Margarita Lopez, a union leader who is fighting ongoing efforts to privatize the public water system in Colombia, says she cannot leave her house without her two bodyguards.
“It’s obvious my life is in danger,” says Lopez, “without the bodyguards I would have to leave the country immediately.”
Lopez was in Nova Scotia last week as a guest of the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). She is president of SINTRACUAVALLE, a relatively small union in Colombia representing municipal workers who operate water and wastewater facilities in the Cauca Valley.
Over the last 14 years Margarita Lopez (middle) and her union have averted no less than five separate attempts to privatize publicly owned water and wastewater facilities in Colombia. To Margarita’s left is Kelti Cameron, who works for CUPE, to her right is Barabara Wood, executive director of Codev, an organization that facilitates partnerships for global justice.
Over the last 14 years Lopez and her union have averted no less than five separate attempts to privatize the publicly owned facilities. The last such effort, between 2010 and 2012, was only staved off at the very last moment, after contracts with a private investor had already been signed.
In that case the union organized intense information campaigns and used local media to galvanize public opinion. Following massive protests, the Colombian government, bowing to public pressure, rescinded the agreement at the very last moment.
“The social impact of privatization would have been huge,” explains Gonzalez. ”It’s a sustainable company, but not a profitable one. So the little bit of profit that we do realize, all that money is re-invested so we can continue to be sustainable. When the companies are in private hands, then the income just lines the pockets of the owners.”
If water systems were privatized service would suffer, at great cost to the population of Cauca Valley, who experience high unemployment and a low standard of living, says Lopez. “Privatization would limit access to water for many because they would not be able to pay for it.” Lopez says massive lay-offs would be another outcome of privatization.
To be a trade unionist and activist in Colombia requires great courage. Over 3000 labour activists have been killed in Colombia over the last 25 years. 60% of all assassinated union workers anywhere in the world are from Colombia.
Lopez is very much in the thick of it all. “All these struggles against privatization and corruption have been accompanied by pain and violence for union workers. I have been subject to a lot of violence, threats, persecution, harassment, and psychological torture,” says Lopez.
The Colombian government is doing little to stem this violence, perpetrated by paramilitary organizations and thugs on the payroll of corporations. Much of Colombia’s recent past has been marked by armed conflict with various revolutionary movements. Closely allied with the United States, critics consider Colombia a neo-liberal poster child.
Despite the danger Lopez finds it impossible to walk away from it all, tempting as it may be.
“In my own case, the work that I have been able to assist with has been fundamental in safeguarding water from privatization. Because I have a vocation for service, for this I have risked my life. To protect the families of the trade unionists, and to protect access to potable water, this has become my goal,” says Lopez.
For Lopez the struggle is no longer just a local issue. Because of their earlier successes Margarita Lopez and her union have become prominent players in national debates over privatization of water. This for Lopez is another reason to stay put.
“My union has become known nationally as a union that fights privatization altogether,” Lopez explains. “So for me to walk away from all this, it would be better for me and my family. But then it has become even more necessary.”
CUPE has been supporting battles in other countries, like the one Margarita Lopez is fighting, for quite a while. Kelti Cameron, a Dartmouth native now living in Ottawa, works for CUPE and focuses on international solidarity. She accompanied Lopez on her visit to Nova Scotia.
“It is through our Global Justice Fund that we provide for the most part financial and material support to other unions and other organizations in social movements globally. It’s more than just a transfer of money, it’s based on the principle of worker-to-worker and union-to-union solidarity,” Cameron explains.
Not all support is material. For instance, CUPE also works to hold the Canadian government accountable for its actions abroad.
“We have lobbied very hard together with the Canadian Labour Congress and non-government organizations in opposition to the Canada-Colombia free trade agreement because we’re not recognizing the human rights violations. That is work that continues,” says Cameron.
Danny Cavanagh, president of CUPE Nova Scotia, sees similarities between the anti-privatization fight in Colombia and the one here at home.
“These fights against privatization never end, because these companies continually beat on the door,“ says Cavanagh. “One of the issues that we will soon be faced with in this country, and in this province, will be the push back against privateers who want to upgrade the wastewater treatment plants to meet the new federal standards.”
Lopez and her union receive financial support from CUPE through its Global Justice Fund, allowing the Colombian union to build a resilient anti-privatization network among affected communities and increase citizen participation.
“We are overcoming the barriers that privatization puts up, raising the awareness of our customers, building alliances from the social base in a methodical fashion,” says Lopez, “in order to create a deeper awareness of water as a public good.”
“This is a real show of brotherhood and sisterhood,” says Lopez, pointing to the assistance from CUPE. “It illustrates how if there is something wrong for one we all need to come together to solve that problem. It would be so fabulous if other unions would take this as an example.”