Violence and its many manifestations
valley of sugarcane,
mountain of poverty
A history of sugar and
Like everywhere else in the world, the very lucrative sugar -and now ethanol-
business is concentrated in the hands of very few who control and manipulate the
economic and political workings of the very state.
In 2008, the 56-day strike in Valle del Cauca, southwestern Colombia, laid bare
the hardships suffered by the people living in the towns scattered like gray
islands in a green sea of sugarcane.
-“Look, son, the sugarcane and poverty you see around here go hand in hand,”
an old sugarcane cutter who has spent his entire life wielding a machete.
-“Were you able to save anything in all your years working as a cutter?” I ask
-“Yes, a wealth of sorrow,” he answers, a sarcastic smile on his face.
Social exclusion is the identifying mark of sugar production. Sugarcane came
here by the hand of the Spanish conquistadors, and ever since it has fed on the
most primitive of fertilizers: human exploitation.
In Valle del Cauca, cutters typically work grueling 12 to 14 hour days, and even
so they spend most of the month begging for food.
This brutal exploitation goes hand in hand with the
Associated Work Cooperatives,
a scandalous form of labor fraud that is the distinguishing mark of Colombian
agricultural production. These fake cooperatives have dropped anchor to bring
down the cost of labor, avoid payment of social benefits, and elude payment of
overtime and holiday hours. In addition, the members of these cooperatives are
prevented from joining trade unions.
In the midst of the strike, I went back to speak with the old cane cutter again.
-“What is your greatest wish now?”
shakes his head slowly, from side to side, pokes at the ravaged soil with his
machete, mulling over my question, and then answers firmly…
-“An employer! That’s what I want! An employer!”
Forty-six days into the strike, all
wanted was someone to negotiate with, someone who would show their face and take
play another, no less important role: that of dematerializing the
That way, by obscuring who’s who in the relationship, the many who are exploited
by a handful cannot identify their exploiters.
violence that does not let up
blunders itself into a scandal
Tales of death and looking the other way
The sugarcane cutters strike began on September 15, 2008 and ended on November
11. That same year, 76 trade unionists were killed in the world, 49 of them were
Colombian. In 2009, the death toll for unionists was 101 worldwide, almost half
of them (48) were Colombian.
In 2010, an International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)
report revealed that in the last decade six of every ten union activists killed
in the world were Colombian. The report also indicated that from January 1, 1986
to April 30, 2010, a total of 2,832 unionists were killed in
and during that same period unionists suffered violent attacks at a rate of nine
On June 5, 2010, the
by some weird magic, removed
from its black list of 25 countries penalized for violating international labor
standards and failing to protect human rights.
In the first five months of 2010, an estimated 17 unionists had been murdered in
and by the end of the year the number of murders had risen to 51, according to
the National School for Unions (Escuela Nacional Sindical). That was more than
half of the 90 murders of unionists reported worldwide.
The same day that the
announced that everything was OK in Colombia,
Hernán Abdiel Ordoñez Dorado
was slain in the city of Cali.
was the treasury officer of the Union of Prison Workers. He was gunned down by
hired gunmen on motorcycle. He was 39 years old.
As the labor movement watched in outrage,
riding high on the
blunder, put the country up for sale to the
June 8, 20