Wakeup Call

Listeners to CARACOL radio station got a wake up call this morning. Carlos Castaño, the leader of the paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia AUC, had a 47 minute interview on the main breakfast show. Castaño’s main message is that opposition to Uribe’s referendum project is subversive and hence the leaders of the abstention campaign are targets that have to be eliminated. Castaño added that he has no problems with the armed forces. Evidently Uribe’s government and the interests it represents have little problem with Castaño. He has been granted immunity from prosecution.

This mass media platform for a man who boasts in his autobiography of directing assassinations and massacres for more than a decade, he is responsible for thousands of deaths, illustrates how far Colombia’s ruling class has come to openly adopting the fascist option. CARACOL is owned by the Santo Domingo conglomerate, one of the big four groups that dominate the economy. Santa Domingo are major shareholders of the Bavaria beer company, and large sections of the media.

The International Delegation for the Right to Life, invited by oil workers union USO and the union centres CUT and CGTD, started its work. We have heard testimonies from unions and NGOs reporting the horrific scale of human rights violations.

The CGTD has a humanitarian Catholic philosophy. It has 122 thousand registered members (an underestimate according to its officials). Members are mostly in the private sector trades of sugar production, textiles, engineering and pharmaceuticals, as well local government employees and telecommunication workers in the state sector. Last year 12 CGTD members were assassinated. National Organiser Gabriel Perez reports that across the board employers are trying to break collective agreements, to withdraw whatever limited rights such as pensions the workers have managed to achieve. These contrapliegos – counterdemands – are presented to arbitration tribunals that find in the employers’ favour. Gabriel Perez comments that Uribe fully supports the private sector offensive to reduce labour costs, “This government doesn’t know anything about social dialogue”.

The CGTD cooperates with the CUT and the much smaller CTC (51 thousand members) in the Comando Nacional Unitario, the United National Command. There are137 thousand members of independent unions not affiliated to a centre. And then there is the CUT with 546 thousand members the majority section.

The National Trade Union School ENS points out that the total number of 856 thousand trade unionists represents just 5% of Colombia’s economically active population, a sharp decline from the peak of 15% unionisation at the beginning of the 1990s.

The CUT has many public sector affiliates fighting cuts and privatisation. Its members have been the hardest hit by repression. Domingo Tovar, director of CUT’s Human Rights Department, reported that last year there 507 human violations against the federation’s members, including 172 assassinations, 164 recorded death threats, 26 kidnappings, 17 assassination attempts, 7 forced disappearances and 132 detentions. About 80 CUT members were forced into exile.

Drawing on information provided by the CGTD, the CUT and ENS the provisional figure is that 184 Colombian trade unionists were assassinated in 2002. FECODE, the teachers federation, suffered the most with 79 members assassinated.

Electrical industry union SINTRAELECOL’s president reported that the union has 9,600 members. It has lost 37 members to assassinations in the last 3 years. 370 of its members have just been sacked in one go.

ASONAL organises judges, magistrates and state employees in the justice system. The union reports that assassinations are used to attack the independence of the justice system. 15 of its members are in exile, 10 have been disappeared. Uribe’s Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio has announced 600 sackings.

The health workers union ANTHOC has 25 thousand members out of the estimated 70 thousand in the state health sector. Uribe’s government plans to cut 25 thousand health jobs. The union has suffered 567 human rights violations in the last two years, the principal perpetrators are the paramilitaries. In Cesar hospital directors have been marking out the activists that they want to get rid of.

UNEB is the union of bank workers. They have been spared the worst of the human rights abuses, but are struggling on two fronts: for the right to strike and for agreements to be negotiated across the industry.

USO, the oil workers union has enormous respect. Not least because it was the union who fought to create the state oil corporation, and continues to fight for the hydrocarbon industry to be shaped in the interests of the Colombian people. Francisco Ramirez reported that 87 USO members have been assassinated and 3 disappeared. Seven USO members are in prison, including the union’s International Secretary Hernando Hernandez who is under house arrest.

