Canadian capitalism has reaped the rewards of conflict and inequality in Colombia, helping to generate the conditions which today see Colombians on the steets in unprecedented numbers.
In May 2021, Colombian-Canadians and solidarity activists held protests in several major cities, including Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg. The events were organised in order to draw attention to the ongoing protest movement in Colombia, which arose in opposition to a tax reform proposed by President Iván Duque that would have cut taxes for major corporations while increasing taxes on wages and consumption – in other words, it would have taxed the working class while excluding the largest earners. The Duque administration sought to repress the protests using massive violence, a strategy that was condemned by ‘the UN, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International and a host of foreign governments.’
‘The government is responding [with] militarisation, repressing people,’ said Luisa Isidro, an organiser of the Winnipeg event. In Toronto, many protestors held signs reading ‘Nos están matando’: They are killing us. ‘It’s a huge pain that I really can’t describe,’ said Maria Varon. ‘People are being killed. We feel that pain, and that’s why we want to show our support.’ The Duque administration eventually withdrew the tax reform, but protests have persisted. ‘People are still protesting even though that tax reform is done because people are still getting killed,’ said Varon. ‘And it goes deeper than that. It’s the corruption, people are tired of being abused.’
On 9 May, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marc Garneau, issued a statement on the events in Colombia which equated the actions of some protestors with the extreme violence doled out by the police (by that point, police had killed dozens of protestors and injured hundreds). ‘Canada condemns the violence, including the disproportionate use of force by security forces, and urges that the violence cease,’ Garneau wrote, before throwing Canada’s diplomatic weight behind the Colombian far-right’s narrative of the protestors as immoral criminals: ‘We are also concerned with the acts of vandalism and attacks directed against public officials responsible for the protection of all Colombian citizens.’
Garneau’s statement was the Canadian government’s first response to violence in Colombia under the far-right Duque administration. Prior to these protests, Canadian officials had been silent on the political violence that has engulfed many regions of the country, intensifying every year since Duque began violating the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla organisation. This violence has contributed to the endurance of the protest movement. As Nick MacWilliam writes, ‘violence towards trade unionists, as well as community leaders, human rights defenders and social activists, underpins public indignation at the Colombian government.’
Whenever Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made public statements in regard to the Colombian government, he has offered unequivocal support to the Duque administration. In August 2018, he tweeted, ‘[t]oday, Colombia’s new President, Iván Duque, took office and joins … others with a gender-equal cabinet. Iván, I look forward to working with you and your entire team.’ One month later, Trudeau again showed his appreciation: ‘Thanks to President Iván Duque for a great first meeting at UNGA this afternoon, focused on growing our economies, addressing the crisis in Venezuela, and strengthening the friendship between Canada & Colombia,’ he tweeted.
Trudeau’s unconditional support for the Duque government is part of a long history of Canadian complicity in Colombian state violence. This complicity goes beyond diplomatic cover for atrocities, however – Canadian foreign aid has played a direct role in crafting the neoliberal deprivation that incited this year’s nationwide protest movement.
Canada’s cooperation with the Colombian state goes back almost 70 years. While Canadian trade with Colombia existed even during the Confederation years (as detailed in Stefano Tijerina’s Opportunism and Goodwill: Canadian Business Expansion in Colombia, 1867-1979), the relationship did not begin to assume its present contours until 1953, when Minister of Trade and Commerce, C.D. Howe, visited Bogotá on a ‘goodwill’ trade mission designed to market Canadian enterprise to the Colombian elite. This was Canada’s second goodwill mission in Latin America. The first was headed by James Angus MacKinnon in 1941, but it did not lead to any concrete change in the relationship between Canada and the targeted nations.
The 1953 mission occurred in the context of La Violencia, described by Tijerina as ‘a bitter civil conflict pitting left-leaning guerrillas against the government and producing more than 13,000 citizen deaths in 1952 alone.’ The enormous amount of state violence deployed against Colombian citizens did not dissuade Howe from encouraging good relations with the government. Tijerina notes that ‘[Howe] recognized that Colombia and many of its neighbours were going through social, structural, legal, economic, and institutional transformations, but insisted that Canada, like other advanced industrial nations, should take ‘advantage’ of these changes’ – namely, take advantage of the free trade agenda that the US government and the Colombian ruling class were knitting from the socioeconomic fabric that had unravelled during La Violencia.
