Address by Colombian Vice President

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Employment and Labour

03 June 2005
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report

3 June 2005

  Ms O Kasienyane (ANC, Portfolio Committee) and Ms M Themba (ANC, Select Committee)

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The Colombian Vice President, F Santos Calderon addressed the Committees about the current political situation in his country, highlighting improvements in governance and security made since his government came to power in the general elections of 2002. Mr M Mshudulu (ANC) briefed the Vice President on the labour situation in South Africa, highlighting the various pieces of labour legislation passed since 1994. Members asked questions about the murder of trade unionists in Colombia, its war on drugs and the impact of IMF, World Bank and WTO policies on the Colombian economy.


Colombian briefing
Vice President Calderon emphasised the improvements in safety and security made by his government and their increasing success against the illegal extreme-left and extreme-right guerrilla groups since they came to power in 2002. He also noted that Colombia had improved the safety of unionists by working with the Ministry of the Interior to protect them, but that too many unionists were still being killed. The justice system was inefficient and overwhelmed with cases, which was the biggest factor in only 15-20% of labour murders resulting in a conviction, contributing to a perception of impunity for murder. He also emphasised the need for progressive and flexible labour laws in conjunction with fiscal responsibility on the part of the state, outlining Colombia’s philosophy that all governmental institutions must be self-sustainable and unsubsidised. Any parastatals that were not, would be restructured and the workers would lose their jobs. Continuing challenges in Colombia included primarily the drug trade and the war with the guerrilla forces, as well as public service provision and redressing discrimination and disadvantages faced by Afro-Colombians.

South African briefing
Mr Mshudulu outlined the history of South Africa as it contributed to current inequities in labour and business, touching upon colonialism and its role in displacing and dispossessing the local population, as well as the deliberate disparities in education and skills training of apartheid. This history contributed to the current skills shortage in South Africa that significantly impacted on the high rates of unemployment. He outlined major government legislative initiatives to combat inequities in the economy and to ensure workers had the right to equality, association, unionisation, and fair working conditions. He also emphasised the role of educational and institutional reform in redressing the inequalities and discriminatory policies of the past.


Prince NE Zulu (IFP) asked the Vice President how many political parties there were in the Parliament of Colombia, and what the political connections of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were.

Vice President Calderon responded that the two main historical parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, have splintered and lost votes, and now held approximately 40-50% of Congress. The Democratic Front was a ‘new left party’, which was growing quickly and gaining power by uniting the major leftist groups. The Mayor of Bogota and many trade unionists were part of this party, which was expected to get 20-25% of the vote in the next general elections in March. Other splinter political groups included the Communists, who no longer had Congressional representation. FARC used to be the armed force of the Communist Party, but now concentrated on its military role and had no party affiliation.

Mr L Maduma (ANC) asked which International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions Colombia had ratified and how Colombia implemented those labour laws.

Mr R Henderson (DA) asked about the government of Colombia’s willingness to investigate and prosecute labour killings, noting that Colombia was among the most dangerous countries in which to be a unionist.

Vice President Calderon replied that Colombia had ratified all the conventions of the ILO and was working with attorneys, judges, and others in the legal profession to show the importance of investigating labour killings. The biggest problem was the perception of impunity on the part of the criminals. The government was far from unwilling to investigate the crimes, but ultimately this was the responsibility of the independent judiciary, which needed to be improved and made more efficient. The government recognised its past failures and was working to improve its protection of labour leaders.

Mr S Rasmeni (ANC) asked what sorts of guarantees Colombia offered for labour rights, besides protecting labour leaders. He also inquired about the problems Afro-Colombians faced which necessitated affirmative action programmes to redress the situation. Finally, he questioned the connections of those in the extreme-right and extreme-left groups with people in government, asking to what extent they influenced the legislature.

Vice President Calderon outlined the progressive legal framework in Colombia, noting particularly the labour judges, which investigated all labour killings independently. He also outlined the various set-asides from the payroll for pension, technical training, and health insurance, and severance packages. Afro-Colombians tended to be the poorest because they lived in the poorest areas: the coasts and undeveloped areas. A more accurate census was needed to determine where government money was to go, which would shift whenever inequalities were found. The current policy was that if 90% of the population of an area were Afro-Colombian, then 90% of the money had to go to them. However, currently that money was not reaching the intended beneficiaries. He stated that the illegal groups tried to influence politics and had representatives in Congress, and that the army occasionally looked the other way. The wealth of the illegal groups gave them many resources to corrupt people with.

Mr K Sinclair (ANC, Northern Cape) asked what the main market for the cocaine grown in Colombia was, noting that if the market were reduced or eliminated, Colombia’s internal problems would be less severe. He also asked what the political ideology of the illegal groups was, beyond their interest in destabilising democracy. Regarding the Vice President’s interest in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission-like process in Colombia, he noted that South Africa was also attempting an economic reconciliation by uniting the first and second economies. He asked what Colombia was doing to redress the economic situation. Finally, he asked the Vice President how he had survived his own kidnapping.

