Canada’s public sector union leaders got a glimpse of a Colombia that rarely gets exposed in the North American news media when they visited a displaced persons community in Medellin on July 19 during their week-long tour of the country.
Lately, the media have focused on the release of famous hostages and reported Colombian president Alvaro Uribe basking in his increased popularity. But there is another Colombia that struggles to survive under his government’s free-trade-related policies. It is that Colombia that leaders of CUPE, CUPW, PSAC and NUPGE saw.
In La Onda, high above the expensive clubs and condos of downtown Medellin, boys kicked a soccer ball, teenage girls practiced their salsa steps, single mothers and their mothers cuddled infants in the surrounding hills of Colombia’s second largest city. But these Colombians are not counted among the population of 2-3 million who live in this inland city an hour’s plane ride north of Bogota, the capital.
They are among the displaced peoples of this much troubled South American country with which Canada is negotiating a free trade agreement. Including them in the count would swell the official population count by 120,000 and some say triple that number has been forced from their homes and now live in poverty in makeshift communities like La Onda. Across Colombia that figure leaps to 3-4 million by some estimates.
The forced displacements are part of a systematic effort to allow the corporate take-over of the land and waterways that once provided sustenance to the displaced. Now the Uribe government is content to allow the brutal displacement process to continue in the name of progress. Land once inhabited by families is to be used for producing exportable products for profit. The result has been the impoverishment of millions like those living at La Onda.
The leaders are Denis Lemelin, national president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Paul Moist, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, John Gordon, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and George Heyman, international vice-president of the National Union of Public and General Employees.
At an informal meeting, several residents described being driven from their previous homes by paramilitary squads supported by the military. They came to Medellin and other cities out of fear for their lives, they said, and they soon found themselves destitute.
Some at the meeting still remembered having no proper public services when they organized the shanty town 11 years ago. But it was their only chance to survive. They did so by helping each other when their country’s government disowned them.
“We were attacked by security forces,” one of the original displaced settlers told the leaders. “Now, just as we begin to get back on our feet, there are rumours that the government will move us somewhere else.”
Many families live on whatever the women, many single mothers, can beg on crowded downtown streets, she said. And “we grow our own food here on our little plots.”
Others spoke out as well. “They systematically exterminated us,” said an older woman who indentified herself as a member of the Union Patriotica, a political party that formed after the M19 guerrilla group agreed to disarm. But the agreement spurred a bloodbath with several thousand UP members dying at the hands of military-supported death squads.
“There were many massacres, some known and some unknown,” she said. “They hung people and put them on display to intimidate us.”
A young man came forward to show the leaders how the paramilitary squads had cut off his right hand, so he could not work. Another described living in a refugee camp for four years before finally coming to La Onda.
At the end of the meeting, the leaders learned that services could soon improve in this poor community, but with them will come worries about the paramilitaries battling with others for control of those services. The residents of La Onda could find themselves in the middle of the battleground again.
The group continues its tour of Colombia this week with more meetings and visits to examine human and labour rights, working conditions, and exchange views on free trade and the absence of labour and human rights guarantees. They plan to meet with the outgoing Canadian ambassador, government officials and members of the opposition. They will also discuss privatization and other problems with public sector trade unionists.
The leaders return to Canada on July 25.