Colombian strike leaders Victor Hugo Vidal and Maria Miyela Riascos, PSAC National President Chris Aylward, strike leader Olga Araujo and PSAC Social Justice Fund Coordinator Louise Casselman (November 2018)
In October and November, PSAC joined various Canadian unions and development organizations to host a visit and cross-country tour of Canada by three Colombian civic strike leaders.
In 2017, the leaders helped organize a massive civic strike—also known as a general strike—in Buenaventura, home to Colombia’s key port on its Pacific coast, to protest the city’s deepening socioeconomic and human rights crisis. For three weeks in May, 114 social organizations took over the streets, holding protest marches, community kitchens and cultural festivals, effectively shutting down Colombia’s most important trading hub.
The strike was initially met with violent repression by the government aimed at the city’s primarily Afro-Colombian inhabitants. However, the civic strikers and their leaders remained united and continued protesting using non-violent tactics, eventually forcing the Colombian government to negotiate solutions to the crisis.
The strike—which the visiting leaders are careful to note was suspended, not ended—won an agreement containing important concessions from the government to improve public services, including community housing, health services, roads, the justice system, and a new framework agreement to protect the rights of port workers. Yet, since May 2017, threats against strike leaders have continued as plans go forward to expand and modernize the port, while the government fails to implement its agreement with the strikers.
More broadly, even though the Colombian government signed a peace accord in the fall of 2017, violence, land grabs and dislocation connected to large landowners and corporations have not stopped. Regrettably, some of these violent incidents are also associated with Canadian companies that have been emboldened by the 2008 Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
In this context, union and community organizing remain acts of enormous courage in Buenaventura. Nevertheless, civic strike leaders have continued to build their movement, which has now more than doubled in size to encompass 257 social organizations.
PSAC is actively supporting Colombian strike leaders as they ask the Canadian government to put pressure on Colombia to end the repression. Moreover, donations from the Social Justice Fund and PSAC’s component unions—the Yukon Employees Union and the Union of Safety and Justice Employees—directly support a network of safe houses and other safety measures meant to protect the lives of the Buenaventura strike organizers, following the January 2018 killing of one of their main leaders, Temistocles Machado.
PSAC will continue monitoring the situation in Buenaventura and is in close contact with strike leaders as they continue pressuring the Colombian government to implement the agreement won in May 2017.