Vice President Calderon stated that the biggest drug market was the United States, with Brazil and Europe close behind. South Africa was becoming a transit point, with drugs being routed via South Africa to Europe or to Nigeria and then to Europe. He reiterated the problems of violence and corruption brought by drugs to Colombia and strongly cautioned MPs to examine and attack the problem now, in order to prevent these problems from taking root. He noted that all countries had co-responsibility in the drug war, and that South Africa must help. The extreme-left groups were Communist-oriented, but in reality just wanted power and to topple the government. They said that they wanted to represent the people, but had little popular support and were unwilling to go along with negotiations.

The extreme right grew out of the general need for security and effectively became the police and army where the legitimate police and army could not operate. The negotiations for the reintegration of extreme-right group members were therefore social rather than political. Kidnappings were a huge problem, especially as they had provided the social space for the extreme-right groups to form in order for people to protect themselves. He noted the continuous fear he had faced after the kidnapping, but that he felt stronger and more self-aware after the kidnapping. The worst harm was done to the families of the victims, who died slowly every day that their loved ones were missing.

Mr D Botha (ANC) asked the extent of the United State’s support for Colombia in the fight against drugs in terms of money and training and how much that support had helped the situation. Noting that Colombia was part of the “Golden Triangle” of drug producers, he asked what Colombia was doing to work with other countries to reduce the drug trade, as the drug lords had international connections, and how these common efforts might affect Colombia’s own efforts. Finally, he asked what the role of the Organization of American States (OAS), of which Colombia was a member, was in stabilising the political and economic situation in the country.

Vice President Calderon replied that the United States’ support, $700 million a year for security, had been crucial, and had resulted in a better army and police force. The close ties with the United States and the seven-year process were now getting results that could not have been achieved without their assistance. Unfortunately, there was little co-ordination with other drug producing countries, as they had concerns about internal interference. However, Colombia’s co-ordination with Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru had improved, but as cocoa crops were killed in Colombia, the producers simply relocated into the Amazon. The OAS was assisting and overseeing the peace process with the extreme-right by supervising the cease-fire.

Ms N Ngcengwane (ANC) inquired whether the government had tried to reconcile with the other groups, and what form the reconciliation might take. She also asked what the role of the police and army was in demobilising the illegal groups, and whether members of the police and army were members of those groups. Finally, she queried the private nature of the banks, asking if they had any links to government and how they functioned.

Vice President Calderon answered that the government had been very close to negotiations with the ELN (National Liberation Army), but the negotiations fell through when the ELN refused to stop kidnapping as part of the cease-fire. They had reached agreement on all of the other issues, but without a cessation of kidnapping, the cease-fire would have had no credibility. The role of the police was more civil and investigative, while the army had a more combative role. However, each had well defined roles under the Ministry of Defence. He emphasised the need for the civil government to control the army, and noted coups that had been prevented. 11 000 illegal combatants had been demobilised so far, and the government policy was to encourage desertion from illegal groups. The demobilisation process had been overseen by the Minister of the Interior and included education, technical training and assistance in job placements. Although most of the banks were private, three or four remained nationalised after the fiscal crisis of the mid-1990s. The government wanted to keep an agricultural bank and a commercial bank nationalised, but would privatise the others.

Mr O Mogale (ANC) asked about the impact of the World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO) on Colombia’s economic policy. He referred to a pamphlet circulated by the Public Service Commission in Colombia, which decried the impact of the WTO and World Bank on Colombia’s economy, and asked the Vice President to comment on the pamphlet.

Vice-President Calderon noted that the impact of the WTO, World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies on Colombia was significant; but that Colombia was at fault for spending more than their resources and had needed multilateral help to escape from debt. He expected Colombia to finish the IMF loan contract by next year, while the World Bank conditions were more flexible and gave credit for completed infrastructure projects. Regarding the WTO, VP Calderon wanted in the medium term to see challenges brought to the subsidies on agriculture in the Western industrialised world. This would help alleviate Third World problems, as agricultural exports were crucial to their economies and removal of these subsidies would make them more competitive in the global market. Regarding the pamphlet, VP Calderon stated that he had not seen it, but would be happy to comment on it via email if the Member would send him a copy of it.

Ms Kasienyane thanked the Vice President and anticipated that Parliament’s relationship with Colombia would be strengthened, particularly with the Colombian Ambassador to South Africa.

Ms Themba noted that Colombia and South Africa shared concerns about the Southern Hemisphere, the eradication of poverty, development, and the problem of unemployment.

Vice President Calderon was presented with a Ndebele beaded blanket by the Chairpersons, after which a group photo was taken.

The meeting was adjourned.



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