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Human Rights and Trade in Colombia: A Bishop’s Perspective
Interview with Bishop Juan Alberto Cardona

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Human Rights and Trade in Colombia

Bishop Juan Alberto Cardona visits the site of a mass grave near Brisas del Mar, department of Sucre, Colombia.

 

The leader of Colombia’s Methodist Church, Bishop Juan Alberto Cardona, came to Ottawa during the week of November 19, 2007 to ensure that Canadian Parliamentarians would understand the impact of a free trade agreement in Colombia.

 

He worked with staff from CCIC, the United Church of Canada (partner of the Methodist Church of Colombia), Common Frontiers and the Canadian Labour Congress to ensure public debate and analysis of the human rights impact of a free trade agreement. Jim Hodgson, the United Church’s Central America/Colombia program coordinator, interviewed Bishop Cardona during his visit.

 

Jim Hodgson: What are your concerns about free trade?

 

Bishop Cardona: We’re not against the idea in general of free trade, but we do have concerns about free trade in our context of violence and poverty.

 

Your Prime Minister and our President say that free trade will help us, but we know from other places like Mexico that these agreements might create more wealth for wealthy people, but they make inequalities worse. Whatever new wealth is created does not reach the poor people.

 

We are a wealthy country. Anyone who comes here can see that. We have a large economy to develop, but the problem is that the money is not distributed well. Those who monopolize it and who have power are the same ones that oppress us. There are a few families who manage and manipulate all the economic, political and military power. Those people are untouchable. They can take anyone from the street and do what they want, and there’s no problem.

 

JH: What do human rights have to do with free trade?

 

Bishop Cardona: Human Rights Watch calls our country the “worst humanitarian disaster in the Western hemisphere.” After four decades, a civil war still goes on. In the past 20 years, the conflict has taken the lives of 70,000 people. Since 2002, when Alvaro Uribe became president, more than a million additional people have become internally displaced for a total of about 3.5 million. On average, eight civilians are killed each day.

 

Even so, thousands of people risk their lives by working for justice and an end to war. Look at the trade unionists: about 2,500 of them have been killed since 1986, including over 550 under the current administration. Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a trade unionist. Church people too are attacked, sometimes by the paramilitaries and sometimes by the guerrillas.

 

Our poverty level is about 70 per cent. Even your Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) says it is extremely high. Most of our people, and especially the Indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians, have been excluded from the country’s political, social and economic life. Those are the communities that we work with.

 

We are afraid that unless these human rights violations are addressed, a free trade agreement at this time will simply entrench inequality and reward the human rights abusers.

 

JH: Why would churches get involved in this debate?

 

Bishop Cardona: From reading the sermons of John Wesley, we understand that spirituality is not just a mystical question. It is not just about yourself. Spirituality should be reflected in others, in the needy, the orphan, the widow – and in the case of our country, in the displaced and the less fortunate communities. We believe in a practical theology. We are walking, we are sharing, with our communities, with the people. We are not just inside the temple; we are out there with our communities. We try to be the prophetic voice announcing the good news and denouncing the injustices and things that happen in our country and where we live.

 

JH: You work in communities where the Methodist Church is the only church?

 

Bishop Cardona: Yes. Other churches did not come because of the armed conflict with the guerrillas, or the displacement that was later generated by the paramilitaries.

 

JH: Can you tell us a little about the experience of these communities?

 

Bishop Cardona: Two of those communities are Brisas del Mar and Rincón del Mar, on the Caribbean coast near San Onofre in the department of Sucre. Both are mixed communities of Sinu Indigenous and Afro-Colombian people. They had heard about the hardships of the displaced people from other areas, and decided to stay when the paramilitaries arrived in 1999. After that, the paramilitaries did not allow people to leave and many lived as prisoners in their own town.

