Mayday Colombia




D

espite
the horrors that face those fighting for better societies across
the world, there are few countries on earth where trade union leaders
can only access their offices by climbing out of bulletproof jeeps,
surrounded by bodyguards holding semi-automatic weapons, to walk
through a metal room equip- ped with electronic steel gates, and
finally start work in a bomb proof office. This is not a description
of a poverty-stricken central African state or a banana republic.
This is one of Latin America’s oldest “democracies.”
This is a country with some of the most desirable commodities and
richest soils in the world. This is Colombia.


One
teacher or lecturer has been killed every week in Colombia this
year—from 27 teachers assassinated in 1999 to 83 murdered in
2002. This makes organizing in FECODE —Colombia’s biggest
union—virtually impossible in many areas of the country. Ninety-five
percent of these abuses are carried out by paramilitary death squads—extreme
right-wing armed militias, which have documented links to the official
armed forces and the authorities. A special paramilitary group called
Death to Trade Unionists has been established. Why does it happen?
“Because they know they can get away with it,” one victim’s
relative told us. Impunity from prosecution is the norm in Colombia.
 


It
is difficult to get beyond the idea that this terror applies to
a handful of radical union leaders who are in total opposition to
the government. For every case of assassination, there are hundreds
of cases of displacement—teachers fleeing their homes on pain
of death. One high school social sciences teacher from Risaralda
Department, near the city of Peirera, received a condolence card
inviting her to her own funeral. This was followed by phone calls,
letters, and people following her home. She knows of teachers being
shot in front of their pupils. 


Another
teacher worked in a school outside Bogota for 23 years. Persecution
began 15 years ago. Her house was raided many times. Like all persecuted
trade unionists, she is accused of being a guerrilla—a tactic
that normally means you are being set up for “cleansing”
operations. Her two teenage daughters were also targeted. She told
us how her husband was kidnapped and then killed by paramil- itaries.
Her daughters were not even able to go to the cemetery to see their
father’s grave. 


Teachers
and lecturers are not the only members of society targeted—it
also applies to progressive lawyers, priests, students, any form
of trade unionist, or just small farmers who happen to live in the
wrong area, usually near an oil pipeline. The Department of Arauca
has been turned into a militarized zone by the government—what
one teacher described as a “laboratory for war.” In the
first 8 months of militarization, 3,000 have been arrested, there
have been 1,300 raids on people’s houses, and 90,000 people
have had their details entered into a security database. 


Disappearances
are even more effective instruments of terror and oppression than
assassinations. In the past five years 5,000 people have “disappeared”
at the hands of paramilitaries. Most of the disappeared are eventually
found dead—their bodies bearing the marks of the most horrific
torture imaginable. 


The
government’s response is that these are all lies—the disappeared
have run off to the guerrillas, been kidnapped, or have run away
with their lovers. It is difficult to imagine a more cold-hearted
response to the disappearance of a family member, but it is a response
that enables the government to stand up to its responsibilities
under international law.  


Students
are also prime targets. Chalk outlines of bodies are drawn on the
ground at the entrance to the National University in Bogotá,
representing students assassinated and disappeared by the terror
infrastructure over the last ten years. In a particularly worrying
development, students at the University of Altantico in Antioquia
were assassinated in front of a classroom in which they were being
taught. 


“The
student movement has been historically affected by violence, but
in the 1990s repression started getting really severe,” a group
of law students at the National University explained, “and
it is directly related to resistance within the small number of
public universities against privatization and militari- zation of
the university system.” 


In
Cucuta, paramilitaries imposed a curfew on young people. Night school
students have given up their courses in fear. Women students had
been banned from wearing tight tops and jeans. Punishment was meted
out by acid being thrown at the offending students or a knife being
used to cut the bare skin on their stomach. 


Universities
are also being incorporated into President Uribe’s “informer
network.” Reminiscent of policies pursued in what are normally
described as police states, Uribe is aiming to build a million-person
network of eyes and ears for the Colombian state. This is being
pursued with particular vigor on campuses where we were told “there’s
always someone ready to point out student leaders.” In the
last 5 years between 60 and 70 student leaders have been disappeared. 


