between Canada and Colombia are in the mining, oil and gas, telecommunications, and financial sectors. Egregious rights violations aside, there has been no substantial independent economic analysis done to prove that either Canadians or Colombians will see more jobs because of the deal.
“The only rights this agreement guarantees are the rights of investors,” says Scott Sinclair, a senior research fellow in trade and investment at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “The labour and environmental side agreements are ineffectual by comparison.”
If Canadians are aware of the problems in Colombia, it’s often related to the drug trade. Colombia is the world’s largest exporter of cocaine, and the hemisphere’s number one recipient of “assistance” from the United States, most of which is directed toward the “war on drugs” through a program called Plan Colombia. A protracted internal conflict also sows chaos there, and the political environment is dangerous—often deadly.
Critics say that ratifying an FTA would mean that Canada tacitly accepts Colombia’s horrific human rights record. Colombia is widely considered the most dangerous place on earth to be a trade unionist: the Canadian Labour Congress and the International Trade Union Confederation cite thousands of killings, tortures, and disappearances of union members.
“By endorsing this trade deal, Canadian leaders are turning their backs on the thousands of murdered trade unionists, human rights activists, journalists, indigenous people, and others who have been killed with impunity by the state and paramilitaries in the country,” says UNI Global Union General Secretary Philip Jennings. UNI represents 20 million workers in 900 different unions.
Since 1990, successive Colombian governments have actively dismantled legislation protecting the rights of workers and the environment.
“Almost 20 years of ‘free trade’ in Colombia show that such policies cause major damage to the urban and rural economies of our country, place the state in the service of powerful monopolies and transnationals, further concentrate wealth, and increase unemployment and poverty,” reads a recent letter from Colombian senators and members of the chamber of representatives. The letter was sent to Canadian Parliament on March 31 in response to the tabling of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
Colombia’s other famous white powder—sugar—is an example of a product that is at the heart of the economy, the labour struggle, and the power structure in Colombia. Sugar cane was introduced into Colombia by Spanish invaders during the conquest. The first steam-powered sugar mill in Colombia was built in 1901 by Santiago Eder, then the U.S. consul in Colombia.
During the period known in Colombia as La Violencia, which began following the assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 and lasted approximately 10 years, over half a million people were displaced from the fertile lands flanking the Cauca River. These displacements resulted in 98,400 small farms being abandoned and allowed local oligarchs to consolidate their landholdings. Today, of the 400,000 hectares of arable land along the Cauca River, close to 240,000 hectares are planted with sugar cane. A complex and water-intensive irrigation network laid throughout the Cauca Valley allows cane to be grown and harvested year-round, unlike in most other countries, where the cane harvest is seasonal. The owners of the nine sugar mills in the Cauca Valley are among the richest and most powerful men in Colombia.
Among their ranks is Ardila Lülle, who owns three sugar mills that account for 33 percent of Colombia’s sugar production. He controls Colombia’s national soft-drink business, bottle-making factories, and a host of textile manufacturing industries. Lülle also owns RCN, Colombia’s largest private media conglomerate.
RCN “has dedicated itself over the last few years to making apologies for paramilitary groups, which have assassinated almost 4,000 unionists and maintain under their politico-military dominion large expanses of the country, impeding the growth of protests,” writes Colombian economist Héctor Mondragón.
Though it barely made a blip on RCN’s TV news, everything came to a head last September when more than 12,000 of Colombia’s sugar cutters staged a 58-day strike demanding better labour conditions.
Organizers, including Oney, called the strike after repeated failed attempts to negotiate with the owners of the sugar mills. The strike started at what the workers call “hour zero,” in the early morning of September 15, 2008.
“A few days before the work stoppage, when the rumours were going around that there would be a strike, the mills were completely militarized through a presidential decree,” explains Adriana Ferrer, a lawyer with the Bogotá-based human-rights organization Maestra Vida. “The public forces in the Cauca Valley and Cauca were exclusively dedicated to looking after the private capital of the sugar mills.” On the first day of the strike, the ESMAD (Colombia’s version of a SWAT team) attacked the workers while they blockaded the region’s refineries. Several workers were injured that day, but they managed to fend off the initial attack and maintain the strike for another 57 days. The central demand of the cutters was to have the right to enter into direct contracts with the sugar companies, instead of continuing to be sub-contracted as co-operatives with fewer labour rights. Workers also petitioned for better wages, more tools, and access to adequate housing.
The strike came to an end after the sugar mills sat at the table with workers, who represented their co-operatives. The outcomes of the negotiations include a wage increase of 30 cents per tonne, pay cheques weekly instead of twice monthly, and a better supply of sharpeners and machetes; but the workers still didn’t get job security or achieve status as direct employees of the sugar mills.
The situation remains as tenuous as ever for organizers like Oney. I saw him again about a week after our first meeting at a hearing in Buga, a larger city in the Cauca Valley. The courtroom was standingroom only, with cane cutters, their customary red towels laid flat over their shoulders, spilling out onto the sidewalk and into Buga’s central park. The hearing related to the investigation into Oney, three other workers, and two people who assisted the workers in their strike.
The district attorney presiding over the hearing decided that formal charges on counts of conspiracy, assault, and sabotage would be pressed against the six accused. The evidence in the hands of the state consisted of the testimony of a worker and several plant owners.
After the court hearing, the cane cutters who were inside flooded out of the courtroom and crowded into the streets in front of the central park. They formed a circle around Ferrer and Juan Pablo Ochoa, one of the accused and an assistant to an opposition senator who supported the cane cutters during the strike.
“We are confident that they will not be found guilty,” stated Ferrer, acting as the accused men’s lawyer. “We are sure the charges will be dropped, because we know that what is going on is a frame-up. Nobody here was committing crimes. The only thing that any of us were doing was struggling in a just way for the rights of workers.” Before the cane cutters piled back into the buses that belong to their co-operatives, Ochoa issued a chilling warning about their safety. That same morning, just a short drive away from Buga, a man named Edwin Lagarda was killed by the Colombian Armed Forces.
Lagarda was driving a vehicle belonging to the Indigenous Regional Council of Cauca, the largest indigenous organization in Cauca. The army initially accused Lagarda of running a roadblock, even though Lagarda’s truck had at least 15 bullet holes in it from a variety of different angles. Commentators speculated that the army may have been attempting to kill Lagarda’s partner, Ayda Quilcué, a high-profile indigenous leader.
“We are also at risk,” said Ochoa. “It’s important that we are aware that this process isn’t against one worker or one assistant. It’s against all the workers of Cauca Valley and Cauca who are demanding respect for their rights.”
This is the regime that Canada stands to legitimize through opening up trade relations with a free trade agreement: a regime of intimidation, violence, and murder. And all for a deeply flawed trade deal that may actually hurt thousands of Canada’s own workers. While Colombia’s sugar barons and Canada’s transnational oil and mining industries stand to gain from the trade deal, sectors like the Canadian sugar industry, which directly employs more than 1,200 people in four provinces, stand to lose.
Bilateral agreements like the Canada-Colombia deal are “eating away at the market, and companies in Canada can’t make money on that market; they can’t make money, and they’ll have to close,” says Sandra Marsden, president of the Canadian Sugar Institute. The economic effects aside, there is no indication that the deal will help to improve human rights in Colombia.
“There is nothing in the agreement which provides for any sort of leverage to actually … halt the continued massacre of Colombians who simply are on a quest for a better life for themselves and for their co-workers,” writes the NDP’s Julian.
For workers like Oney and his team of cane cutters, the daily struggle to demand basic rights and dignity will continue to be a dangerous one.