A Conversation with Luis ‘Lucho’ Hernandez
Luis ‘Lucho’ Hernandez, president of Colombian trade union SINTRAEMCALI, cuts an imposing figure in the lobby of a sea-front hotel in Brighton, England. He sips his coffee whilst chatting in Spanish to an interpreter, having just spoken at a solidarity meeting on the issue of privatizing services in developing countries. Lucho knows a thing or two about the fight to keep essential services in public hands. He’s lost his job, hardly ever sees his kids and has to sleep in a different place almost every night due to security concerns. He has paid a heavy price for his tireless campaign work.
“To be a trade unionist in Colombia is often a death sentence,” says Lucho. Again, he should know. In the last ten years 1,500 trade union activists have lost their lives for political reasons. “It’s a tough job, very challenging,” he says, employing the understatement of the year. “But all jobs have an element of risk.” Lucho has been on the receiving end of four assassination attempts. He’s not been hit, but others have not been so lucky. “They hit my bodyguards,” he says sadly, “but couldn’t get any further.” The most recent attempt came following a public debate with President Alvaro Uribe, late last year. “Two men on a motorbike opened fire on my car with a machine gun. Luckily, it had just been bulletproofed, and so the attempt failed. I have lost one friend in these four attacks, and many have been injured.”
After a few years of student activism, Lucho sat on the management committee of SINTRAEMCALI, the public service union in the region of Cali, for eight years. He became vice-president and is now the president—taking over from Alexander Lopez—and he is an outspoken critic of the Uribe administration’s privatization program. Service provision remains at the top of SINTRAEMCALI’s agenda: “It’s fundamental that services are state-owned, that they are accountable to the people. There’s a big difference between public and private, and at the moment it’s the corporations that are in charge in developing countries.”
The poorest sections of society, he argues, have nothing: “Many Colombians have no opportunities and no job. They can’t even afford a haircut. They can’t afford any luxuries whatsoever, they are constantly thinking about food for their children.” With this in mind, SINTRAEMCALI began a program of monthly community-based health and education projects in Cali’s poorest areas. “I am proud to say,” announces Lucho, “that since we started the SINTRAEMCALI Institute, a free secondary education project, 1,500 children have graduated.” Such efforts to provide for poor people are sorely missing from Uribe’s governmental strategy, but attitudes amongst the Colombian public are changing: “In 1997 we realized we needed allies, so we widened the campaign. We raise money, not only from our members, but from the richer areas of Colombia as well.”
Privatization, particularly of water, remains a flashpoint in Colombia. “Transnational corporations just don’t go into poor areas. They buy up water plants in rich areas, where they know there are profits to be made, and provide water there. In Cali they overproduce water by 30 percent. Just ten minutes away they have no water at all, except that which is drawn from unhygienic wells.” Those people, he says, asked if they could have the water—even buy the water—but requests have been repeatedly denied. This is the nub of the problem, says Lucho, “Multinationals don’t allow for social investment, and they increase costs. In fact, they actively use the courts to ensure they are not bound to put anything back into the community.”
SINTRAEMCALI’s resistance to the tide of service privatization has not gone down well with the government in Colombia. Before summer, the union’s management committee organized a protest occupying the offices of EMCALI, the utility provider in Cali, after its highly unpopular privatization. Sixty members of the union, including Lucho, were promptly sacked. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has demanded that the Colombian government investigate the sackings, and Public Services International has called for an investigation into financial irregularities within EMCALI.
Sackings, however, are the soft option in Colombia. Top secret intelligence documents were uncovered last month listing high profile trade unionists including Alexander Lopez, the director of SINTRAEMCALI’s human rights arm Berenice Celeyta and Lucho. There are fears that the documents represent an assassination list, and that those named on it are targets in what is fast becoming known as ‘Operation Dragon.’
Lucho knows what being on this list means for him, and those closest to him. “They follow you and threaten your family. Even my young children have been threatened on the telephone.” So frightened have they become, he says, that five years ago he stopped going out. “I used to go out all the time, with my friends, with my family. I realized that if I wanted to live, I had to stop going out.” I put it to him that his family must suffer, and it must also affect his motivation to continue. “It does affect my wife and kids. If we want a break we must leave Cali and go far from the city. Even then I must have bodyguards with me. There are people on every corner trying to kill you.” Trips away with his family, he says, are limited to twice a year.
I ask him what his wife thinks of the situation. “Colombia’s struggle is like a cancer in my blood. My wife is desperate for me to have a transfusion!” he smiles. “Yet despite these barriers, despite Operation Dragon, despite the threats and the killings, we will continue our campaign. My family expect a lot, my colleagues expect a lot, and working people in Colombia expect a lot.”
So how does Lucho see Colombia’s future? Is ‘peace with social justice’ feasible, or does he see more dark times ahead? “I campaign so that we can build. I want to live in a Colombia where everyone has literacy and health care. I don’t want my children to grow up in today’s Colombia, where thinking differently is a crime. I want to tell Uribe: ‘We all want to live, so why can’t we live in Colombia?’”