The university workers union SINTRAUNICOL, brewery workers SINALTRABAVARIA, apprentices and technical education workers union SINDESENA, soft drinks and food workers union SINALTRAINAL all gave evidence of the state and paramilitary repression against them. *

FENSUAGRO is a federation of agricultural workers and peasants, with nearly 10 thousand members. Martha Sanchez, the federation’s Women’s Secretary, estimates that in the last 20 years as many as 4 thousand members have been assassinated. The truth is that much of the repression of rural workers and peasants is less documented. Human rights organisations agree that most of the fighting in Colombia’s civil war is still in the countryside. They estimate that last year 4 thousand out of the 4,600 political homicides were in rural areas.

The CUT unions insist that those like Carlos Castaño who are carrying out this genocide do their bloody work with complete impunity from prosecution by the state authorities. The responsibility lies not only with those who pull the trigger, but with the intelligence gatherers, the financiers and intellectual authors of these crimes against the Colombian working class.

Valentin Pacho, representing the World Federation of Trade Unions on the delegation, and a former General Secretary of the Peruvian trade unions, pointed out how similar the Colombian horror today is to the experience of the Fujimori ‘democratic’ dictatorship in his country.

Fernando Ramirez summed up by stressing the need for active international solidarity: “We need our own Embassies of People’s Solidarity”.

Andy Higginbottom

* As I am writing this report we have just heard that the family of a union bodyguard in Bugalagrande has been threatened. Emergency calls are being made to arrange their removal. SINALTRAINAL organises at the Nestle plant in the town.

The CUT’s Campaigning Priorities
The CUT’s National Committee of 30th-31st January decided on its campaigns for 2003.

First and foremost the CUT will be fully involved in the Campaign for an Active Abstention against Uribe’s referendum, due to take place in May or August.

Uribe has presented his 18 question referendum as a popular consultation on political reform. Certainly, everyone knows that official politics are highly corrupt but the CUT sees this as a pretext. The real issue is fiscal reform, not political reform. Cutting the state deficit, through raising taxes while drastically cutting expenditure, is what Uribe has agreed with the IMF as the condition for it extending a standby loan facility. But the cause for the state deficit is the ballooning public debt crisis. According to CUT President Carlos Rodriguez Colombia is paying out 50% of its revenues to service the domestic and foreign debt. One CUT leader pointed out that with the peso sinking in relation to the US dollar, and the public external debt denominated in dollars, Colombia is paying out more and more just to stand still. He noted that $2,000,000,000 pesos is equivalent to cutting 40,000 jobs, but if the exchange rate falls then the number of jobs lost will go up in proportion.

Yes votes in the referendum will endorse a package of highly regressive government measures: extension of the sales tax to cover household goods, freezing state workers wages, withdrawing pension rights, unemployment benefits, merging state departments and cutting the state workforce by up to 100 thousand. Since, according to the 1991 Constitution, a minimum number of votes are needed for the results to be binding, even ‘No’ votes will be useful to Uribe.

That is why the CUT, along with all popular organisations, is calling for an active abstention. They are challenging for equal access in the mass media for the Abstention position. The abstentionista camp is already winning the political argument, hence the paramilitary announcement of repression against its leaders. In Colombia if the establishment does get what it wants, very quickly there is a turn to violent methods.

Carlos Rodriguez explained that Uribe’s government talks of a Plan B to satisfy the IMF, that will come into force if the referendum goes against him. Plan B involves more taxes, diverting oil royalties and savings funds into current expenditure.

The country is skirting the precipice of financial meltdown, which adds a note of desperation to all government actions.

There is a second dimension underlying the referendum questions, which is indeed to do with reforming the political structures. The effect of these will be to diminish Congress and centralise power in the president, another echo of the Fujimori project. Party lists will have to gain 200,000 votes before they can have an MP. In the context of the intimidation and assassination of left-wing candidates that characterises Colombian elections, this is a clear move to do away with any parliamentary representation for the popular movement.

The CUT’s other priorities are opposition to the Free Trade Area of Americas and the government’s reform programme. The CUT’s fourth campaign priority is defence of human rights, as Carlos Rodriguez highlights:

“We want the world to know how many activists and leaders are being killed in Colombia.”

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