CUCUTA, Colombia — Colombia’s status as the most dangerous spot in the world for labor leaders could overshadow President Alvaro Uribe’s Monday meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Uribe will be only the second Latin American leader to visit the Obama White House. At the top of Uribe’s wish list is congressional passage of a trade deal that was signed by the two nations in November 2006.
But U.S. lawmakers have refused to approve the trade agreement due, in part, to the grim fact that since 1986 more than 2,700 union activists have been killed in Colombia. And the death toll keeps rising.
The latest victim was Rafael Sepulveda, a 41-year-old pharmacist who worked at the mental hospital in this city on the Venezuelan border and was killed last weekend.
“Rafael was on his front porch with his wife when a young man showed up,” said Edio Botello, an official with Anthoc, the country’s largest union of health care workers, which represented Sepulveda. “The gunman fired nine times. Rafael was hit by six bullets.”
Supporters of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement — which would allow for about 80 percent of U.S. industrial and commercial goods to enter Colombia duty free — say the deal would seal a long-term partnership with a reliable U.S. ally at a time when many leftist leaders in Latin America are turning away from Washington.
Uribe claims that the pact would help end the violence by strengthening the legal economy in a nation where thousands of youths find employment in the drug trade or by joining Marxist guerrillas or paramilitary groups.
He also points out that his government has made great strides in reducing the overall level of violence in Colombia.
About 30,000 paramilitary fighters have disarmed since Uribe first took office in 2002. The army has driven leftist guerrillas out of many parts of the country. Kidnappings have dropped off, and there have been fewer killings of labor leaders.
Last year, 49 union activists were murdered, compared with 21 killed so far this year, according to statistics compiled by the National Labor School, an organization that promotes union issues. While those numbers are still high, the annual death toll in the mid-1990s often topped 200.
During the presidential campaign last year, Obama came out against the trade deal.
Since taking the oath of office, however, Obama has voiced conditional support pending improvements in Colombia. To that end, he has asked U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to help Colombia establish benchmarks for reducing violence and increasing the number of prosecutions of criminals who target labor leaders.
Speaking of Monday’s meeting, Gimena Sanchez of the Washington Office on Latin America said: "It is crucial that President Obama send the right message, with the right tone. Colombia is a close partner of the United States, which makes it all the more important that we voice concerns about human rights violations and the rule of law.”
But Democrats in the U.S. Congress, who have close ties to organized labor, have refused to bring the trade pact up for vote. They point out that only a tiny handful of the killings have been solved while threats and other forms of intimidation prevent many workers from forming unions in the first place.
Some of the killings were carried out by paramilitaries in tandem with government security forces. They targeted union members whom they considered allies of the country’s Marxist guerrilla groups. Just the threat of violence has been an effective tactic in preventing strikes and in forcing unions to scale back their demands during contract negotiations.
At the same time, organized labor has been weakened as state-run companies have been sold off, reducing the number of workers in the government sector, where unions are strongest. Today, only about 5 percent of Colombian workers belong to unions, compared to about 12.5 percent in the United States.
Here in Cucuta, a border city with a long history of violence, many union leaders were shaken by Sepulveda’s death, but had their own war stories to tell as they sat in the union hall located in a wing of the mental hospital.
German Gonzalez, the legal representative of the union, recalled how during a contract dispute in 2005, Cucuta’s mayor threatened to have him murdered by paramilitaries. Two weeks later, gunmen killed Gonzalez’s brother. The mayor was later imprisoned due to his alleged ties to the death squads.
Sitting next to Gonzalez was Aristides Hernandez, president of the union’s Cucuta branch. He held up a leaflet distributed by a newly formed paramilitary group called the Black Eagles. The flier, printed in black letters over the symbol of an eagle, threatened him with either death or displacement unless he abandoned his post.
Hernandez has been assigned a police bodyguard. But the two drive around town in a beat-up 1982 Nissan truck. The locks on the doors don’t work and the engine provides almost no acceleration should they need to speed away from would-be attackers.
“We just have to be alert,” said the bodyguard, who was armed only with a pistol.
A few blocks away, Miriam Tamara, president of the local teachers union, was trailed by an armed escort as she walked three blocks to a meeting with a city hall official. She has received death threats naming both herself and her daughter.
“They are trying to intimidate us,” she said of the threats. “But you have to remain calm. You have to rely on the protection of god.”
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