Colombia Solidarity Campaign
PO Box 8446,
London N17 6NZ

Email the campaign


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 was assassinated.
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 towards Tame.

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 = GUERRILLA".

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 in Colombia.

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.

Andy Higginbottom


Messages of support can be sent to 'Pachito' Francisco Cortés in Bolivia through e-mail: and to the workers of TELECOM through e-mail:

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 or telephone 07743 743041 or PO box 8446, London N17 6NZ.