A Snapshot of Colombia

There are stories that get into the news, and stories that don’t.  Sometimes when stories do make the news, they’re provided without context.  The recent near-breakdown of the peace process in Colombia is one example of a context-free story, reported in the major media.  Worker’s and indigenous struggles that are happening right now, in places like Cali and Cauca, are examples of stories that don’t even make the news.  Here we will provide some context first, and then three stories that you won’t hear in the news about Colombia today.

Context: The IMF, the FTAA, and the Crisis

On January 26, 2002, the BBC reported that “The IMF praised Colombia’s macroeconomic policy, put into effect despite the difficult domestic security situation and the worsening of the global economic environment”.  According to the IMF’s deputy managing director, Eduardo Aninat, “progress in the reform initiative to enhance labour market flexibility will be important”.  The BBC note goes on to report that “recently the Colombian government said that by mid-2002 it will have reached 80% of its fiscal deficit reduction and will be in 90% complicance with the public sector finances structural reform recommended by the IMF.”

The Colombian government’s rewards for “compliance” in the midst of the “difficult domestic security situation” is rewarded with corporate benefits and increased military aid.  The deadline would seem to be 2003 or 2005, depending on how soon the US can secure the passage of the FTAA. 

Winning the “compliance” of the governments of poor countries is often easier than winning the compliance of the people.  To do the latter, there are another set of strategies to be used.  First, there is war– of the dirty open-secret paramilitary variety, or the ‘anti-drug’ variety, or lately the ‘anti-terrorist’ variety.  War in Colombia inevitably has the effect of clearing territories of their ancestral inhabitants who hold the land rights.  The next step is that the lands are available for exploitation.  Another effect of the war, carried out principally by paramilitaries– supported by the state, in turn supported by the US– is to dismantle social organizations and organized labour.  Growing numbers of unemployed, increasing urban migration from rural displacement, is actually good for business– it’s called ‘labour market flexibility’, to use the IMF’s pithy phrase.  Legal strategies complement the war(s) in the form of the slashing of public services, the aggressive privatizations, the criminalization and repression of social protest. 

What these strategies fail to incorporate is the simple reality that neither the war on drugs nor the counterinsurgency address the causes of the insurgency or of drug production, which are just the mirror image of repression and privilege.  Colombians understand this reality.  The excluded in Colombia are calling for a negotiated solution to the war, a social and economic solution to the drug problem.  They are met with more of the same, for their troubles.  And yet they persist.  Won’t you hear their stories?

Occupation against Privatization in Cali and Bogota

At the time of this writing, some of the most courageous unionists in the world are occupying buildings to try to stop the privatization of public services in Cali, Colombia.  The first occupation started on Christmas day of 2001, when hundreds of unionists very carefully planned and executed a very sophisticated and daring occupation of the Municipal Central Administration building in Colombia’s second city.  The workers were members of SINTRAEMCALI, Colombia’s public sector trade union.  The privatization plan was announced on December 24 by the government, under heavy pressure of the IMF structural adjustment programs.  The government probably hoped that by announcing it over Christmas they could slip the privatization through. 

The union’s press release indicates just how consciously they are acting in the public interest.  “This peaceful occupation is a new push to save EMCALI (which) has an average cash flow of a million dollars a day, provides domestic services to over 1.5 million users in the metropolitan area… if the corporation is not kept as a state supplier, I is forecast that users will be transferred to financially aggressive companies, and they will demand continuing increases in their charges for services… the likely result… is a rise in 2002 in charges for water supply, serwerage, and telephone services… of up to 100%”

Cali, and its public services, have an interesting history.  EMCALI itself is the product of workers’ struggles in Cali in the 1930s, against North American companies who wanted the water, sewerage, and telephone businesses of the city.  Ten years ago Cali was the most prosperous city in Colombia, and today it is broke.  Part of the old prosperity was due to the drug cartels, and left when they did.  Another part of the prosperity was looted away by local elites, who filled the vacuum left by the cartels and managed EMCALI into a public debt of hundreds of millions of dollars.  The rest of the prosperity was destroyed with the neoliberal opening of the country in 1990 and the structural adjustment programs that followed.  Today 200,000 children don’t have access to the education system, 51% of the population isn’t covered by the health system (once the showcase of local health systems in the americas), and there is a housing deficit of over 100,000 units.  40% of the population lives in poverty.  When, on top of this, the government decided to privatize what remains of the public services, the union decided, as their press release stated, “Why not struggle?  Why not fight?”

