For more than half a century, Latin America has been a testing ground for American imperialism and its policies of economic shock therapy, resource extraction and covert paramilitary funding. From historic US involvement in military coups in Chile and Guatemala to its arming of narcotraffickers in the Amazonian rainforest, American interests continue to exert a significant influence in the region despite moves toward greater protectionism in places like Venezuela and Brazil.
But it is the United States’ northern neighbor that has become the unlikely public focus for widespread abuses and continued exploitation in South America.
Operating well below the radar of mainstream news media, some of Canada’s largest energy firms – in parity with US-backed national governments – are operating with impunity in Colombia, a nation already afflicted by a nearly 50-year civil war.
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Unwelcome to most in the region, corporations like Pacific Rubiales Energy (TSX: PRE), which produces more than 40 percent of crude oil in Colombia, have run roughshod over organized labor, indigenous communities and the environment. It has become directly implicated in surreptitious union-busting activities and even assassinations that threaten an already fragile social fabric. Yet despite reportedly pervasive ecological damage and attacks against workers and basic human rights, such large enterprises repeatedly have ignored the provisions of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement – an August 2011 document that at least nominally supports freedom of association and the right to collective negotiation.
In a seminal piece of research titled “Profiting from Repression: Canadian Investment in and Trade with Colombia,” award-winning writer and international affairs expert Asad Ismi provides a 240-page breakdown of corporatist neocolonialism in South America. The report “links ten Canadian companies in Colombia to the genocide of indigenous Colombians, to complicity in eight murders and one attempted murder, to other significant military/paramilitary repression [and] to labour union-busting, strike-breaking and worker exploitation.” To date, it is the only document of its kind.
A major focus of Ismi’s work are primary Canadian oil producers Colombia-Pacific Rubiales, Gran Tierra, Talisman and Petrominerales – and other mining outfits such as Gran Colombia Gold, Eco Oro Minerals and Cosigo Resources. These companies have, at one time or another, been found in violation of basic human rights or as perpetrators of structural violence related to hyper-capitalist resource extraction.
Ismi’s research outlines the interconnectedness of the Colombian state and its various paramilitary outfits but importantly emphasizes the impact of foreign capital on the Colombian economy. Between the United States and Canada, the report states, nearly $10 billion is injected into the country annually. Coincidentally, the majority of that investment reaches the same economic sectors “where state and paramilitary repression is the greatest” – mining and petroleum.
The Canadian and US governments consider Colombia among the most attractive climates for investment in the Global South. By supporting President Juan Manuel Santos’ privatization programs – which include, by their very nature, the violent repression of a majority of the population that opposes them – both states are complicit in anti-union practices that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of vocal dissenters.
A history of violence
For many decades, Colombia has been the Western Hemisphere’s worst perpetrator of human rights abuses and has become the epicenter of incredible political violence between state-military forces and the peasant-based, left-wing guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Officially labeled a “terrorist” organization by the state – including the governments of Alvaro Uribe Velez (2002-10) and current President Juan Manuel Santos – FARC consistently has fought against corporate exploitation of indigenous land, environmental devastation and state corruption.
The “paramilitarization of Colombian society,” as Ismi calls it, stems from arms supplying by the U.S. government to fight FARC – $6 billion during Uribe’s eight-year presidency – and a deregulated national economy favoring heavy foreign investment. Both of these factors provide a context for Canadian involvement in the region. With ongoing, state-sanctioned human rights abuses against dissident guerrillas, and the outright suppression of labor movements, especially within the oil industry, Colombia presents a volatile case-study of neocolonialism.
Since the mid-1980s, the Unión Sindical Obrera (USO), Colombia’s 90-year-old oil workers union, has been under ruthless attack by colluding state and corporate forces. Its representatives, fighting for greater pay – PRE remunerates 30 percent lower than industry standards – humane working conditions and safety from government- and corporate-sanctioned attacks, have the odds stacked against them. To date, more than 100 of its members have been killed by government death squads, including Milton Enrique Rivas Parra, former leader of the Permanent Assembly of laborers, which fought for representation. Rivas worked for Montajes JM, a subsidiary of PRE, and was gunned down on the afternoon of December 11, 2012, by a hired assassin.
Collusion between the Colombian state, military and various other armed subsidiaries is well-documented. Based on interviews completed by Ismi and other Canadian unionists, workers are subjected constantly to “precarious employment contracts” that forbid collective negotiation and often are jailed or threatened if their grievances become public. Some workers, who labor for PRE under constant military supervision, report working up to 18 hours a day in unforgiving conditions, only to retire to shared tents that are unsanitary and provide a view of the terrible ecological damage surrounding them. What is more, the paramilitaries who guard the mining outposts are funded by taxes paid by workers and the surrounding community.
Yet, despite ubiquitous repression, violence and despair, workers continue fighting.
In a historic move for Colombian labor rights, the Popular Tribunal on Extractive Policies in Colombia was established to “support and observe a popular hearing on the actions of Canadian oil company Pacific Rubiales Energy,” according to a Canada Newswire. In partnership with the USO, representatives from Canadian civil society organizations including the Communications, Energy and Paperworks Union (CEP) and the United Steelworkers (USW) visited the country in July 2013 to join workers and local residents who are testifying about their experiences with the company.
Dave Coles, president of the CEP and longtime labor activist, recently wrote of his experience with the 17-person Canadian delegation on progressive newsletter rabble.ca. As a juror at a preliminary hearing of the Popular Tribunal on July 13-14, Coles described the testimony of the indigenous communities as “heart-wrenching.” Representatives achingly described their displacement from traditional lands, forced relocation to unsanitary makeshift villages and ecological damage as evidenced by discolored water allegedly infected by runoff from PRE’s nearby extractive processes.
Sessions of the Popular Tribunal were set to continue until mid-August 2013 in the Colombian capitol of Bogota, after which members of the Canadian delegation would return to Montréal to share the findings with the public.
For Colombians, the courage to struggle through abject conditions and the threat of death is a profound example for workers across the globe. It teaches that multinational corporations are never free to dominate the lives and natural environment of any people – especially those who are vastly aware of their rights as workers and exhibit a profound agency to defend them at all costs. In solidarity with Canadians who have helped to lobby against repressive state and corporate forces, an end soon may be in sight for the neocolonial domination of Colombia’s energy sector.
If the research of Ismi is any indication, workers have the advantage of critical mass on their side. And, with the help of active, free voices from around the world, accountability and reconciliation might enter the corporate lexicon, changing the lives and experiences of many, forever.