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April 13, 2013

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Building ‘projects for life’ in Colombia

VICTORIA—Colombian union activist Berenice Celeyta moved delegates on Friday with an emotional guest speech that thanked CUPE BC for ten years of solidarity while inviting delegates to continue assisting her efforts to build ‘projects for life’ in a country whose people suffer continual threats of violence.

Celeyta, director of NOMADESC (Association for Research and Social Action), described an economic “model of death” in Colombia based on foreign multinationals—including Canadian mining companies empowered by free trade agreements—coming  in to extract gold, oil, emeralds, uranium, precious metals and other resources, displacing entire communities and impoverishing the population in the process.

“For us, this model is equal to assassinations—it means death and persecution to the thousands of people who have stood up to this idea of development,” she said.

But thanks to solidarity with CUPE and other unions, who have supported human rights training programs and lawsuits by NOMADESC, more of Celeyta’s compatriots are standing up to the multinationals and fighting to build ‘projects for life’ in which land use focuses on growing food and supporting local populations.

“I am alive today in part because of solidarity with you,” she said.

A cycle of ‘structural’ violence

Celeyta began her address by noting that people outside her country tend to think only of war, violence or drug trafficking when they think of Colombia, “and Colombia is so much more than that. The Colombian people have been confronting violence since the Spanish conquest 522 years ago,” she said, adding that violence in Colombia has always been “structural” violence imposed by economic interests and never the will of the people.

 “We have survived slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and neoliberalism,” said Celeyta, but despite the country’s rich resources, 70 per cent of the people live below the poverty line and 10 per cent live in absolute misery.

 CUPE and other union activists from the Global North—including a delegation last month who met 25 women who have lost their children or husbands—have seen first-hand that violence in Colombia is not a myth and not just a story but something the people live with every day. And CUPE National president Paul Moist, on his visit, witnessed the slave-like conditions in the sugar cane fields.

Same principles at stake

 Celeyta told delegates that Moist’s convention speech earlier in the day scared her because the Harper government’s labour reforms sound eerily familiar to the labour-bashing approach of successive Colombian governments. At the same time, she added, Harper is creating a business climate and foreign trade policy which is meant to strengthen Canada but does so at the expense of the Colombian people.

“Solidarity means transforming the reality here in Canada,” she said. “Canada, Colombia and England may be separate countries, but we are all people and we need to fight injustice together. We are not just defending the lives of Colombians but of all humanity. ”

‘Retirement’ is a relative term

Celeyta, paying tribute to Barry O’Neill at his final convention, presented the outgoing CUPE BC president with a piece of indigenous art symbolizing power, wisdom and harmony.

“I have some bad news for Barry,” she told delegates, to laughter and applause: “He may be able to retire from CUPE, but he’s not going to be able to retire from his social justice work. We look forward to seeing him again in Colombia."

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