- Jun 25, 2004
- Reaction score
- USS Abraham Lincoln
The Democrats go way overboard on Uribe and Colombia here, they are living in the past and disrupting a very vital US-Columbia relationship. This is not how we should be treating our very good friends...
Trade, death and drugs
May 17th 2007 | BOGOTÁ
From The Economist print edition
An argument over the murders of trade unionists is the latest surge in a sea of trouble surrounding Álvaro Uribe's government.
EIGHT days after workers at a company exporting ornamental plants in Antioquia in northern Colombia informed the management that they planned to form a union, the death threats began. If you persist with that idea we will have to dissuade you with bullets, reads a letter sent in January to Ancizo López, the president of the newly formed union. Later came threatening phone calls, a shotgun fired at the door of his home and graffiti on his street reading death to [guerrilla] collaborators.
Mr López is still alive and so is his union. But others have not been as fortunate. International labour organisations consider Colombia the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. The government says 60 union members were murdered in 2006, and nine have been killed so far this year. Union sources put the figure for last year at 72.
The fate of trade unionists seems set to put paid to Colombia's chances of securing a free-trade agreement with the United States. The Democrats who control the American Congress reached a deal with the administration on May 10th to ratify similar agreements with Panama and Peru. Colombia's was excluded because of the trade-union issue.
To make matters worse for Álvaro Uribe, Colombia's president, the argument over ratifying the trade agreement comes as he faces almost weekly new claims of links between his supporters and right-wing paramilitary militias. The government argues that such claims are being made only because of the big improvement in security achieved by Mr Uribe in his first term from 2002 to 2006.
Mr Uribe took that argument to Washington, DC earlier this month. He personally lobbied many leading Democrats to try to convince them that under his watch Colombia has become safer for trade unionists. Even on the unions' own figures, murders have fallen to less than two-fifths of the number in 2001.
There are two further strands to the government's pitch. First, it has taken steps to protect union activists and to investigate the murders. Second, officials say that, while in the past trade unionists may have been killed because of their activism, nowadays most of the deaths are for unrelated reasons. Colombia, after all, is still a violent country in which people of all backgrounds are victims of crime. The government does not object to international pressure on the trade-union issue, says Carlos Franco, Mr Uribe's human-rights adviser, but first it should be reasonable and second it should be objective.
These arguments cut little ice with the Democrats and NGOs in the United Statesor with trade unionists in Colombia. Congress should not give Mr Uribe the prize of the trade agreement while past killings of unionists remain unpunished and murders continue, argues Maria McFarland of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group.
Like many other sections of Colombian society, unions have been caught up in the conflict between left-wing guerrillas, their paramilitary foes and other violent drug gangs. In the past, the guerrillas recruited union leaders as part of their strategy of combining armed action with political agitation. Paramilitaries have tended to equate union activity with support for the guerrillas.
All the main union federations now reject violence. But the perception remains that unions are troublemakers, says Elver Herrera of the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), a union-related think-tank based in Medellín. He adds that because of that perception and the attendant danger, only 4.8% of Colombian workers are unionised, compared with 13% in the United States.
The ENS says many unionists were killed during contract negotiations or strikes, though it keeps no specific statistics on this. In the most shocking allegation, Jorge Noguera, who headed a civilian intelligence agency from 2002-05, is facing criminal charges over claims that he provided paramilitaries with a list of trade unionists under government protection. Several of those listed were later killed.
Because so few of the murders have been investigated, in many cases it is hard to determine the motive. In 98.8% of cases, nobody has been punished, says Domingo Tovar of the CUT, the main trade-union confederationthough that is down from 99.9% last year. In the past 18 months, prosecutors have secured 50 convictions in 37 cases. In January, the attorney-general's office set up a special unit with 13 prosecutors and 78 investigators to probe 200 priority cases among more than 2,000 unsolved killings of trade unionists reported between 1991 and 2006.
The unit stems from an agreement last year between the government, the unions and business leaders after talks brokered by the International Labour Organisation. The ILO has set up an office in Colombia to monitor labour issues. Luis Carlos Villegas, who heads the main business federation, says that he and the main union leaders have lunch once a month with Mr Uribe to discuss these questions.
Whatever the record in the past, Mr Uribe's government can point to some progress in making Colombia safe for trade unions. But that message is being drowned out amid mounting evidenceas well as improbable claimsconcerning the infiltration of politics by the paramilitaries. On May 14th, the authorities ordered the arrest of 19 politicians and businessmen, including five congressmen. They join another eight legislators already behind bars. All are from the north coast, where the paramilitaries were especially powerful.
Originally formed to fight kidnapping and extortion by the guerrillas, the paramilitaries ended up controlling politics and drug-trafficking in areas under their control. Most of them have now demobilised under a peace agreement in which their leaders were offered reduced sentences in return for confessing crimes and compensating victims. Since last year, more than 60 leaders have been in jail.
But they continue to cause problems for the government. This week, Semana, a newsmagazine, published transcripts of telephone conversations in which the jailed chiefs gave orders about drug shipments and murders. These were only part of a wider illegal phone-tapping exercise whose targets included opposition leaders. Mr Uribe reacted by sacking the police chief for the phone-tapping. His replacement, Oscar Naranjo, has a reputation for integrity and competence.
The paramilitaries disarmed because their leaders expected to escape serious punishment. Now many face jail terms. This week, in what looked like retaliation, Salvatore Mancuso, the top warlord, claimed that Francisco Santos, Mr Uribe's vice-president, and Juan Manuel Santos, his defence minister, had both incited paramilitary actions during the 1990s. Mr Uribe dismissed the claim, for which there is no supporting evidence.
There is little doubt that some of Mr Uribe's supporters had links with the paramilitaries, just as many on the left in Colombia once had ties to guerrilla groups. The president's underlying argument is that only tighter security, a stronger state and the rule of law will allow trade unionists, like other Colombians, to live safely. Getting there means boosting the relative size of the legal economy. Cocaine consumers in the United States, Europe and elsewhere pump some $3 billion-5 billion a year into Colombia, most of which goes to the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. They will be among the first to rejoice if the Democrats kill the trade agreement.