Liliana Obando and the Rights of Colombian Workers

The following article is from Colombia Journal.

The Case of Liliana Obando and the Rights of Colombian Workers

by James J. Brittain

Liliana Obando

Liliana Obando

On August 8, 2008, film-maker, academic, unionist and women’s rights proponent Liliana Patricia Obando Villota was arrested and detained by a special wing of the Anti-Terrorism Unit of the Colombian National Police and the Criminal Investigation Directorate (DINJIN) under the direction of the National Prosecutors Office. She has been charged with “rebellion” and “managing resources related to terrorist activities.” The primary grounds for Obando’s incarceration is that she allegedly worked to obtain funding earmarked for Colombia’s largest rural-based labor organization FENSUAGRO, but instead delivered the collected finances to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—an armed movement listed as a foreign terrorist organization in the United States, Canada and the European Union. The accusations against Obando are suspect due to the fact that no material evidence has been found to support the charge.

The only “proof” presented by the State against Obando is purely speculative as it was retrieved from FARC computers captured following an illegal air-raid and ground assault against an insurgent encampment on March 1, 2008 in Ecuador. Interpol confirmed that the Colombian State’s Anti-Terrorism Unit manipulated tens of thousands of files from these seized FARC-EP databases. The Anti-Terrorism Unit is the same agency that arrested Obando. In its report, Interpol said that:

… using their forensic tools, specialists found a total of 48,055 files for which the timestamps indicated that they had either been created, accessed, modified or deleted as a result of the direct access to the eight seized exhibits by Colombian authorities between the time of their seizure on 1 March 2008 and 3 March 2008 at 11:45 a.m.

The Colombian State has greatly manipulated the facts in presenting its case against Obando. Over the past several years, Obando has visited Canada many times to speak with various civil society groups, development agencies, members of faith communities and religious organizations, unionists, and university students on issues of human rights abuses and anti-labour activities that are occurring under the presidency of Alvaro Uribe and vice-presidency Francisco Santos. During this period Obando worked for FENSUAGRO’s international relations commission and was heavily involved in fundraising in Canada, the European Union and Australia. As a direct result of her efforts, funding was acquired from some of Canada’s most important unions (such as UFCW, OSSTF, PSAC-UTE, CUPE, and so on).

Finances obtained through Obando’s work were utilized in a number of projects across Colombia ranging from the creation of socio-economic infrastructure for small and medium agricultural producers, human rights education and data collection, and the development of an important experimental organic farming and educational facility called La Esmeralda, which assists displaced rural families in areas of agriculture, gender equity, reading and writing. All this begs the question as to why the state has targeted Obando—and FENSUAGRO.

For the past two years the Uribe administration has been embroiled in a devastating para-politics scandal. Approximately eighty governors, mayors, congressional politicians and close allies of the president have been alleged to have, or found guilty of having, direct connections, meetings, and/or contracts with Colombia’s most notorious paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). During the time of these collaborations, hundreds if not thousands of political opponents, trade unionists, community organizers and civilians were targeted for assassination, threatened and/or disappeared. As a result of testimony from former paramilitary leaders, who admitted links with politicians, the bodies of hundreds of civilians have been found in mass graves.

Among those enmeshed in the para-politics scandal are Colombia’s Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderón, his cousin Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos, President Uribe’s brother Santiago and their cousin former-Senator Mario Uribe, three brothers and the step-son of Colombia’s Attorney General Eduardo Maya Villazón, Senator Carlos García—the president of Uribe’s political party—and many others. It has also been stated that paramilitaries held secret meetings at the president’s own personal farm, las Guacharacas. When links between the AUC and the president became ever clearer in mid-2008, Uribe had the leaders—and whistle blowers—of the AUC extradited to solitary confinement in the United States where interviews—and confessions—would be virtually impossible to access.

Alongside these actions, Uribe recently proposed constitutional amendments that would greatly restrict the Supreme Court’s ability to investigate sitting politicians who have been fingered in the scandal. In short, the Uribe administration is targeting State opponents, unionists and researchers with the intention of dissuading analysis of the structural realities of a State that refuses to address Colombia’s failing socio-economic conditions, escalating internal displacement and the devastating consequences of a half-century of civil war.

More members of FENSUAGRO have been assassinated than any other union in Colombia. Since its inception, over 500 persons within FENSUAGRO have been assassinated or disappeared by right-wing paramilitaries or State forces, while five thousand members have experienced some form of state-based abuse or human rights violations. In 2007, 20 percent of all known unionists murdered in Colombia belonged to FENSUAGRO. While Colombia’s disturbing history of systemic human rights abuses against organized labor is not new, the Uribe administration is clearly trying to draw attention away from the State’s links to paramilitarism, corruption and social absence.

As witnessed in the example of the arrest of Obando, the State is systemically masking Uribe’s reactionary military, political and economic policy by going after those that can reveal the truth. Amidst efforts to obtain bilateral free-trade agreements with the United States and Canada, it is imperative that the Colombian State silence any and all attempts at international solidarity among unionists, researchers and concerned citizens.

Obando was one of FENSUAGRO’s most important contacts to social movements, religious institutions, human rights groups, academics and unions outside Colombia. Her work as a film-maker and a scholar within the National University of Colombia has been widely recognized for its incite. Her analysis on Colombia’s political economy and social movements has been heard and applauded at conferences throughout the Americas, the United Kingdom, the European Union and Australia. It is clear that the Colombian State is attempting to silence this important proponent for social justice. In silencing her activities, so too does the State hope to silence the capacity for increased understanding of the violations being committed against activists, civilians, the poor and workers in Colombia while deterring unions abroad from supporting the struggle for peace and social justice.

James J. Brittain is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada and the co-founder of the Atlantic Canada-Colombia Research Group.

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