Earlier this week, President Obama met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in the White House, lauding Colombia’s purported “tremendous progress” over the past decade. The meeting, officials from both governments claimed, marked a “high point” in the countries’ bilateral relationship, and talk of economic partnership replaced decades of security-focused engagement.
While Colombia has seen some notable progress in recent years—the homicide rate has dropped and an ongoing peace process offers hope that the country’s decades-long conflict may end—this is far from Colombia’s “mission accomplished” moment.
In no part of the country is this more evident than Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest port. For decades, the valley leading into the city has been—and in many areas, continues to be—a notoriously violent corridor as guerrilla and paramilitary groups battled for control of this vital artery to North American drug markets. The violence was brutal; in the emblematic 2001 Naya massacre south of the city, hundreds of villagers were slaughtered by paramilitary groups, some beheaded by machete, others by chainsaw. More recently, armed groups have turned to the city’s Afro-Colombian women, engaging in what has come to be known as decuartizando, or murder by quartering, of the community leaders. This year, at least 12 women have been brutally murdered in the city, leading to nationwide protests.
I visited the city—a shipping hub, through which much of U.S.-bound trade travels—in September with a delegation of union organizers and congressional staff to explore the effects of U.S. policies on human and labor rights in Colombia. We arrived just over a year after the implementation of a new U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The FTA was ultimately implemented in 2012 after years of fervent opposition by Congress, civil society, and unions throughout the hemisphere because of Colombia’s position as the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. To address widespread concerns over labor rights violations and anti-union violence, Obama and Santos signed a “Labor Action Plan” (LAP) which outlined concrete steps to protect Colombia’s workers.
In Buenaventura, we saw Colombia’s ardent—if ineffective—attempts to pave over its bloody past on full display. Massive capital improvement programs thrived next to abject poverty and brutally violent murders occurred in the shadows of towering cranes just blocks away. And despite the LAP’s commitments, we found port workers without the most basic of labor protections.
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Standing beside President Obama after the 2012 announcement of the implementation of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, Colombian President Santos warned that, like all trade agreements, there would be winners and losers. Far from benefiting from increased trade, Buenaventura has become one those losers. Despite the billions of dollars in goods passing through the docks destined for U.S. ports, unemployment and poverty top 60 percent among Afro-Colombians in Buenaventura, according to a new U.S. Congressional report.
As goods move in and out of Buenaventura, so too do entire communities
Buenaventura is known as both a receptor and a driver of internally displaced persons. The concept sounds like a cruel joke; fleeing violence in the rural areas along Colombia’s Pacific coast, families come to Buenaventura in search of some semblance of security. Yet few find it, and many are driven out; according to the UN, more than 2,800 people have been displaced in the first half of November as armed groups vied for control of the city.
Yet the numbers of people displaced are not as high as they could be. Many people we met say they will never leave the city, some finding shelter in other neighborhoods within Buenaventura, or simply refusing to move.
“I was born here, I will raise my family here, I will die here,” Harrinson Moreno, a community activist with the Afro-Colombian NGO Black Communities Process (Proceso de Comunidades Negras, PCN), explained to me when I asked why he didn’t simply leave Buenaventura. Instead, Moreno and his colleagues at PCN have staunchly stood up for the rights of Afro-Colombians, denouncing some of the most powerful political and economic interests for human rights violations—an effort which has taken the lives of many of his colleagues.
Far from bringing prosperity to these communities, the new trade agreements have only brought more inequality and displacement. As the port has dramatically expanded in recent years to accommodate Colombia’s newly tariff-free exports, local residents—many having been evicted from their homes at least once before—are forced to flee yet again as cranes are built in areas the once called home. Pollution, too, has taken hold as industry pours into the once-verdant area.
“You can find fish at the market, and when you cut them open, they have coal inside,” Moreno said, explaining how many residents have lost their livelihoods because of the growing pollution. “The traditional fishing and crabbing areas now don’t have any fish.”
From Human Rights to Labor Rights
Down the street in the port, trade unionists demanding basic protections and the right to organize have too found major obstacles to the free enjoyment of their rights. Despite commitments in the LAP, over 80 percent of the workers here are “subcontracted.” By “subcontracting,” or hiring workers through third-party entities, the company that runs the port can effectively stymie the union’s ability to collectively bargain for a contract, secure health and pension benefits, or demand basic safety protections.
These aren’t isolated events, either. According to an October report by U.S. Representatives George Miller (D-Calif.) and James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), labor rights violations have continued throughout the country since the FTA was implemented in 2012. The Congressmen, who met with unions, management, and government officials throughout the country, found illegal firings and flagrant disregard for labor law to be the norm, rather than the exception in this country hailed as “model for success.”
While this painful reality seems not to have reached the White House—following his meeting with Santos, Obama declared the FTA to be a resounding success, and what remains to be done amounts only to “some details that are being worked on”—the U.S. and Colombia Labor Departments may be taking note. According to Rep. Miller, “[Colombian Labor] Minister Pardo gave his assurance that his department is taking the problems very seriously … [and among both ministries] there is an understanding that these issues need to be resolved.”
Colombia has a long way to go before it becomes the success story Presidents Obama and Santos claim it to be. Through the rigorous application of labor laws, the investigation and prosecution of acts of violence, and the protection of vulnerable communities, though, real and lasting progress is attainable.