These
horrors cannot be seen in isolation from the economic policies of
the government. The government has signed a development package
with the IMF, which will increase the tax burden on the poorest
while aimed at the liquidation of social security. Private companies
are being brought into the education sector and an economic policy
is underway which aims to privatize higher education. Teacher numbers
have fallen from 312,000 to 280,000. Recruitment is frozen—
when teachers leave their jobs for whatever reason they’re
not replaced. Many teachers who have retained jobs have had their
contracts changed from full-time, permanent employment to temporary
contracts. In 1990 around 90 percent of university workers were
employed on permanent contracts. This has now fallen to around 10
percent. The new temporary contracts are revocable at a moment’s
notice without the need for a reason.


The
mass media is controlled by a tiny handful of people and either
ignores or distorts the conflict to make it appear that the main
human rights issue in the country is the kidnapping of the very
rich by left-wing guerrilla groups. 


Former
trade union leader, now congressperson, Wilson Borjca, who walks
with a limp from when he narrowly escaped an attempt on his life,
sums up the situation in one phrase “Colombians are so poor
because Colombia is so rich.” Colombia possesses 16 of the
world’s 22 most desirable resources, most notably oil and gold.
Yet just over 1 percent of the population owns 58 percent of the
land while shanty towns rapidly expanding to give very basic shelter
to Colombia’s 2 million displaced people—13 million people
earn less than $40 a month, 3.5 million children are outside education,
and half of the country is unable to access health care. Meanwhile
increasing amounts of money are poured into paying off the national
debt and building the security forces. 


Uribe
is desperate to sign the Free Trade Area of the Americas (ALCA),
which will create the world’s largest single market and the
effect of which will be to solidify Latin America’s place as
a source of cheap raw materials, labor, and markets. Already the
world trading system has seen Colombia’s food imports increase
from 1 million tons in 1990 to 8 million tons today. A country of
incredibly rich soil, where crops thrive, now imports basic food
stuffs, including corn due to unfair competition. While U.S. agricultural
subsidies will be slowly phased out after 2005, Borjca fears that
by that time Colombians will already have lost their ability to
compete, as mega-corporations buy up the country from bankrupt small
farmers. 


In
Aguablanca outside Cali, families live cooped up, the beds are orange
crates if they can’t find anything better, with a small piece
of polythene covering their “home.” Broken glass litters
the ground where children play in bare feet—many of them have
sores and other signs of infection. There are no lights and no heat.
There is a single tap to serve 750 families. The government’s
reaction to these desperate people was seen in March 2003 when security
forces demolished the settlement, including all the private possessions
that the destitute had managed to bring with them. With no other
option, the residents built the slum again and continue to be harassed
by the police on a regular basis. 


Colombia
is now the biggest recipient of U.S. military assistance outside
Israel and Egypt and their equipment is clearly not only being used
to fight the “war on drugs,” which provided the initial
pretext for the stepped up aid. Helicopters have been firing shells
into densely packed neighborhoods. It is reported that, in one recent
incident, 20 civilians were killed and no guerrillas. It appears
to be a strategy well known from the Vietnam War: drain the water
and you kill the fish. The fish are the guerrillas, the water the
unfortunate. So far Uribe’s state of internal unrest has unleashed
a huge wave of raids, security measures, and violence. 


In
this new security regime everyone it seems is fair game. Despite
living in a “democratic” country, no one we spoke to felt
they had any rights. “The government doesn’t need to give
us a reason for arrests” one woman told us “they justify
everything by talking about the insurgency.” 


Trade
union reports from Colombia read like a horror story. “The
most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist/oil workers/public
service workers/teacher/ lecturer.” All trade unionists we
spoke to believed “there are even more dark times ahead.” 


Despite
the most dramatic frontal assault on social organization, Colombians
refuse to have bonds of society broken. Trade unions, under attack
in their own right, become social movements, protecting not just
their own members, but fighting poverty at the same time. Communities
build up around displacement and disappearance and fear and terror,
summed up in the slogan “kill 1 of us and 10 more will fight
back.” 


It
is not just the U.S. pouring “security assistance” into
Colombia. The UK, which refers to Colombia as “one of Latin
America’s oldest democracy”—has excellent relations
with Uribe’s government—“a president doing his best
in a very difficult situation to restore order in his country.” 


Fascism
is not a word that should be used lightly, but it is a term we heard
again and again to describe the direction of President Uribe’s
policies. Hope can only be pushed so far and it’s rapidly running
out for Colombia. They look to our solidarity as a last defense
against the horror their country has become.












Nick
Dearden is an activist with War on Want and recently returned from
a trade union trip to Colombia.