Frontline Trip Colombia 2018 – We are all Dom Tomis

The following presentation and report was made to delegates attending the 2018 CUPE Nova Scotia Convention by Donna McCarthy, member of the CUPE NS Human Rights Committee, who went to Colombia this past year to act as an observer for the work being done by Colombian unions and activists.

Thank you Nan.

Thank you CUPE executive board, delegates, guests, observers and staff for allowing me some of your time today.

I would like to start with a thank you to CUPE National, the CUPE Global Justice Fund, CUPE NS and the CUPE NS Global Justice Committee. Without them, these trips would never happen.

I am and will be forever thankful for the privilege and opportunity to go as a CUPE delegate with the Frontline initiative to Colombia. It was a life-changing experience for me. It is evident to me that CUPE is doing great work there and the Colombian people are so thankful for our support.

When Nan first asked if I would do a report for the convention I said yes without thinking. How can I say no to a chance to share their stories but when I sat down to write I struggled with how to go about it? Give a factual report of what we did or share some of their stories. Talk about their trials or their persistent spirit? With limited time I will try to paint a picture as best I can.

My understanding of the goal of this trip was to continue to build solidarity relationships between Canadian and Colombia public sector workers in our mutual fight against the privatization of public services. I think we achieved this goal by meeting with and listening to many different groups.

We had the opportunity to meet with so many people including human rights defenders, land defenders, human rights lawyers, leaders of unions, indigenous communities and social activist groups as well as government officials. Throughout these meetings it became evident that there are two main themes;

  1. The social leaders are in great danger and
  2. They need our help to keep the world watching to help keep the government accountable to stop human rights violations.

A bit of background for those who may not know, this is a historic time in Colombia history, with the signing of the Havana peace accords ending 50 years of armed conflict. However, with the guerilla movement putting down arms there is a vacuum for paramilitary groups and drug cartels to come into these communities unchallenged. The corruption runs deep with the multinational corporations and the paramilitary. Sadly, Colombia is more volatile than ever.

We had the rare opportunity to meet with some of the leaders of the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP). They are looking forward to using political means to improve the lives of the people. Colombia is a patriarchal society and yet the FARC have created a woman’s committee to hear from women in all walks of life including people from the LBGQTII community. They are working hard to improve the lives of the people and close the gender gap.

When we met with several of the indigenous communities, they expressed that they want the international community to know that they do not consider themselves victims of armed conflict, but rather victims of development. They do not want to be displaced yet again so that multinational corporations can have bigger highways or access to their land. Their request was simple, help keep us safe by lobbying the government to recognize their indigenous guard. They are a peaceful people who are self-sufficient and just want their children to be able to play soccer with other children. They believe this is the way to real peace by bringing communities together to let the children play together and learn to be friends.

We were the very first delegation of any kind to go to Putumayo and meet with the Inga people. They are losing land and water because of the multinational companies including Canadian gas company, Grand Tiara. With the loss of land comes the loss of their traditional herbs and medicines. As well, there are 36 tribes on the verge of extinction. I am going to say that again…there are 36 tribes on the verge of extinction. They need help to not only preserve their land and culture but their very existence.

We were able to take part in some of their ceremonies and traditions. The guy on the end is Louis, he spoke English, so we had the chance to chat. He asked where I was from and when I said Nova Scotia he was very happy, he spent several years working in Dartmouth. (Small world).

We met with our partners at NOMADESC. The work that Nomadesc is doing is invaluable. They are in the small communities working with individual people as well as groups. They were there during the civil strike ensuring human rights are upheld. It was wonderful to see how respected they were in the communities. They are working hard to unite the people for the common goal of defending the human rights of the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.

These are some pictures of Jacquelyn, she told us about how she was given three minutes to take what she could from her home before they bulldozed it while she and her 4-year-old daughter watched. She is only one of many people displaced because of multinational corporations wanting their land. Through tears, she showed us the rubble that once was her home, but you could see in her eyes that her fight was not over. She is still fighting for others. She took us to meet Gerardo, he is one of the lucky ones who had a copy of his land title, with the help of NOMADESC, he is still fighting through the courts to keep his land.

We had the opportunity to spend a day with CUPE’s partner union, Sintracuavalle. They were warm and welcoming. They were especially grateful to CUPE NS and the Global Justice Committee for continuing to support them in their hard work.

We heard a report from Margarita Lopez and some other workers in Sintracuavalle about the work they are doing. They have worked hard to defend public water. They continue to go into more communities and fighting privatization. They were very transparent with their funds given to them by CUPE NS and the Global Justice Committee. Even teasing the lady who “chases them down” for their receipts. They now have 350 people involved in defence of water. Our support is vital to their success.

The people at Nomadesc and Sintracuavalle work so hard. They are overworked, (just like us), and yet were so kind to us and were so thankful for our visit all the while in fear for their very lives. Margarita is under extreme stress because the government is pulling her security detail and her bulletproof car. She sat with us in tears because she is thinking about leaving the union in order to keep her and her family safe.

One of the leaders we did not get to meet was Temistocles Machado, he is known as Don Temis. He was one of the leaders of the 2017 civic strike that brought hundreds of thousands of Indigenous and Afro-Colombians into the street to protest the lack of public services and government neglect. For 22 days, they shut down Colombia’s most important trade route. From all accounts, he was a humble, kind man who put the needs of the community above his own.

Unfortunately, we did not get to meet with him because he was assassinated one week before our arrival.

The leaders are being threatened, murdered and disappeared at an alarming rate. They need our help now more than ever. When we met with them they were still reeling from the assassination of Don Temis and fearing who will be next. NOMADESC succinctly stated, “may peace not cost the lives of those who survived the war.”

As I said in the beginning, I struggled with how to put into words what we experienced in these two weeks? How do I convey the emotion and pure terror these people are feeling? I will end with this thought.

Imagine being nominated for a new leadership role with your union or social activist group. Perhaps your first thoughts are flattery, am I qualified, do I have the time? Not in Colombia, where your thoughts are more like, will I be safe, will I be murdered, will my family be murdered? This is not hyperbolic, this is the reality for leaders there. As I said, Don Tomis was murdered in Buenaventura one week before we were able to meet with him.

We must do more to help ensure the safety of these strong amazing leaders.

We are the leaders in our communities, in our unions and our social activist groups.

We are all Don Tomis.

Thank you,

Donna McCarthy
CUPE Nova Scotia Human Rights Committee
CUPE Local 5047