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A conversation with Colombian union leader Jhon Jairo Castro Balanta

A dangerous existential choice
If you happen to live in the US, and are asked about what you consider to be the most dangerous jobs in the world, your mind probably gravitates to loggers, crab fishermen in Alaska, land mine removers, helicopter cable repairmen, and workers in meat processing plants in the Midwest. This vision is basically correct—in alignment with the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Department of Labor.  But if you were to pose the same question in Colombia, at the top of the chart of fatal occupational injuries would be workers union leader.

According to the International Trade Union Confederation, every three days, for the last 23 years, at least one union member in Columbia has been killed. Paramilitary groups with close ties to the police and the military have committed most of the killings; lately, some of these groups have been linked to US corporations interested in minimizing union activity.  This long lasting policy of terror has transformed the Colombian union movement from one of the strongest in Latin America, to one of the weakest with just 4% of its labor force unionized.

Jhon Jairo Castro is a native of Buenaventura, probably the most violent city in the country, and the most important port on the Pacific coast (ironically the name of the city means “good adventure” or “good journey” in Spanish). Mr. Castro is 40 years old and has been a longshoreman and union organizer for over a decade. Currently he is President of the Buenaventura chapter of the Port Workers Union in Colombia. He has received two anonymous threat notices stating they are keeping an eye on him and his family, and are “just waiting for the order to go ahead.”

History, John Travolta, importance of the future, and a cell phone call
When WIP asked Jhon Jairo Castro about the reasons that made him choose such a dangerous path of work, he had this to say:
“ First it has to do with my father. I come from a humble family, and my father was an independent small-scale miner. He would spend hours and days mining just to find a few little flakes of gold. I couldn’t understand my father. I asked him why he would refuse to work for the mining companies and he’d say he didn’t like to receive orders from any one.
I didn’t agree with him because I thought it was impossible not having a supervisor. It took me years to understand his position. His attitude was a response to the abuses against miners by the mining companies. He preferred to do things his own way.
My mom and dad called me Jhon because of John Travolta—they loved the music of Saturday Night Fever and wanted to have a son who would be as good a dancer as him.
Later in life, in 1997, a General Civil Strike took place in Buenaventura. The whole city was paralyzed! People demanded the improvement of living conditions–basically a better salary, and a minimum wage that would allow people to live and survive. This event marked the beginning of my life as a union worker and organizer. I realized that things get done when we act as a group.

Also by then I had a family, I had kids. My wife worked as a maid but even with both of our salaries combined we couldn’t make a living. Buenaventura used to be a nice city.  That’s not the case any more; we have to think of the future, how to make things better for our kids, think about how to change things.  This sense of rebellion is something I have in my blood.”

At this point in the conversation his cell phone rings. I stop the recorder and move to a different table so he can take the call in privacy and have a few sips of his “Chocolate Caliente” which according to him, came in the “biggest cup I’ve ever seen–must be at least a gallon,” he added.  “Hey! We are in the US–everything is big here,” I offered as a semiserious explanation. When I sit back at our table a few minutes later, the cell phone lies mute next to what seems like half a gallon of hot chocolate still in the cup. He continues:

“We have noticed strange people circling our house, people unknown to the neighborhood. It makes all of us a little apprehensive, a little nervous, but we must continue forward; it has to do with the kind of future we want.”

Privatization and de-evolution of life in Buenaventura / Coexisting with death as an unnecessary necessity
Mr. Castro was part of a trade union workers’ delegation sponsored by the AFL-CIO to visit Washington, DC, and present reasons why the US Congress should not ratify the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia. At the time of this writing, Mr. Castro—sponsored by “Witness for Peace”—is visiting colleges, workers unions, and progressive groups on the west coast, offering a first-hand account of the detrimental effects of FTA and privatization on his city, Buenaventura.

Privatization, or the process of transferring public wealth to the private sector, has its ideological origin in principles of neo-liberal politics, aggressively forced upon the third world through the IMF and the World Bank. In Colombia these policies were given a judicial frame for implementation with the infamous constitution of 1991, which provides normative guidelines for the privatization of industries and services that previously were collectively owned. Much has been written about the negative effects of privatization and neo-liberalism, the most detrimental being:
Cutting of public services (transportation, education, hospitals, roads, water, etc.) so they can be replaced by private enterprises.
Deregulation, or the elimination of any legal obstacle to the accumulation of profit by big corporations, no matter the effects on the environment, workers’ rights, and job safety.
The cultural elimination of a sense of well-being as a public right along with a sense of communal responsibility, leading to the abandonment of the individual.