Immediately after the building was occupied, there were “more than 400 heavily armed police and army surrounding [it] in a standoff, with SINTRAEMCALI occupying the tower and their supporters from other unions and the community outside.  There have been some negotiations between the authorities and the union.  On 28 December a humanitarian agreement was signed allowing for food, clothes, medicines, and sanitary provisions to reach the besieged workers, with the promise that there would be no forcible eviction.  But the very next night the police tried to break into the tower, and there is a constant danger of them provoking the situation” (bulletin from the UK Colombia Solidarity Campaign of January 2002).

Today unionists in Bogota acted in solidarity with the workers in Cali.  100 workers occupied the headquarters of the Superintendent of Public Services in Bogota.  The building is surrounded by riot police, and negotiations have begun.  The unionists involved in the Bogota occupation are from Colombia’s union central, the Centro Unitaria de Trabajo or CUT.  Their intention is to maintain the occupation “in step with the SINTRAEMCALI occupation of the CAM tower in Cali until our core demands are met.” 

The workers are demanding guarantees against privatization, and repair to the public systems that have been destroyed and neglected in preparation for privatization.  The government, meanwhile, could well be preparing to use force to end the occupations.  The UK-Colombia Solidarity Campaign is asking for letters to the Colombian government.  If you’d like to send one, the information is attached below.

The Peace Process

The near-breakdown in the peace process earlier this month ended with an ultimatum for the FARC, which demands that the FARC meet a set of conditions by April that it probably cannot meet.  The stage is being set, therefore, for an escalation of the war.

The signs of impending escalation are there to be counted.  The military component of Plan Colombia has been completed.  The training of the ‘counternarcotics’ battalions in Putumayo province, the shipments of the helicopters, the establishment of bases, is all done.  In fact, the completion of the Plan coincided with the break in the peace talks.  There are public tensions between the president of Colombia, Andres Pastrana, and Tapias, the commander of the armed forces.  The US is increasingly talking directly to the military leaders and less to the president.  The local media, in Colombia, are employing the familiar tactic of telling the population that they want war, then asking them if they want war in polls, then telling them that the polls tell them they want war.  The media in the US, Peru, Ecuador, and Panama have all produced stories claiming the FARC have presence in all those countries.  The US State Department responded by stating the need to extend their presence in the region.  Some analysts, like Hallinan who points out hints of a coup in Venezuela (http://www.zmag.org/content/Colombia/hallinanchavez.cfm) feel this escalation has as much to do with the US’s ambitions in the region as it does with Colombian politics. 

The FARC has made concessions in the interest of peace, making several unilateral releases of prisoners and offering a ceasefire.  The condition they typically attach to a ceasefire is the dismantling of paramilitarism.  The government disclaims responsibility for paramilitarism, despite the mountains of evidence of military-paramilitary links.  The US, meanwhile, is increasingly deploying the rhetoric of anti-terrorism, and possibly preparing for an escalation.

Even as the US and Colombian governments prepare to scrap the peace process and escalate the war, it’s worth mentioning that the peace process was flawed.  The process did not involve the full participation of the social actors and movements of Colombia.  The FARC held some consultations with people in Caguan, but social movements want participation in the process as equals.  These movements, meanwhile, are going about building their plans, autonomously.  The indigenous movement of Cauca is an amazing example.

Cauca: The NASA Project

NASA means “The People” in the Paez language.  The province of Cauca is the site of an indigenous movement every bit as interesting as the Zapatista movement in Mexico.  The Zapatistas’ march to Mexico City had well over ten thousand indigenous marching.  The indigenous organizations of Cauca can mobilize tens of thousands, and do so regularly.  In May 2001, 35,000 indigenous and Afro-Colombians marched to the city of Cali demanding recognition of their rights to life and autonomy.  In August, 20,000 indigenous gathered at the ‘Dignity in Resistance’ Congress in Toez, where they approved by consensus their position and plan of action for peace.  Their history, and their struggle, is one that is not known nearly as widely as it should be.

Today Cauca is governed by the first elected indigenous governor in Colombian history, Floro Tunubala.  Cauca is one of the most conservative provinces, traditionally ruled by some of the most regressive elites.  How did it come to have an indigenous governor? 

The indigenous of Cauca, like the indigenous throughout the Americas, have an unbroken history of resistance to colonization.  From the arrival of the Spanish, they fought against colonization in armed struggles, led by leaders like la Gaitana, a legendary Paez woman.  They engaged in ‘resistance through knowledge’, with leaders like Juan Tama de la Estrella and Manuel de Quillo y Sicos who worked their way through the religious education system to set up Paez reserves and win legal title to territory.  When Colombia became independent from Spain and the nation-statists sought to assimilate the indigenous, Manuel Quintin Lame organized against the expropriation.  He was killed, but an indigenous guerrilla movement was founded that bore his name. 

