By Fred Redmond
USW Vice President Human Affairs
Four hours into the New Year, a political activist who was also a well-known trade unionist was celebrating at a party in the town of Montoso when a political opponent stabbed him numerous times in the chest.
As Adolfo Tique lay dead, his six children fatherless, police interrogated the assassin.
Then they let him go.
By American standards, it’s a shocking story. But in Colombia, where it occurred, it’s not. It’s the kind of story I heard repeatedly, heartrendingly when I visited Colombia last month with a delegation of British Parliamentarians and unionists led by the United Steelworkers and Unite the Union, which together last year formed Workers Uniting, the first transatlantic union.
The visit left us with no reason to believe Colombia suddenly had become worthy of a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S., Canada or the European Union.
The fact that Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists seemed to have made the same impression last year on Democratic candidate Barack Obama. In April of 2008, at an AFL-CIO convention, he promised to oppose the proposed Colombia Free Trade Agreement. He said, “The violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.”
This April, however, President Obama stung U.S. unions, which worked hard for his election and the FTA’s defeat. After Obama and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez sat together at lunch and spoke several times at the Fifth Summit of the Americas, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs announced that Obama had asked U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to work on the FTA.
Say it ain’t so, Mr. President! Say you haven’t turned your back on unionists just because you shared a sandwich with another head of state. Tell us you won’t ignore Tique’s six orphans or 2,700 slain unionists over the past 25 years because of Uribe’s charming banter over soup.
Terrible, disquieting signs suggest it is so, however. Uribe bragged that he’d gotten Obama’s autograph with this note: “To President Uribe, with admiration!” And later Kirk would say Obama is a “great admirer” of Uribe and the strides he has made in reducing violence against union officials.
Also, Uribe bragged that he’d explained to Obama how his administration had protected unionists. He said that before he took office in 2002, there were only two convictions for the murders of workers, but since then there have been 184.
The most reliable source of such statistics, however, the Colombian National Labor School, provides radically different numbers. Luciano Sanin Vasquez, the school’s director, testified before the House Education and Labor Committee Feb. 12, that the number of successful prosecutions was 91. So either Colombia doubled convictions within the two months’ time between Mr. Sanin’s testimony and the Fifth Summit of the Americas, or Uribe exaggerated his success in beginning to deal with the 40-year blood bath his country has endured as right wing militias fought left wing guerillas with trade unionists and human rights activists and rural populations caught in the cross fire.
And even Uribe’s inflated conviction number is hardly impressive. It still represents a 99 percent impunity rate. Kill a Colombian unionist, and 99 out of 100 times you’ll get away with it – the police may question you, but then they’ll just let you go, like they did in the Tique murder.
At lunch with President Obama, Uribe wrangled himself an invitation to the White House. No big deal, really. Uribe had been to Washington before, and Bush had never been able to persuade Congress to pass the FTA.
But Uribe also persuaded Obama to drop by Bogotá the next time he’s visiting Latin America. This, however, is significant. This is a trip Obama should make.
Having just returned from Colombia, I believe this excursion could make all the difference in the Colombian FTA for President Obama. But only if President Obama makes his own schedule and does not adhere to some sham show tour set up by Uribe’s people.
Obama needs to meet with some of the Colombian people who spoke with my delegation, including peasant farmers, human rights defenders and trade unionists. While I was in Colombia early in April, Hernan Polo Barrera, the head of the teachers trade union, SITRAENAL, was shot dead in front of his house. Because he’d received numerous threats, he’d asked for protection, but the government refused to provide it. He was the 13th trade unionist killed so far this year.
When Obama goes to Colombia, I want him to speak with Mr. Polo’s 16-year-old daughter, Liseth, who was standing next to her father when he was gunned down and who was wounded in the attack. She was rushed to the hospital as the killers escaped on motorcycles. They have not been caught.
I also want President Obama to spend some time with the six year old son of Arled Samboni Guaca, an active member of the Colombian agricultural workers’ trade union, FENSUAGRO, who had received numerous death threats from Colombian paramilitary groups. Father and son were walking to a shop on Jan 16 when two gunmen approached them and shot Mr. Samboni seven times. The gunmen escaped. The little boy watched his father die.
Then there’s José Jair Valencia Agudelo, an activist in the Colombian teacher’s union EDUCAL. President Obama should speak with this assassination-attempt survivor. He was shot six times Feb. 26 in the town of Filadelfia a week after authorities refused to give him the transfer and protection that he’d sought because he’d received death threats.
President Obama must speak with one more grieving unionist. He is Jorge Caicedo, leader of the health workers trade union ANTHOC in the Colombian region of Narino. Paramilitaries tried to get to him through is wife, Cecilia Montano. They shot her three times in the head in the town of Tumaco on Jan. 5th.
Before the new president is drawn in by Uribe’s contention that Colombia should be awarded an FTA because fewer trade unionists and human rights activists and rural peasants are murdered each year now, Obama must hear from the victims. And he should remember what Human Rights Watch wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last fall:
“Free trade should be premised on fundamental respect for human rights, especially the rights of the workers producing the goods to be traded. In Colombia, workers cannot exercise their right without fear of being threatened or killed. Without concrete and sustained results in addressing this basic problem, ongoing anti-union violence and impunity would, as President-elect Barack Obama has noted, make a “mockery” of labor protections in the agreement. We believe that Colombia should be in compliance with such protections before the accord takes effect, as has generally been demanded with FTA commercial provisions.”