17 July 2003 Edition

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Speaking out under threat of death

Colombian unions take multinationals to court over killings

Francisco Ramírez lives surrounded by armed bodyguards. He travels in a bulletproof car and wears a bulletproof jacket. He has to deal with death threats and not so long ago suffered a kidnapping attempt. He is not a politician, businessman or a millionaire. He is just a trade unionist in Colombia. He presides over the SINTRAMINERCOL trade union, which represents the interests of the workers of those mines still owned by the Colombian government. He is also education secretary of the FUNTRAENERGETICA federation, which includes all workers of the energy sector, and he works as a lawyer in the human rights team of the Workers Unitary Central (CUT), the Colombian equivalent of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Ramirez visited Ireland at the beginning of July at the invitation of ICTU. We spoke to him about the current situation in Colombia for workers and trade unions.

An Phoblacht: How is the current situation in Colombia?

Francisco Ramírez: It is quite bad. Traditionally, multinationals and imperialist governments have opted for the elimination of the unionised workforce. From 1928, when the United Fruit Company ordered the massacre of 3,000 workers on its banana plantations to today, that has been the attitude of the Colombian government, backed by the United States.

Since the creation of the CUT, 3,500 of its members have been massacred. Today, under Mr Uribe's government, a trade union leader is killed every five days and the same applies to the indigenous leaders. And these deaths are not a consequence of the armed conflict that we live with in Colombia, but the result of a longstanding war that aims to impose a globalised imperialist economic model.

In the '80s, US oil corporations encouraged the creation of paramilitary groups. The Texas Petroleum Company, the US embassy and British, Israeli, South African and US mercenaries together with the drugs cartels, created the first paramilitary groups in the area of the Magdalena Medio to back up the strategy of the transnational companies that were interested in controlling the city of Barrancabermeja, where one of the biggest oil refineries of the country is located. These companies were also interested in getting into the South of Bolivar, where today Harken energy - the company of the Bush family- is looking for oil, and where another US company, Occidental - which came up with Plan Colombia in the first place - is building an oil pipeline. There are another corporations with interests in the area - Chevron-Texaco, Shell, British Petroleum. These companies' operations are secured by the elimination of the indigenous, social and trade union movements.

The killings of Colombian trade unionists should be an embarrassment for humanity. In fact, it is an embarrassment for humanity, but because they are killing "black" Colombians it does not matter. To murder 3,500 workers in 16 years cannot be explained. Those who are behind these deaths are the Texas Petroleum Company; Coca-Cola, which we believe is responsible for the deaths of eight union leaders; Drummond, which we believe is responsible for the deaths of seven trade unionists and we are taking to court for the murder of three of them; Occidental, responsible for the killing of nine adults and eight children during the bombing of the village of Santo Domingo.

Also, we will be taking British Petroleum to court for the massacres in Antioquia; Exxon for forced displacement of populations; and Anglo-Gold and Conquistador Mines for the murder of more than 500 peasants and miners in the South of Bolívar, who were killed as part of a strategy to take over an area to open a mine. We will be taking Anglo-American and BHP Billiton to court for forced displacement and for financing paramilitary groups in exchange for protection for their operations.

We want to open judicial processes to indict these corporations' presidents as war criminals and we are seeking the creation of a Special International Penal Court for Colombia. We want to force multinationals to comply with their codes of conduct and we want strong penal legislation to ensure they do comply. And we also want to prosecute the shareholders, because they are the ones that put pressure on the multinationals to obtain profits at any cost, even if profit is built on the deaths of thousands of people. And in the case of Latin America, those profits are paid by the millions of lives that we lose every day to starvation, malnourishment, and political repression.

In Colombia, 3,500 trade union leaders have been murdered in the last 16 years. That same figure represents the number of children who die in our country due to starvation, malnourishment and because they lack basic medical care in only two and a half months. In Colombia, 160 children under five die every day for those causes. We are killed not only because of politics, but also for economic and social reasons -in fact, these last two account for the higher number of deaths in the country.

