Colombia: The Struggle Against Uribe Begins

[translated by Justin Podur]

The new Colombian government’s program includes:

-A labor reform that reduces overnight and overtime wages
-A pension reform that increases the retirement age by 1/3
-The reduction of public sector salaries by 30%, overnight, in a single decree

These changes upset workers and their unions, who declared a day of protest and a 24-hour strike of state workers for September 16.

The government’s program is simple: more work for less pay, and fewer jobs to go around.  It is simply taking the policies of the past ten years to an extreme.  The laws that made these ‘reforms’, Law 50 and Law 100, were put forward by the new president on the pretext of reducing unemployment.  They have, instead, predictably increased it.

The strike, especially in the environs of Bogota, brought oil refineries, airports, courts, hospitals, and government offices, to a standstill.  Schools closed and at 10am teachers and students joined the marches which had been prohibited but were latter permitted.  The marches brought 150,000 to Bogota alone: there were also big marches in Cali, Barranquilla, Pereira, Pasto, Barrancabermeja and other cities.

Just a month before, the directorship of the National Worker’s Union Central, (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores or CUT) had voted 32-30 against joining the National Agrarian Mobilization planned for September 16.  The National Campesino Council understood that the new government would continue the neoliberal policies that have destroyed the national agricultural system, increasing food imports and concentrating land ownership by means of forced displacement.

The campesinos continued with preparations for the mobilization.  Uribe’s government confirmed their predictions: It insisted on joining the Free Trade Area of  the Americas (FTAA) FTAA.  Joining FTAA would make the national agricultural situation still worse, removing the minimal protections on Colombia’s internal market.  It would also make judicial action to protect collective economic, social, environmental, and cultural rights impossible.  Uribe also set forth a war policy that will only increase the forced displacement of campesinos, ordered the fumigation of small cultivators of coca and poppy, and wants to do away with the few surviving national agrarian institutions that are helping small cultivators.

At first, the only national organizations to answer the campesinos’ call to mobilization were oil workers (Union Sindical Obrero, USO), health workers (ANTHOC) , and students.  The National Campesino Council (Consejo Nacional Campesino, CNC) was accompanied in its call to a day of protest by the Association to Save Agriculture, a joint movement of campesinos, small and medium-sized businesspeople in rural enterprises. 

At the regional level, however, there were signs from the very beginning of a movement that was to become national in scope: In Cauca, Valle, Huila, in the coffee regions, students, workers, and campesinos were preparing to join the mobilizations from the moment the CNC put out their call.

On September 16 the CNC mobilized more than 100,000 campesinos in 15 departments (**A department in Colombia is an administrative unit like a state in the US or a province in Canada).  In Cundinamarca the mobilization lasted until the next day.  In parts of Tolima and the capital of Choco, they lasted 4 days, in Cauca 6 days, and in Huila 7 days. 

Nor were the campesinos alone: there was massive support from the unions who joined the huge march in Bogota.  The Uribe government had declared war on the workers and the spark ignited by the campesinos caught, all over the country.

The government resorted to the dirtiest methods to prevent the protest.  The Minister of Defense, Martha Lucia Ramirez, declared that the unionists and campesinos were acting on “orders from the guerrillas”.  The army went house to house in the agrarian zones to warn the campesinos that they had better not march, offering rewards for the leaders of the mobilization and detaining several of these.  The paramilitaries threatened any community who participated and proceeded to rob food supplies from those who did march– something the army also did.  The army also searched houses in Espinal, Tolima, on the authority of the ‘State of Internal Commotion’ declared by the government.  They claimed to be looking for a ‘dangerous terrorist weapon’: food supplies for campesinos on the march.

International observers were invited by campesinos belonging to the international organization Via Campesina.  Three Spanish activists, two who were accompanying campesinos in Chalan, Sucre, and a third who was with campesinos in Tolima, were deported.  Several Belgians were detained, but released after the international scandal caused by the deportations of the Spanish.

The wrath of the government came down against the striking air-traffic controllers, judges, and firefighters, whose strike was declared illegal and sanctioned.  But the worst punishment was meted out to the campesinos of Cauca, who were deprived of drinking water (many were forced to drink dirty water and got sick), attacked by riot police with 27 wounded, terrorized by paramilitaries, and had their leaders detained– some of whom are disappeared.

On September 20, there was a meeting of the unions, campesino organizations numerous neighbourhood organizations struggling for housing, and civic movements.  They made a unanimous decision to present the government with a single set of demands and, if these demands are not met, to commit to a general strike, a ‘national civil stoppage’.  The successful, and repressed, campesino mobilization has ended.  Another wave of popular mobilizations is approaching.

There could well be an outbreak like that in Argentina on the horizon, impelled by the government’s new ‘war taxes’, the fiscal crisis, the intolerable waste of resources in debt service– all indicators of a country whose economy, even according to the director of National Planning, is sinking ‘like the Titanic’.

Instead of making the slightest gesture to hearing the warning of the popular organizations about these fatal economic policies, the government has instead declared the first two zones of military dictatorship, in which government is effectively in the hands of an admiral and a general and in which movement in and out is strictly controlled by permits.  The two zones have significant oil deposits and Chevron, Cepsa, Harken, Repsol, and Occidental all have contracts there.

President Uribe may not realize it, but he is a imitating Matatigres in Costaguana (Costaguana is Colombia in Joseph Conrad’s book, ‘Nostromo’) who, not realizing that the country is about to fall apart thanks to the investments of the transnationals, tries to calm these investors down by telling them:

“Señores, have no apprehension. Go on quietly making your highways–your railways, your telegraphs. There’s enough wealth in Costaguana to pay for everything–or else you would not be here. Ha! ha! Don’t mind this little picardia of my friend Montero. In a little while you shall behold his dyed moustaches through the bars of a strong wooden cage. Sí, señores! Fear nothing, develop the country, to work, to work!”

Hector Mondragon is an activist and economist who works with various indigenous and campesino organizations in Colombia. 

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