In 1971, the Paez of Toribio in Cauca gathered in a secret meeting and launched the NASA project, making two declarations.  The first was ‘Culture and Land’, stating that  ‘without land, an indigenous person is dead’.  The second was that ‘words without action are meaningless, action without words are blind, words and actions outside the spirit of community are death’.  From these resolutions, and working with Father Alvaro Ulcue Chocue, a Jesuit liberation theologist and Paez leader, came one of the most successful agrarian reform movements in the Americas.  Today, 30 years later, most of Cauca is indigenous territory.

How did they do it?  They took the land back, by occupying it, and they paid a terrible price.  The army and landlords counterattacked, trying to drive them off by force and by massacre.  In the very first year of the strategy, between 800-1500 indigenous were murdered.  But they persisted.  The government and landowners were eventually forced to negotiate, unable to frighten or kill an entire united community.  The establishment of collective lands followed negotiations. 

On the lands they recovered, they re-established their traditional laws and customs.  Traditional justice is dispensed on their land.  They practice traditional agriculture and traditional health care, and it’s visible: the longer lands have been in indigenous hands, the more alive it is.  The more recently recovered lands are more exploited, more deadened. 

From their lands, they built a process of recovering public resources and governance as well.  The ‘NASA Project’ was one that involved the consultation with everyone in the entire reserve.  The process culminated with the appointing of a candidate for the municipal post.  Having been appointed by the community in the process of developing a community plan, the candidate was easily elected and then handed the plan to carry out.  The leader’s role is to implement the plan developed in the process of consultation in the community.  The project started in Toribio and developed from NASA to the Regional Indigenous Congress of Cauca (CRIC) and then to the National Indigenous Congress (ONIC).  NASA and CRIC, articulating their movement with the movements of Afro-Colombians, peasants, and unionists in Cauca, formed the Alternative Social Bloc (BSA). 

The BSA blocked the Pan-American Highway on several occasions during the 1980s, their only recourse in forcing the government to negotiate.  They used what they won in the negotiations to advance community projects, consolidate the BSA as a coalition representing the majority of Caucanos, and put forth a candidate for governor– and won the election.  Some of the most reactionary and abusive elites in Colombia’s history were defeated through the first genuinely democratic process. 

The indigenous of Cauca have also developed their own approach to peace.  They’ve established a community on a recovered hacienda, La Maria Piendamo, as a ‘demilitarized zone’ of their own, where unarmed popular movements from all over Colombia meet and develop peace proposals. 

The greatest threat to the remarkable indigenous people of Cauca are the paramilitaries.  During Easter Week of 2001, the paramilitaries committed one of the worst massacres in history against the Afro-Colombian communities of the River Naya, with an unknown number murdered.  The paramilitaries were rescued by the Navy from flooding as they were moving downriver to continue the massacre.  The Navy claimed they had arrested the paramilitaries.  But the paras are free now, and have returned to the Naya region.  They threatened a massacre over Christmas, but international solidarity and mobilization has likely stayed their hand until now. 

Floro Tunubala, the native governor of Cauca is facing the anger of the local, defeated, elites and that of the national government as he leads other democratically elected governors from southern Colombia based in an alternative plan to Plan Colombia.  This southern bloc believes that crop substitution and social transformation, as opposed to aerial fumigation and military intervention, will succeed against drugs. 

International Solidarity

Colombian social movements are struggling against privatization, against destructive development and the theft of their lands, and against a war that is not in the interests of Colombians.  They have identified the imposition of the neoliberal economic model and US military power as key interests in what looks like Colombia’s civil war.  Solidarity movements in the US, Canada, and Europe are increasingly arguing that these international interests are fueling the war. 

In Cali, in Cauca, and all over Colombia, Colombians are doing their part– struggling for peace with justice at risk of their lives and against truly horrendous violence.  We can do our part, too. 

Send messages urging a peaceful resolution to the occupations in Cali to: 


Presidente de la República,

Presidencia de la República

Carrera 8 No. 7-26 Palacio de Nariño,

Santa Fe de Bogotá

Teléfono. +57.1.5629300 ext. 3550 (571) 284 33 00

Fax +(57)1 – 286 74 34 – 286, 68 42 -284 21 86

Mailto: rdh@presidencia.gov.co  

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