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Berenice Celeyta says union’s commitment inhibits violence by paramilitaries

Berenice Celeyta’s dark brown eyes light up when she’s reminded of a documentary video in which she is quoted. In the 2008 video, “Building Solidarity,” a CUPE BC production about worker-to-worker projects in Latin America, Celeyta tells an interviewer that letters to Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Velez from concerned CUPE members are a far better form of protection for the country’s union activists than weapons or bodyguards.

That’s quite a declaration. Each year, more trade union activists are murdered in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined. When asked to expand on her comment, Celeyta—director of the Colombian human rights organization NOMADESC, the Association for Social Research and Action—replies with an answer that takes up the entire interview.

I want to tell you something that’s very colloquial but very Colombian,” begins Celeyta. “Historically, all trade union leaders and social movements have been persecuted by the government and its security forces. But since Colombia has come under international criticism for all these murders, the government has offered us protection when we’re harassed by the paramilitaries. This is absolutely incoherent: imagine, the same government that harasses us now saying it will protect us. It’s like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank.”

Celeyta knows of what she speaks. After more than 20 years as a human rights defender, advocating for the rights of miners and fighting against the privatization of public utilities, among other union causes, she is a constant target of death threats.

In 2001, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asked the Colombian government to provide cautionary measures on her behalf. She has always steadfastly refused government protection. Eight years later, the feisty activist credits national and international solidarity for allowing her to remain in Colombia and continue to work despite serious ongoing threats.

Celeyta, interviewed in Montreal where she attended CUPE’s National convention in October, says that actions taken by CUPE, CoDevelopment Canada (CoDev) and other international organizations are crucial to Colombian activists’ ability to operate.

The fact that Paul [Moist] mentioned Colombia in his convention speech is an act of prevention that makes it harder for the government to take future actions against us,” she says. “It’s extremely important that Paul and other union leaders have come to Colombia to see and feel what we’re going through as activists.”

Celeyta praises the CUPE National president for his comments about the impact of free trade agreements on Latin American populations.

What Paul said is what we experience all the time. This is why we say ‘no’ to the FTA: because the policies that come with those agreements continue to act against us. So Paul’s speech was a really strong message to President Uribe, of CUPE’s accompaniment and solidarity with us.”

Celeyta says it’s hard for people from developed countries to imagine the fear that union activists in her country live with every day. While workers everywhere in the world are struggling, the opposition they face is seldom as lethal as in Colombia.

We are always encouraged to hear about Canadian workers who are going on strike to protest privatization, which is a global model,” she explains. “But in Colombia, when workers try to do the same thing there are deaths, assassinations, disappearances—all for trying to prevent public services from being sold to multinationals.”

Celeyta points out that international corporations in Colombia are not only taking land that doesn’t belong to them and displacing people; many are also providing funds to paramilitary operations in order to prevent resistance to the land grabs.

We have put together documents that prove what we’ve been saying about what’s happening in many communities,” says Celeyta, “and we have been able to show that everything is true: we can report it to the government, and the government cannot deny it is involved in these criminal activities against trade union activists. Paramilitary leaders have come out with stories about the killings. The confessions show that all of this has been carried out by government security forces or their paramilitary allies.”

The research has also established that many multinational companies have been implicated in the funding of paramilitaries. These include AngloGold Ashanti, a South African gold mining company (with mainly American and British shareholders) operating in Colombia’s midwestern region; Union Fenosa, a Spanish corporation with water interests in Cauca; Occidental Petroleum, which operates in Arauca; and Chiquita, which runs banana plantations in Uraba.

In the case of Union Fenosa, which owns a dam in Cauca, union activists have been working with the local community to prevent the company’s expansion in the area. Robert de Jesus Gaucheta, an indigenous leader and vice-governor, was a strong opponent of the dam expansion. Last year, he met Paul Moist and former CUPE Communications director Ron Verzuh during their visit to Colombia. On May 19 this year, he was murdered by paramilitaries. The year before, gunmen shot his predecessor, Jose Goyes, in the arm and leg, just missing his head. The CUPE delegation met him after his release from the hospital.

It hasn’t all been bad news. While labour and human rights organizations such as NOMADESC may not have transformed the conditions of Colombian society, they have been able to prevent some deaths and raise awareness. For example, in some cases where villagers have been relocated to make way for development, NOMADESC has ensured that they are relocated with the same living conditions and with a greater awareness of their rights. Some “communities of resistance” have also emerged, their strength in numbers even preventing some multinationals from moving into their area. In Sur de Bolivar, for example, a community campaign has inhibited AngloGold Ashanti’s operations.

People have strong roots and identity with the land,” says Celeyta. “Despite deaths and threats, we Colombians are very stubborn. If one is killed, a hundred have to step forward.”

As an example, Celeyta cites the sugar cane strike last fall that lasted three months. After government forces cracked down on the strikers, 40 people were shot and wounded within the first hour—but the rest of the strikers remained.  “Despite not getting a negotiated settlement from a contract of slavery, they were able to make visible the fact that sugar cane workers are there, and that they work in such dreadful conditions,” she says.

Meanwhile, there are the dreaded death squads. SINTRAEMCALI, the municipal utilities workers’ union, recently secured a court conviction of a military officer charged with the attempted assassination of its acting president, Luis Imbachi, six years ago. When the Third Brigade was implicated, the army and police took responsibility and the officer was sentenced to seven years in jail, plus a fine.

In 2004, Celeyta was one of three trade union leaders targeted for assassination in a plan called “Operation Dragon”. When the activists uncovered documents outlining the plan, the solicitor general confiscated the computers of high-ranking military officials.

The computers had photos of us, our houses, and records of anywhere we’d been, the license plate numbers of our cars, the names of our bodyguards, where they lived, and phone numbers,” Celeyta says.

People who work for justice always talk about ‘solidarity’, but it’s one thing to speak about it and another to make it real,” she says, summing up her gratitude to CUPE. “The embassies always say, ‘Whatever you do, don’t go down there to Colombia, it’s dangerous,’ so with those tours that CUPE has done it shows courage, to make solidarity with us in a concrete way. In my own case, I know that I am alive because of international solidarity—not because the government wants to ‘protect’ me.”