AP: What is the impact of all the violence on the population?

FR: Around 64% of the Colombian population lives in poverty, 18 % on less than $2 per day. The levels of wealth concentration have tripled - 0.5% of the population owns over 50% of the land. There are 3 million unemployed people. The privatisation of health services has made even more difficult the access to care for the majority of the population. And to control the social turmoil created by these conditions, the Colombian government and its multinationals and friendly countries opted for the genocide -28,000 individuals are killed in Colombia every year. Not even in a country at war you will find such figures.

AP: Successive Colombian governments have supported the opening of the country's economy and resources to multinationals. How is the Colombian administration reacting to the actions of the trade unionists who are taking multinationals to court?

FR: Of course, they did not like it. Right now they are putting pressure on the unionised workers of Drummond because of the case over the deaths of three trade unionists that -to our surprise - will proceed in the US courts. A US judge accepted the case and pointed out that the corporation could face war crimes and human rights violation charges. We believe that at least 16 Colombia-based multinationals could be prosecuted for the same activities.

The Colombian government has used death threats, has fired workers, has finished off trade unions. And we feel the pressure of the Colombian government, but also the international labour organisations, the multinationals of trade unionism, who are opposing our decision to take the corporations to court. They say we are killed because of our high profile. But that is not the case. We are killed because we choose to confront and fight the multinationals. We not only lose our jobs, we also lose our lives. Of course, the Colombian government is not happy with our actions.

AP: The United States Congress has approved a budget to pay the Colombian Army for defending US economic interests in Colombia. How does the trade union movement feel about that?

FR: A trade union report that will be published in the next few days points out that the intervention of the multinationals in Colombia can be felt in three different spheres. First, they manipulate those agreements signed by Colombia and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These two institutions condition their loans to Colombia on the government privatisation of public services such as health, pensions, oil, mines. And trade unionists are assassinated because they oppose these policies, and this is the way US military aid to Colombia is used.

A clear example of how the money of Plan Colombia is being used is the agreement between the Colombian and US governments to create three new anti-drugs battalions that will fight against drug-trafficking in Colombia. The first will be based in the South of Bolívar, where US company Conquistador and British Anglo-Gold are taking over one of the world's biggest gold mines. It is also in that area where Harken Energy has one of the biggest gas deposits, and where Occidental has an oil pipeline. The second will be based in Santander, where Harken and Occidental are also present, and where Drummond has an anthracite mine that supplies coal to the US. And the third base will be established in Tolima, another area known for its gold mines, and it will be built beside Río Blanco, a village renowned for having the highest forced displaced population in Colombian history.

The second sphere where multinationals are interfering is in legislation. Corporation lawyers literally create Colombian legislation. The last mine code was put together by lawyers for the mining corporations . At the time this legislation was being drafted, Exxon was selling a mine to BHP-Billiton and Anglo-American, so their lawyers decided to reduce the mining tax in the new law from 15 % to 0.4% and to introduce an article to ensure that this tax would not be changed for the next 90 years. On top of that, the then president Pastrana allowed them to choose how to pay that tax.

Finally, the corporations liaise with paramilitary groups. We have already told the multinationals that when they agree security issues with the Colombian army they are in fact signing agreements with the paramilitaries. And we warned these corporations that they would be made responsible for the actions of the army and paramilitaries.

AP: Do you think that international denunciation of multinationals' activities in Colombia will improve the situation in the country?

FR: We want to improve the situation by naming those who are killing us. If new European Union loans to Colombia are approved, we, Colombian trade unionists, will be forced to bring forward a formal complain against Britain and Spain to the EU Human Rights Commission denouncing the slaughter of trade unionists and indigenous. We will tell them: you are giving money and as a direct result we are being exterminated and we can prove it, because the money you are giving to the Colombian army goes to the right-wing paramilitaries.

An Phoblacht
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