General Strike on 19th June - 'Do or Die'
for Colombian Trade Unions
Colombia's three union centres, the CUT,
the CGTD and the CTC, have called an emergency general strike against
privatisations for next Thursday, 19th June. The stoppage was announced
from Geneva, where the presidents of the union federations are attending
the annual conference of the International Labour Organisation.
The Colombian unions are demanding that the ILO votes this week
to send an international Commission of Enquiry to Colombia.
The trigger for this action was the announcement
last Thursday night by Telecommunications Minister Marta Pinto de
Dehart that the government is liquidating state telecommunications
corporation TELECOM. An immediate consequence will be the sacking
of up to ten thousand workers. And the company replacing TELECOM
will be ready to sell off its assets, including to the foreign multinationals
that have been trying to take over the sector.
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".
Other unions across the whole state sector,
from Bogotá's telephone corporation ETB, to the agrarian
reform institute INCORA, to the universities and further education
institution SENA, to several health and social security agencies,
are facing privatisation. Uribe has pledged to push this programme
through to meet IMF demands to halve the fiscal deficit. In practice
this means eradicating the limited social gains of Colombia's 1991
Constitution. The unions who are fighting to maintain their public
services are doing so for the benefit of all Colombians.
To realise what is now at stake, the plight
of the unions has to be located as part of the broader scenario
of dispossession and repression of the Colombian people. Alexander
Lopez, the former president of public services union SINTRAEMCALI
who was elected as a Social and Political Front representative to
Congress last year, warns that, "The result of this policy
is the elimination of the public function of the State, leading
to misery, general degradation and conflict".
Life in countryside areas is an unimaginable
nightmare. Civilian populations are being marauded by the army often
disguised as, or working in close co-operation with, paramilitary
forces. The paramilitaries roam freely in North Tolima and Choco,
leaving behind a trail of village massacres and disappearances.
On 5th June Tirso Velez, a left wing poet and former mayor of Tibu
But it is in the remote oil rich north-eastern department of Arauca
that the human rights violations are the most acute right now, as
reported to Amnesty International UK's annual conference by Samuel
Morales, CUT's organiser in the region who also works with social
and human rights organisations. For the last two months three hundred
Guahíbo indigenous people from Tame have occupied the Central
Catholic Church in Saravena. They fled their homes as a result of
attacks committed by the Nava Pardo Battalion of the 18th Brigade
of the National Army. On 31st December soldiers wearing AUC armbands
came to Betoyes village. They killed a man and took off his two
year old daughter. They raped four females aged 11, 12, 15 and 16
years old. Omaira Fernández was pregnant. Then, as human
rights workers report, 'the people had to look on horrified as the
supposed "paramilitaries" opened up her womb, took out
the foetus, sliced it up, put the pieces in a plastic bag and threw
them into the river along with the mother'.
Tame is situated between three zones being
taken over by US corporation Occidental, the Spanish multinational
Repsol, and BP whose expanding Casanare operation is moving northwards
Welcome to Uribe's Colombia - a heavy hand
on the poor but a kind heart for the multinationals.
Uribe is working hard to get international support for his project
to criminalise popular resistance. Francisco Cortés, a leader
of the ANUC-UR peasant organisation in the Arauca region is a well
known human rights campaigner who visited Britain two years ago.
Subsequently 'Pachito' visited fellow peasant movements in Bolivia,
but on 10th April he was detained in La Paz, accused of being in
both the FARC and ELN guerrillas. Today he is imprisoned without
trial in a 8ft square cell, 10 to 15 degrees below zero, at 4,000
metres above sea level.
While the whole movement is under threat,
that wing of Colombian trade unions that identifies with popular
struggles has been the most targeted. 90% of assassinated trade
unionists are members of CUT- affiliated unions. The rate of assassination
of Colombian has decreased, with only (!) thirty murdered in the
first five months of this year. Perhaps with so much international
attention on this aspect, somebody somewhere decided that Uribe
has to be seen to be improving the situation.
Certainly, the modes of paramilitary and
state terror are evolving, with danger ever present. Families are
now being systematically targeted. Last week a flood of graffiti
appeared in the city of Cali, with slogans declaring "DEATH
to SINTRAEMCALI", "SINTRAEMCALI = THIEVES" and "SINTRAEMCALI
Many more trade unionists are being detained.
Five members of the oil workers union USO who have been under house
arrest for a year and a half go on trial this week.
Uribe's government is backtracking on commitments
made by previous governments to provide physical protection for
at least some of the most targetted trade union leaders. Domingo
Tovar, the Director of CUT's Human Rights Department whose two daughters
have been threatened is one of those at the highest risk. He is
battling to keep his own bodyguards as officially recognised self-defence.
The Ministry of Interior wants to replace them with Department of
Security agents. The difference is a life or death matter for Domingo.
Meantime Uribe is offering the AUC, Colombia's
principal paramilitary outfit, pardon and immunity from prosecution
as part of a deal to bring them into negotiations. This move is
calculated to encourage the death squads.
There is a chilling logic to Uribe's elimination
programme. With private sector unions virtually non-existent, the
Colombian trade union movement has arrived at its 'do or die' moment.
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
On the first front, Tony Blair is convening
an international governmental conference in London on 10th July
to build support for Uribe's regime. We in Britain have a special
responsibility to mount united protest against the Blair-Uribe
axis, and for human rights aid to go to trade unionists
and the oppressed in Colombia. Look out for further announcements.
Messages of support can be sent to 'Pachito' Francisco
Cortés in Bolivia through e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
and to the workers of TELECOM through e-mail: email@example.com
SINTRAEMCALI president Lucho Hernandez is a guest
at UNISON's annual conference from 15th to 20th June, after which
he will be addressing a round of trade union and Stop the War meetings,
including one for T&GWU members at 6.30pm on Tuesday 24th June
at 128 Theobalds Road, London, WC1.
For more informatio,n contact the Colombia Solidarity
Campaign: e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
or telephone 07743 743041 or PO box 8446, London N17 6NZ.