Law and Disorder

Two months have passed since the referendum in Colombia. It is safe to say the government lost that referendum, even though the official results are still not in: the recount has been deferred to 2004. The President insists in all the media that he is going to pass the program the people voted against. First, in the Congress he proposed a constitutional reform to permit a reduction of transfer payments from the national government to the municipalities and districts, the most important of which now have mayors who were members of the opposition.

Next, Uribe sought a change in the Electoral Census by the Electoral Council, to see if he could get 4 of the 15 referendum questions passed by doing so. Before the vote, the Council had accepted the government’s proposal that null votes were valid, but this time the council did not fold.

Congress sessions had been closed until the approval of the ninetieth law of tax reform, with which Uribe’s government will sustain the inflationary bubble for a few more months. But the members of Congress were torn from their vacations at the end of the year. It was urgent: the tax reform was poorly written and could not be translated into practice. Extra sessions of the Senate and the Congress were needed to ensure that it would pass and work properly to keep the bubble growing into 2004. In any case, another tax reform will have to be approved in the first half of 2004 in order to keep the state finances healthy, according to the Senate president.

This latest episode, in addition to revealing the fragility of the economic ‘recovery’, sustained with repeated applications of new taxes, donations of Plan Colombia, and external borrowing for military spending and debt servicing, is another chapter in the comedy lived by the parliamentary majority as it happily approves the economic and political plans of the government.

The tax reform included articles already declared unconstitutional by the courts who have not stopped revealing the unconstitutionality of various laws passed by Uribe, beginning with his attempts in 2002 to establish detentions without judicial order and judicial review of military officers. Uribe’s solution has been to try to change the Constitution, without recognizing that in many cases the Constitutional provisions are consistent with Colombia’s international obligations under human rights law, and that Colombia would then have to renounce these obligations as well (as Fujimori did in Peru).

The constitutional reform was approved by the errant parliamentary majority, but won’t be put into practice until a special law, enabled by the same reform, makes possible. This is supposed to help the reform pass under the radar screen of critics and international treaties. Meanwhile, without any need for constitutional reform or renouncing international obligations, military personnel and police on the ground are already acting like judges on television news, declaring the people they have detained guilty and using, as proof, paid witnesses.

Air Force and police officials declared the mayor of Campamento, elected on October 26, and health workers in the same municipality, guilty of collaboration with the guerrillas. The sentenced had no opportunity to say anything in their own defense, if journalists had tried to interview them, which they didn’t.

According to the Indigenous Organization of the Valle del Cauca (ORIVAC), Luis Angel Perdomo, coordinator of the human rights program of the organization, Alfredo Fernandez, representative of the indigenous to the regional environmental corporation CVC, and Liberdo Alvarez of the La Rivera indigenous community, were shown on television by the police next to camouflage uniforms and weapons that were not theirs. This was confirmed by many people who watched the arrests on December 7, 2003. But the judges and the televised sentencing have already socially assassinated the character of the accused before they could defend themselves.

The regional vice-president for Arauca of Colombia’s union central, the Centro Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT) has been detained since August 14. He is suffering from an open lesion on his hip. His lawyers asked that he be removed to house arrest pending sentencing for the charge against him. Instead, before Christmas he was sent incommunicado to the high-security prison of Sincelejo, very far from his family. This is another form of punishment without due process. His companions in the union of the Agrarian Reform Institute (liquidated by Uribe), Mario Sierra and Severo Bastos, were assassinated on December 16 and November 14, respectively.

Municipal secretary for Cabrera (in Cundinamarca) Ana Cornelia Varela was cited by the Attorney General’s office of another municipality, Pandi. When she reported there on December 11, she was kidnapped, tortured, and killed, shot 17 times, by paramilitaries. Flat-out killing is the third form of punishment without due process. The journalist Fernando Garavito, in his column “The Lord of the Flies”, calls this a reign of terror, in which every day social leaders, peasants, indigenous and unionists are killed and detained while paramilitaries are presented as warm and fuzzy.

But all this is paying off, now that bank profits have grown 65% in November, reaching $700 million dollars in 2003. Foreign investment is increasing again. Can this be attributed to the defeat of the guerrillas? No. It can be attributed to the changes in the labor laws that stole $2 billion from workers and produced a reduction in food consumption in spite of GDP growth of 4% and a relative reduction in unemployment.

Impunity for paramilitary crimes and prison for popular leaders: this is one side of the coin of economic ‘recovery’ at the expense of the poor. The poor will also pay for the disorder of tax reform, consumer taxes, debt service, cuts to social services, privatizations, and the crisis that will come when the bubble finally bursts.

Héctor Mondragón is a Colombian economist and writer. This article was translated by Justin Podur.

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