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A courageous champion of human rights in Colombia stole the hearts of delegates at this year’s annual CUPE Saskatchewan convention.

Speaking through a translator, the diminutive Bernice Celeyta talked about the struggle for human rights in Colombia where 4.5 million people have been driven off their land by the paramilitary and displaced to make way for multinational resource companies. The paramilitary has ties to the Colombian military and government.

The Harper government’s free trade deal with Colombia, which took effect last year, contributes to the problem because it will increase foreign investment particularly in the mining sector and “more Colombians will lose their rights,” she said.

Berenice, who is the director of NOMADESC, a human rights organization in Cali Colombia supported by CUPE, described the last three decades as the most violent in the country’s history.

Each year, 8,000 people in Colombia are assassinated for political reasons,” she said. Many are trade union leaders, who oppose the government’s plan to privatize health care, education, electricity, water and other important resources.

Workers who have fought against privatization have been detained, persecuted or even assassinated,” she said, noting many of these crimes are sponsored by the state.

Berenice, who has moved her office several times in recent years because of death threats, remains committed to her work. “It is better to die for something than to live for nothing.”

CUPE National President Paul Moist described Berenice as “a fighter for freedom” and “a hero of  CUPE.”

A small price to pay for global justice

Delegates at the CUPE Saskatchewan convention endorsed a resolution calling on CUPE locals to support the work of human rights activist Berenice Celeyta in Colombia and other solidarity projects by contributing to the union’s Global Justice Fund.

The convention, which opened on Wednesday in Regina, featured speeches by CUPE Saskatchewan President Tom Graham, CUPE National President Paul Moist and special guest Berenice Celeyta, whose human rights organization in Colombia is supported by CUPE.

The resolution – which asks locals to contribute a dollar per member each year – is a practical way to support the struggle for labour and human rights around the world, said Vickie Angell-Scheler, a member of CUPE Saskatchewan’s Global Justice Committee. “We really need a sustained commitment to support our work in the global south,” she told delegates.

It’s a small price to pay – less than a cup of coffee,” delegate Nick Bonokoski noted, adding members should be very proud of CUPE’s work for global justice.