 

One of the paramilitary leaders in that area was Rodrigo Antonio Mercado Peludo whose nickname is Cadena (“Chain”). He had a farm on the road to Brisas where they kept their victims and chopped them with a chain saw. At the entrance of town, they had a camp and a checkpoint: only people they authorized could enter. After the demobilization in 2005, the townspeople uncovered a mass grave just on the edge of that camp.

 

The paramilitaries forced young men and boys to join them, and sometimes took them to other parts of Colombia. They forced young women to have sex with them, and often killed them afterward. People hope their children will return, but everyone knows that only a few of the mass graves have yet been opened, and nobody thinks that the remains of specific individuals can ever be identified.

 

All that area was controlled because it was close to the sea and that was a corridor to get the drugs out of the country in fast boats. Cadena became powerful because he charged the drug traffickers a fee to permit them to get their drugs out. That’s why so many people were killed. The paramilitaries thought that the people were denouncing them to the authorities, so they tortured and killed them.

 

Many were cut with a chain saw; many received a bullet; some were strangled or hanged. It depended on what the person in charge wanted to do with them. The first mass graves had to do with drugs. I think that when they arrived the first thing they wanted was to control, and they did that by killing people they considered guerrillas, or who helped the guerrillas, so that people became loyal to them. Once they positioned themselves in the area, they controlled the drug trafficking.

 

JH: What is happening there now?

 

Bishop Cardona: Demobilization did not end the problem. Cadena is in hiding some place. Other paramilitaries are still around in Sucre. In some places, they run the farms that people were forced to abandon. Small farmers become employees where they used to own the land, and often, small farms have been made into large farms to raise cattle or produce palm oil.

 

It was in Sucre where the links between the paramilitaries and the politicians were first uncovered at the end of 2006; now, the “parapolitico” scandal is huge and reaches into the President’s own family.

 

JH: You said earlier that new wealth created in Colombia doesn’t reach the poor. Why is that?

 

Bishop Cardona: Colombia is a rich country. But, from our country they first took the gold. Now they take the oil, coffee, banana, our textiles. They take everything. The rich people in our country are accomplices to people outside. And now they are creating these free trade agreements with the United States, the European Union and Canada. And Colombia is supposed to benefit.

 

But these people make the rules to benefit themselves. To give you an example: In Colombia there was a policy called “two for a thousand.” The banks were going bankrupt. The rich people were going broke, and the government created a taxation system so that we all pay two pesos for every 1,000 pesos on all of our bank transactions in order to bail out the banks. We protested, but we are now in “four for a thousand.”

 

Now we know that those banks that once were bankrupt earned a surplus, but they never re-invested that or returned the money to us. Then the government said that they were going to cancel the “four for a thousand,” and it proposed a new tax on families, saying they were going to even tax the eggs. Then the government decided not to tax food but to leave the system of “four for a thousand” in place. So, we always lose and they always find ways to make money. Poverty each year grows, but the rich have profits. Each year, the government creates new taxes. New companies can’t survive because of the heavy taxation. The only ones who survive are the big companies, the big monopolies.

 

Regarding the so-called foreign debt, many rich people negotiated with the government to go to the international banks to help them. So Colombia is in debt not for the people but for the rich. That’s why I say it is badly named. The “foreign debt” is not ours. It belongs to the rich, and they want us to pay for it.

 

Not everybody is like that. I know of a restaurant chain that only employs single mothers. After two years of employment, they can get a house. That’s a productive solution. But among 1,000 companies only one does something like that. There are a few drops of water in the desert, but there is water.

 

If we look at medicine, the Indigenous people in Cauca have raised the issue of plants that they use to produce medicine in their areas. These free trade deals affect who owns the plants, or who owns the medical potential of the plant. How are the Indigenous peoples going to give up their right to these plants, to their heritage, which is part of who they are?

 

We do not see how a free trade deal in these circumstances will help our people. Before any deal goes ahead, there needs to be full debate. So far, everything happens in secret. And we need to study the impact of these deals on human rights.

 

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