At the end of May, the ‘Rio Group’ of Latin American countries discussed how to handle Colombia’s civil war. Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe Velez, was seeking a declaration from the group that asked Kofi Annan to give the FARC– the main Colombian guerrilla group-an ultimatum. The ultimatum was that the FARC come to the negotiating table, or else. Or else what, wasn’t specified. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela registered his dissent with the ultimatum. He said such a declaration could only have the effect of preparing the way for a multilateral intervention in Colombia. Uribe said whether an ultimatum was given or not, the future of Latin America was in fighting terrorism and the drug trade.
Uribe then proceeded to preside over a month of extraordinary violence of all kinds, at every stage making decisions to escalate that violence.
One of the first decisions was to change the terribly inadequate system in place since 1998 for protecting unionists. Thousands of unionists have been killed by paramilitary violence over the course of Colombia’s war. This year alone 35 activists have been killed. In 2002 the number was over 150. In the scheme Uribe decided to replace, unionists were allowed to have bodyguards. In the new plan, the bodyguards are to be appointed by the government. Given that the strength of the paramilitary comes from its connections to the army and police, having the government appoint bodyguards for unionists is like letting the fox guard the henhouse.
Whatever the current state of protection for unionists, the system certainly failed two weeks after Uribe’s announcement when on June 16, Luis H. Rolon from the Union of Lottery Vendors was killed in Cucuta, Morelly Guillen of the health worker’s union was killed in Tame, and on June 17, Orlando Fernandez of the public sector union in Valledupar was killed.
Another inventive program for punishing unionists developed by Uribe’s government is the “Program of Improvement and Competencies”. In this program, unionists are sent into isolation to ‘work’ with a ‘tutor’. The tutor assigns them work, evaluates them weekly, and prohibits them from returning to their work site.
After testing the ‘privatization by bombing’ strategy in May (http://www.en-camino.org/may202003podur.htm), Uribe’s government escalated the liquidation of state enterprises massively. On June 14 (days before three unionists were killed) the government announced the privatization of TELECOM, Colombia’s phone network. The union estimates job losses of 10,000. A UK-Colombia Solidarity Campaign Communique provides background for the TELECOM liquidation:
‘Decisive pressure came from Washington. As Miguel Caro CUT’s Director for the public sector points out: “the US has insisted as a condition for including Colombia in the Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations that one-sided ‘shared risk’ contracts signed with US companies be implemented”.
‘The misnamed ‘shared-risk’ contracts were of course nothing of the sort, merely a mechanism for foreign multinationals to rip off the state sector. Back in 1993 TELECOM signed contracts with six multinationals to provide 2 million telephone lines. They put 1.8 million lines in place, but only 1.15 million were sold. While the investment came from state funds, the ‘shared risk’ meant that the multinationals were guaranteed an income irrespective of the number of lines sold. NORTEL and the other companies demanded a US $2 billion contract settlement. The previous Colombian government offered $600 million, but this was not enough for NORTEL who lobbied the US Congress to block any general trade and investment agreements until its demands are met. Uribe has accepted, hence the liquidation and sell off which, according to Miguel Caro “shows once again the submission of the Colombian government to the dictates of US imperialist power”.’
But TELECOM was just the beginning. Also slated for privatization are-among hundreds of others– Social Security, and ECOPETROL, the national oil company. ECOPETROL was created in 1948, itself the outcome of a struggle by workers. It has assets of more than $8 billion and brings in revenues of $2 billion annually. The oil worker’s union, USO, is one of the most combative and organized unions in Colombia and also one of the hardest-hit. ECOPETROL’s installations have been militarized in advance of the privatization.
The war against the indigenous, afro-Colombians, and peasants in the countryside continued as well. On June 8, in Riosucio, Caldas, 4 indigenous activists were murdered and 4 others severely wounded in a paramilitary attack. Like most paramilitary massacres, this one had been preceded by death threats well in advance, followed by pleas to the government for protection. The government offered, as help, a cellular phone and help with transportation, before the massacre came.
In the Afro-Colombian community of Zabaletas, Buenaventura, paramilitaries killed 5 people on June 14. The PCN (Black People’s Process), reported that this was one of many massacres in their communities-waves of massacres occurred in 1996, 2000, and 2001. The intent, then as now, was the get people to flee, to ‘clear’ the territory for the development of natural resources and megaprojects.
It amounts to a country-wide, violent assault on every front.
And at every point, Colombians are resisting, heroically. On June 19th, some 600,000 state sector workers went on strike to stop the privatizations. They marched in Bogota and in Barrancabermeja (where ECOPETROL has its installations), where government security forces broke up demonstrations with water cannons and tear gas. The fate of tens of thousands of workers, of Colombia’s public infrastructure, could be decided by the outcome of this strike. In the UK-Colombia Solidarity Campaign’s words, “It will take enormous pressure from within and without to halt the march of fascism in Colombia. The CUT Human Rights Department has called for solidarity, highlighting the need for mobilisation of protest internationally and physical accompaniment in Colombia.”
On July 22, 2003, a boycott against Coca Cola will begin. SINALTRAINAL, the Colombian Food and Drinks Workers Union, has better reason reason than most to want such a boycott. Eight of its members have been assassinated by paramilitaries financed by Coca Cola bottling companies. Hundreds of their workers have been sacked and detained, even kidnapped, tortured, and disappeared, as part of the dirty war in Colombia that kills members of the social opposition so that multinational corporations can make profits.
SINALTRAINAL tried a legal route, with help from the United Steelworkers Union. The judge ruled that Coca Cola’s bottlers have a case to answer, but Coca Cola decided not to play. The demands are for reparations, a change in policy, and a commitment to respect the human rights of workers and the population. In a public tribunal against impunity, SINALTRAINAL found Coca Cola guilty of violating human rights of its workers; benefiting from attacks on unionists in Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, the US, Venezuela, Palestine, Turkey, Iran and elsewhere; contamination of water sources by pollution from bottling plants; racial discrimination; the irrational use of water in the world and robbery of water from communities in India; support for the Venezuelan oligarchy. The boycott is to last, in its initial phrase, for one year. It “does not solely consist of not consuming the products of the transnational corporation Coca Cola, but is also a permanent and sustained campaign of denouncement, organization, and struggle against the policies of the company.”
Uribe ended the month with a 53-page document outlining his new strategy. It’s called ‘democratic security’, and it speaks for itself. It is part of the US’s wider, accelerating project of plundering the resources and the public sectors of every country in the world by terror, warfare, and capitalist globalization.
Years ago, the Zapatistas in Mexico also faced a President who was outlining a ‘new strategy’ against them. They commented that it was not new, nor was it a strategy, just the same stupid pounding that assumes that a people who have resisted for five hundred years will suddenly forget how.
Colombians are not going to forget how. But will they have to face the onslaught alone?
Justin Podur maintains ZNet’s Colombia Watch pages (www.zmag.org/crisescurevts/colombia/colombiatop.htm). He can be reached at [email protected]