Two staff members of WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America) Gimena Sanchez and Kelly Nichols, in an article for NACLA, provide the following social descriptors for Buenaventura, a city of 375,000 residents:
“One-third of the population is unemployed, 80% of whom live in poverty, 65% of Buenaventura households do not have a sewage system, and 45% do not have potable water… Desperate conditions like these greatly facilitate illegal activity and criminality. Many of the city’s youth are drawn to trafficking drugs, arms, and other contraband; illegally extracting natural resources like lumber and gold; and cultivating coca in the river basins of Buenaventura’s municipality, the vast majority of which is rural. Meanwhile in the last decade Buenaventura has become one of Colombia’s most dangerous cities.”

According to Mr. Castro, “Before the privatization of the Port Authority (1994), Buenaventura used to be a nice city. We were poor but some sort of normal life was possible. Now we are poorer and having to coexist with death and violence on a daily basis. There are a large number of disappearances, and several mass graves have been discovered. It is madness!”

On the condition of workers, Mr Castro reported:
“Workers used to have labor rights, the right to form and belong to a trade union. The membership now has been reduced from what used to be thousands to a minimum. In our case, dockworkers and longshoremen, we are unable to negotiate direct contracts with the big private foreign companies. Everything is done through an unending chain of contractors and sub-contractors (some times up to seven) hiring workers on individual bases and calling us not workers but “cooperados.” This makes impossible any collective bargaining and reduces salaries, since each sub-contractor makes a profit in the process.”

Ubiquitous presence of cell phones
Throughout this segment of our conversation Mr. Castro has made and received numerous phone calls on his cellular phone. He is kindly apologetic and tells me that all are very important calls, related to his work with the Port Workers Union. As he talks on the phone my thoughts go to issues of security and the pandemic spying on most citizens’ cell phones and computers. I also think about the harsh material conditions imposed on workers by neo-liberal policies and their impact on language and culture. It seems that—at least in the case of Colombia—the very word worker is gradually disappearing from the official institutional legal framework and vocabulary. Workers are not considered as such any more; they have become something else, a unit without social context, the word castrated of politics and civic bounds.

Jhon Jairo turns off his phone. This time we talk about the privatization of the areas in neighborhoods next to the port and the consequent displacement of large numbers of people.
“We think that in the last ten years at least sixty thousand people have been displaced, forced out of Buenaventura.  The latest plans for expanding the port will affect between five and ten thousand people. Now, you have to remember that there is another component to this event—almost 99% of the displaced population are Afro-Colombians, therefore privatization has a racist component at the same time.”

Historical optimism / The future again
When asked about the way he sees the future of Colombia, and his opinion about the peace talks between the guerrilla (FARC) and the government, he responded:
“Things are pretty difficult now but at the same time there has been lots of progress. The last month in Colombia has been marked by massive protests of teachers, students, and indigenous people, who have organized strikes and rallies to express their disagreement with the government.  Even President Obama himself, as a precondition for signing the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), had to put some pressure on President Santos regarding the need of bringing to justice those guilty of acts of violence against trade unions. Nothing may come out of that, but at least there is the recognition of a problem within Colombian society.

“Our union membership has grown in spite of the difficulties. We have also included as members retired or forced to retire workers. Parallel to this we have expanded national contacts and closer ties with other national and regional trade unions in Colombia and overseas. International solidarity is very important to us; it offers us a shield against the violence, and at the same time forces issues to be discussed broadly.

“This is not the first time that a dialog between the government and the guerrillas has taken place in Colombia, and probably won’t be the last. The main thing is that the dialog is occurring behind “closed doors” without popular consultation. Colombians have not been asked what we really want as the outcome of these negotiations. We’ll see what happens.”

Final Words
“Things have to change for the better—look at what is happening in various countries in Latin America. Look at Ecuador and Uruguay; they both act like independent nations. They don’t have their hands tied by a Free Trade Agreement, in which one is free (the US) and the other has to agree (Colombia). We are in this struggle for the future, for our kids.”

At this point, our conversation comes to an end; Jhon Jairo has to do a presentation in the city of Tacoma. We shake hands, wish each other “Buena suerte”, and before leaving he takes the last sip of his “chocolate caliente.”

Enrique Quintero, a political activist in Latin America during the 70’s, taught ESL and Second Language Acquisition in the Anchorage School District, and Spanish at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He currently lives and writes in Olympia.

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