Colombia, not Venezuela, is the problem

The mass challenge to neoliberalism and imperialism in Latin America, continued throughout 2010. The following was written May 13, 2010, and submitted as a Brief to the Subcommittee on International Human Rights (SDIR), Committees Directorate, House of Commons (Part of a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”) • Thank you for the invitation to my organization (Coalition Venezuela We Are With You / Coalición Venezuela Estamos Contigo) and to myself to present a brief to your committee. I will not be able to be present in person. I have been in touch with others from the solidarity movement in Toronto who will be making presentations, and am confident that they will make a very thorough presentation of the key issues. What follows are some brief written remarks as a modest supplement to your deliberations.

I am trained as a political scientist (Ph.D. Queen’s University). For the last several years I have had a keen interest in events in Latin America and the Caribbean making it one of my research areas. For the last two years, I have been an assistant professor in the Department of International Development Studies at Trent University, in Peterborough, Ontario. So with that background, I have developed somewhat of an appreciation for the situation in Latin America and the Caribbean.

However, it does not take an extensive academic background to know that there are issues of human rights to be studied in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many of my first year students in the large introductory development studies class at Trent University – who at the age of 18 do not, of course, have an extensive academic background – are quite aware of human rights issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. What is surprising to me, and would be surprising to them, is your choice of country. Surely the issue in 2010 in terms of human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean is not the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, but rather its neighbour, Colombia.

I urge you to study the 2009 edition of the “Annual survey of violations of trade union rights.” What you will read in the section on Colombia should give you chills. In 2008 alone, 49 trade unionists were assassinated “of whom 16 were trade union leaders, 45 were men and four were women. Attacks, disappearances and death threats continued.”[1]

Imagine the outcry in Canada if even one trade union leader had been assassinated in 2008. It would dominate the pages of the press. Were there to be 16 union leaders assassinated and 33 others, that outcry would be massive indeed. The truly horrifying aspect of this, however, is that this is by no means a one-year phenomenon. In 2007, there were 39 such assassinations so that “Colombia remained the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists.”[2] In 2006 there were “78 trade unionists murdered during the year.”[3] This is in fact a very old story – a long-standing, and quite well-documented story about a terrible situation confronting one of the most basic of all human rights – the right of workers to freely associate and collectively organize.

There is another reason why, in 2010, it is surprising to focus a human rights lens on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela rather than on Colombia. The Government of Canada is embarking on bilateral trade negotiations with a number of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. There is no indication that the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has been selected as one of these countries. However, as is also well known to my first year students at Trent University, Colombia is one such country. I read from a Government of Canada web site that on March 10, 2010, “the Government of Canada tabled legislation to implement the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Labour Cooperation and Environment Agreements.”[4] Surely the name itself – given the facts outlined above – should demand an urgent investigation into the human rights situation in Colombia. This is not just being called a trade agreement but a “Labour Cooperation” agreement. The Government of Canada is entering into a cooperative relationship with a country, on the issue of labour, when that country is widely seen as having the most anti-labour environment in the entire world.

In a certain sense, my brief to your committee should end here. My one point to you is that you have the wrong area of inquiry, that given Canada’s policy orientation towards Colombia, the focus in terms of human rights needs to be Colombia and not the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and that were you to spend any time engaging in such an inquiry, it would immediately call into question the ethical, moral, and political problems in intensifying collaboration with the Government of Colombia.

However, as a political scientist, it is incumbent on me to open up one more issue for you to consider. You will all be well aware that no political action takes place in a vacuum. Understanding the context is something that I urge all of my students to attempt, no matter what their choice of essay topic. A reasonable thesis for one such student essay might be to suggest that it is precisely the context outlined above – the push for a bilateral trade, labour and environmental agreement with a government widely known for its terrible human rights record – that might impel a Canadian government to focus on another country, any other country, in order to “change the channel.” If we announce to the people of Canada that in 2010 human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean is to be our subject, and that in this year, the key country to study is the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, then it might have the political effect of focusing attention away from what is really going on – an intensification of Canadian involvement with a very suspect regime in Colombia.

There might, however, be one benefit from such an exercise. An intensive focus on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is long overdue. The situation in that country, as in the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, is exceedingly difficult. President Hugo Chávez Frias inherited an economy and society, severely damaged by long years of interference by International Financial Institutions (IFIs), institiutions in which Canada plays a leading role. Undoing the damage caused, in part, by the irresponsible Structural Adjustment Programmes of the IMF and the World Bank has been an enormous challenge, not just for President Chávez, but for political leaders all through Latin America and the Caribbean. The societal disruption caused by years of structural adjustment throughout Latin America, has contributed to an environment where human rights abuses do intensify. There is no more fertile ground for human rights abuses than the chaos created by economic decline and societal instability.

What needs to be soberly confronted by policy makers in Canada, is that the antidote to this economic decline and societal instability is – not to give legitimacy to regressive regimes such as the one in Colombia – but to do as has been done in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, in the little country of Bolivia, and elsewhere – and resist the policy prescriptions of the IFIs, and to insist that the way forward in Latin America and the Caribbean is for sovereign development, controlled by the peoples of the region, not by distant institutions based in the Global North.

Your investigation of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela will surely lead you to encounter the interesting alternatives being developed to the Global North IFIs – including but not restricted to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The establishment of these organizations has accelerated the assertion of sovereignty in the region as a whole – an assertion of sovereignty which is the precondition for any and all improvement in the conditions of the people of the region, including an improvement in human rights.

Sincerely
Dr. Paul Kellogg
Dept. of International Development Studies
Trent University
Peterborough, ON K9J 7B8

(c) 2011 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), “2009 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights: Colombia” – Accessed May 13, 2010.
[2] ITUC, “2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights: Colombia” – Accessed May 13, 2010.
[3] ITUC, “2007 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights: Colombia” – Accessed May 13, 2010.
[4] Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, “Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement” – Accessed May 13, 2010.

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