Despite claims of its new president that Colombia is turning the page on its violent past, the reality has been business as usual for labour and human rights activists who continue to be threatened or killed for their work, CUPE members and staff learned this week.
Berenice Celeyta is director of NOMADESC (Association for Research and Social Action), a human rights organization that works to educate, defend and build community based programs for peace and social justice in southwestern Colombia.
On Monday, Celeyta visited CUPE’s B.C. regional office as part of a national tour to speak to CUPE BC officers and CUPE staff about the ongoing armed conflict in Colombia, including the continued harassment and intimidation of labour and human rights activists. Celeyta herself has been the target of several death threats, most recently in January.
One of the key issues in the conflict is land ownership. Multinational companies are interested in mining the land – and indigenous peoples are being removed from their homes. It is estimated that 4.5 million Colombians have been displaced because of potential resources in their land.
“With what has been happening with the loss of this land, it is said we are leaving our children with no future. We call them the ‘2N Generation’: no education and no chance of work,” said Celeyta.
And under new President Santos, who was a top military officer under the previous Aribe administration, the killing and disappearances of labour activists continues unabated. Under the current government, innocent civilians are routinely captured, killed and dressed in guerrilla fatigues—their corpses presented to cameras as the bodies of “terrorists”.
Celeyta said it’s still too soon to assess the full impact of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, but the early indicators are not good. “Peace has to be accompanied by health, education, housing and public services,” she said. “But the Colombian government is carrying out free trade treaties that will not respect these rights. They say Colombia is Latin America’s oldest democracy, but more people have died under this so-called democracy than under the dictatorships of Chile or Argentina.”
Celeyta followed her B.C. visit with a speaking engagement at the CUPE Saskatchewan Aboriginal Council Conference on Tuesday, March 8, in Regina.