Cordoba, Colombia: A dangerous place to be a union leader
Guest Blogger Irene Lanzinger, B.C. Federation of Labour, shares a report from a recent CoDev delegation to Colombia.
On Friday, December 2, Domingo Ayala, the president of the Teachers’ Union of Cordoba (ADEMACOR) walked into our hotel lobby. He was accompanied by the two armed body guards that have been assigned to him by the state since 1990. The body guards were a graphic reminder of the constant threat of violence faced by Cordoban teachers and union leaders. Domingo came to meet with our group of Canadian teacher activists and union leaders in Colombia on a CoDevelopment Canada tour.
Domingo gave us a tour of the teachers’ union office in Monteria, Cordoba’s capital city. The office is surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed wire. It has a big gate and a guard house. The complex is shared with the provincial office of the CUT, the main labour central in Colombia. The Colombian teachers’ union, FECODE, is the largest affiliate of the CUT and teachers play a key role in that organization.
The security surrounding the complex is evidence that Cordoba is the most dangerous province for educators in a country in which threats and the murder of trade unionists, and particularly teachers, is all too commonplace.
The constant threat of violence results from the very complex political situation in Colombia. Heavily armed rebel groups, paramilitary groups, police and the military interact violently in an environment exacerbated by corruption and the drug trade. Teachers are targeted both because of activism in their union and because of their status in communities.
Domingo began by talking about the monument that marks the entrance to the complex. It was erected in 2009 and commemorates the 50th anniversary of ADEMCOR. It is a memorial to the many Cordoban teachers who have been victims of violence and disappeared or murdered in the service of their colleagues and students.
The statue is of a woman named Manesca, a mythological character of the Zinu, an indigenous people that were the pre-conquest inhabitants of the Montería region. She is a warrior goddess symbolizing the resistance to the Spanish colonization of Colombia. She has a single centered breast indicating the nourishment we rely on from Mother Earth. She carries a bow and arrow. For Cordoban teachers, she symbolizes both the sacrifice of the teachers who were killed as union activists and their rebirth in the ongoing struggle for public education and the rights of teachers.
In addition to threats of violence, extortion and death, the Cordoban teachers have faced attacks by successive neo-liberal governments and have seen the erosion of their salaries and rights, similar to the situation faced by teachers in British Colombia. Membership in the union is voluntary but 14,000 of the 15,000 teachers in the province belong to the union.
In the difficult political climate in Colombia, the University of Cordoba has also been a particular target of the paramilitary forces. We visited with representatives from the university teachers’ union and the administrative staff union, which is part of SINTRAUNICOL, the national union of university workers.
Sergio Castro, president of the university teachers union, explained that the public university was viewed by the paramilitaries as “a hotbed of the left and a breeding ground for guerillas.” He described a particularly difficult time between 2001 and 2008, when the paramilitary forces waged what they called a “campaign of blood and fire” to extinguish the leftist political influence of the university workers and students.
The paramilitary forces considered the seizure of the University of Cordoba a “pilot project” for the control of universities across the country by the paramilitary forces. They forcibly transported representatives from the university professors’ union, the administrative support union and student leaders to a ranch owned by paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso. There the commander warned union and student leaders of the planned takeover of the university and gave them a month to subject themselves to paramilitary rule, resign, or face death.
During the paramilitary reign of terror at the university professors and union leaders were often followed and subject to surveillance. They suffered intimidation, persecution, forced exile, psychological terror and killings. When the unions organized sit-ins and protests their leaders were told “we will dress you in a guerilla uniform, put a gun in your hand and turn you over to the military”.
Direct testimony from paramilitaries involved in demilitarization and amnesty processes confirmed the use of horrific violence, torture and murder.
Through these tactics the paramilitaries ensured that their candidate was installed as university rector. They told union leaders “we are gods; not a leaf moves without our permission.” Sergio described it as a “time of terror” for student and union leaders. Consistent with the trend in other countries, neo-liberal policies were introduced at the university. Anyone who opposed those policies was labeled a guerilla.
The university professors made a plea to the Attorney General of Colombia and made submissions to the Inter American Human Rights Commission. As a result union leaders were provided with body guards.
The campaign successfully suppressed the student movement. It is only now beginning to rebuild. While many union leaders were terrorized and silenced, the union movement persisted. Since 2008 things have improved. The current rector is no longer beholden to the paramilitaries but there is still a presence among the administrative staff, students and board of governors.
The unions are working to re-establish democratic processes at the university, to rebuild the student movement, to guarantee free speech and fundamental labour rights, and to secure compensation for the victims of violence.
How do Cordoban teachers and union leaders retain their deep commitment and determination in the face of the horrific threat of violence and death? Perhaps the answer lies in Manesca, the goddess depicted at the entrance to their union office. They are truly continually reborn from that violence and death, giving them the resilience to persist in the struggle for fundamental labour and human rights, democracy and social justice. As Canadians who share their beliefs, we are obliged to do all we can to support them in their struggle.