When Howe arrived in Bogota, he was accompanied by prominent representatives of the Canadian business community. Howe and his companions were pleased to find a business-friendly environment among the Colombian elite. Howe’s report to the House of Commons asserted that Colombia was a promising area for private investment and that the Canadian government should facilitate closer business ties between the two countries.
Four months after the goodwill mission, a military coup brought General Rojas Pinilla to power in Bogota. The general took a hardline position against the rural guerrillas, seeking to ‘eradicate the roots of communism [through] the brutal use of force.’ In this context, many Western nations praised him as a hero of liberty and forged closer economic ties. During the Pinilla dictatorship, the Canadian government was instrumental in securing the sale of Canadair’s F-86 fight jets to the vicious and unpopular military regime. Tijerina notes that ‘Canadair effectively lobbied through Canada’s departments of Trade and Commerce, Defence Production, and External Affairs in order to close the deal.’ He adds that ‘the transaction marked the first sale of Canadian jet aircraft to Latin America and the first time a deal of this kind occurred outside NATO and the Commonwealth.’
One of the most ardent advocates for the sale of F-86 fighter jets to the Pinilla dictatorship was Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson. Pearson argued that Colombia ‘was the best friend that Canada had in South America and it would be difficult to explain why the export of the aircraft could not be permitted.’ His opinion is hardly surprising given the man’s fervent anticommunism and pro-imperialist stances around the globe, evidenced by his diplomatic support for the British, French and Dutch empires’ counterinsurgency campaigns against liberation movements in Malay, Indochina and Indonesia respectively (as documented in Yves Engler’s Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt).
In 1963, Pearson deepened Canada’s ties to Colombia by channelling $50 million USD to Colombia through the Inter-American Development Bank for ‘the procurement of Canadian services and technology over a five-year period [which] provided Canadian business considerable access to this emerging market.’ Shortly thereafter, Canada’s close allies in the US began to train and fund Colombian counterinsurgency campaigns against the rural guerrillas, beginning with Plan Lazo (which I describe here). Among other things, Lazo created the legal structures for the creation of the brutal and unaccountable paramilitaries that continue to inflict violence upon the population to this day.
The Canada-Colombia relationship deepened in the subsequent decades, especially in the areas of policing and resource extraction. Canadian aid agencies have played a significant role in the liberalisation of the latter. For example, in 1997, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) partnered with the Canadian Energy Research Institute and several Colombian law firms which specialised in representing multinational corporations. CIDA gave them $11 million to rewrite Colombian mining laws. The 2001 mining code, which the Canadian government helped create using taxpayer funds, lowered royalty payments for foreign companies from a minimum of 10 per cent to 0.4 per cent. Ten years later, the two governments signed the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCoFTA). Abram Lutes notes that ‘immediately after the signing of CCoFTA, [CIDA] provided $6.7 million to support private mining developments in Colombia, precipitating a gold rush that coincided with increased violence against Indigenous peoples and labour unionists.’
In 2014, Export Development Canada (EDC) gave $48.5 million to a mining company called Pacific Rubiales with an extremely sordid history in Colombia. This history included ‘disregarding prior consultation requirements with Indigenous peoples… dumping production waste water over the limits permitted by environmental licenses… suing journalists for informing the public about its activities… failing to respect freedom of association and labour rights,’ and more. None of these legal, moral and ethical abuses prevented the Canadian government from giving the company a huge handout of ‘business aid,’ which can be more honestly described as corporate welfare.
As with many recipient countries, Canadian foreign aid funds have been allocated in such a way that strengthens transnational business and maintains structures of global inequality. Of course, the aid itself is only one front of this global class war, and the aid alone would be unable to strengthen transnational business without support from the Canadian government in the form of corporate handouts and neoliberal free trade agreements. Whether it’s C.D. Howe bringing a group of Canadian businessmen to Bogota in 1953, or Stephen Harper signing the CCoFTA in 2011, or Marc Garneau condemning anti-neoliberal protestors in 2021, the idea that the Canadian government and its parastatal aid agencies are neutral arbiters of a rules-based international order is laughable. They are pushing a global agenda to benefit the world’s power elite – and this agenda is what the 2021 Colombian protest movement has sought to overturn.