For over 15 years, the four largest public-sector unions in Canada (CUPE, PSAC, CUPW and NUPGE) have been organizing worker-to-worker solidarity exchanges with Colombian popular organizations and trade unions.

We have worked hard to establish what we call the Frontlines Initiative to support some of the most militant and vulnerable organizations and activists in the country. The goal of all our delegations is to build mutual solidarity between public sector workers in Canada and Colombia in our mutual fight to stop the privatization of public services and to support that country’s fragile peace process.

Our Frontlines delegation has returned to Canada from a two-week tour in Colombia after meeting with workers, communities, and activists throughout the country. Among several host organizations were two of CUPE’s global justice partners, NOMADESC - the Association for Investigation and Social Action, and SINTRACUAVALLE - a water workers union. Sister Donna McCarthy, of CUPE 5047 and chairperson of the CUPE Nova Scotia Human Rights Committee, represented CUPE along with our International Solidarity officer, Kelti Cameron.

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It did not take long to realize that the fear of violence amongst activists, leaders, and communities is pervasive and at an all-time high. A peace agreement was signed between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) and the Colombian Government, ending 50 years of armed conflict, which many hoped would end the violence. However, despite the fragile peace agreement, what our partners observe is that it is the economic development model that favors foreign investment and privatization that is fuelling the violence, not necessarily the armed conflict.

One week before we arrived an important leader and human rights defender, Temistocles (Don Temis) Machado, was assassinated in the port city of Buenaventura. Don Temis was one of the leaders of the 2017 civic strike that brought hundreds of thousands of Indigenous and Afro-Colombians into the street to protest the lack of public services and government neglect. For 22 days, they shut down Colombia’s most important trade route. Our delegation met with the civic strike committee. They were reeling from the assassination of Machado and fearing who will be next. NOMADESC succinctly stated, “may peace not cost the lives of those who survived the war.”

In Colombia, the gap between poor and rich is striking. It has the highest poverty and inequality rates in Latin America. The gap between a wealthy minority and an impoverished majority with no access to quality public services drives the conflict and the resistance in this country. SINTRACUAVALLE continues to struggle against water privatization, while also supporting rural communities to gain access to their own community run water facility. In doing so they believe they are addressing the roots of the armed conflict and providing the way forward toward the genuine implementation of peace in the country.