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Colombian 'Democracy' and 80 Years of Murdering Workers

A banner in memory of the 60th anniversary of the murder of Colombian presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán.

The murders of union leaders in the American continents are not limited to the massacre of leaderships in the Brazilian rural entities or to the struggles for power in other South American organizations. The continental champion in this topic (which has been on the ranking top for 80 years) is still Colombia, with figures so impressive that the United States Congress is even being restrained from ratifying the free trade agreement that was signed between the two nations in 2006.

From Jan. 1, 1991, to Dec. 31, 2006, according to data from the Syndical National School of Colombia and the Unitary Center of Workers of that country, 8,105 cases of violation of the most basic human rights of workers affiliated to unions in Colombia were recorded. Those cases include 2,245 homicides, 3,400 threats, 1,292 cases of eviction, 399 arbitrary arrestments, 206 wounded individuals, 192 attempts on life, 159 kidnappings, 138 missing persons, 37 cases of torture, and 34 cases of moral disrespect.

During the mandates of the current president (Álvaro Uribe Vélez) only, according to the official figures of the Colombian government, over 440 murders occurred (only 43 in 2007), of which legal proceedings resulted in just seven sentences. Of the 236 murders perpetrated from 2004 to 2006, just one defendant was convicted.

Those data were presented by Colombian unionists directly to the United States secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and to nine Democratic congressmen during their visit to the country, in late January, in order to encourage the approval of the free trade agreement. According to information from the EFE News Agency, the president of the Workers' Central Labor Union of Colombia, Carlos Rodríguez, affirmed then that, at the end of the meeting, Rice told them that instead of respecting the unions' opinion, "she will go on urging the F.T.A."

The Unionist stated, "She says the countries should make businesses like that with the United States, that it will bring benefits to Colombia—but our opinion is just the opposite, that the agreement will impair our domestic industry."

Nevertheless, on April 7, President Bush sent to Congress the F.T.A. text, to be approved in the fast track mode, with no alterations, within 90 days at the most. Not surprisingly, the official justification was, in the words of the president himself, "our need to show to a friendly government in the region that the United States can be a reliable partner." "Colombia is a strong and effective ally in the struggle against terrorism and a model of democracy in the continent," he added.

The date could not be more emblematic: while the adoption of the F.T.A. (which had been rejected by the two Democratic presidential candidates, Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton, and supported by the Republican candidate John McCain) was discussed, the streets of Bogotá were taken over by marches and manifestations in memory of the 60th anniversary of the murder of Colombian presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, which occurred on April 9, 1948.

Gaitán's death—happening "coincidentally" within the same period in which representatives of the whole continent had come to the city for what would be the meeting for the creation of the Organization of American States, in the context of the beginning of the cold war—was what triggered the so-called "Bogotazo," a popular insurrection that would claim the lives of 5,000 to 10,000 people in two days, and the following "La Violencia" ("The Violence"), which, in 10 years of confrontations, would claim over 250,000 lives. From then on, the figures regarding political assassinations in the country have reached the range of 500,000.

In an exalted speech in the Colombian Senate on April 9 of this year, Gloria Gaitán Jaramillo stated that if her father had not been killed he would have been the first socialist president to be elected by the popular vote in Latin America, 22 years before Salvador Allende in Chile, and in total opposition to North American imperialism in the continent.

Scenes from a march in Bogotá in memory of Gaitán.

Gloria Gaitán addresses the Colombian Senate on April 9.

A lawyer and son of a bookseller, Gaitán impelled his political career based on the denouncements about an event that had occurred in December 1928 and marked the struggles of the Colombian workers: "La Masacre en las Bananeras" ("The Massacre in the Banana Farms"). Even with over 30 years of activities in the country at the time, the North American United Fruit Company (presently Chiquita Brands Inc., which according to Colombian paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, who has himself been accused of committing more than 6,000 murders of unionists, used to make payments to the paramilitaries for exporting its production) offered no labor security to its thousands of outsourced workers.

Organized around a union, those workers prepared a list of nine demands that included a contract in writing, a day's work of eight hours with a weekly day off, payment in cash, assistance in cases of labor-related accidents, and washrooms for the workers' use. Although such requests had been made in order to adjust the company to the legislation in force in the country at that time, United Fruit refused to grant them and the workers went on strike.

After slightly over a month of tense shutdown, the governor of the departamento (state) of Magdalena summoned the workers for a meeting in the city of Ciénaga. However, instead of sending the politician to that city, the Colombian government issued Decree-Law No. 1, which prohibited meetings with more than three individuals, put the region in a state of siege, and nominated Gen. Carlos Cortés Vargas as civil and military intervener. The general gathered his troops in front of the crowd that was waiting for the governor and ordered dispersal in five minutes' time. Since he was not obeyed, his next command was to open fire.

Later, in face of the denouncements promoted by Gaitán and his famous speeches in the Colombian Senate, where he displayed dozens of documents, testimonies, and even the skull of a child that had been killed in Ciénaga, General Vargas conceded to being responsible for nine deaths. He said he had been driven by the respect to the laws, by the need to recover the public order, and by the threat of the invasion of Colombia by the United States in order to guarantee the company's "rights."

According to the telegrams that were sent by the United States ambassador, Jefferson Caffery, to the United States government the next month, there had instead been over 1,000 dead. Nobody has ever been criminally held responsible for the massacre. And the event was eventually narrated in a semi-fictional fashion by Gabriel García Márquez in his book Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude).

On April 10 of this year, by 224 to 195 votes, the United States Congress decided to put off indefinitely the process of approval of the free trade agreement with Colombia. Notwithstanding, both governments are still confident that success will be had in reverting that picture after the 2008 presidential elections, with whoever is to be the new occupant of the White House. As the Colombians say when we speak about the current president of the United States: "Don't you forget that the North American interventions in our continent did not begin with Bush, and that it was a government of the Democratic Party, the one of Bill Clinton, that started the 'Colombia Plan', which upholds the civil war in our country."

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