Unions and Social Movement Under Siege
We arrived in Barranca (as the locals call it) on 5th February. The first thing you notice is the heat. The second thing is how many soldiers are in the airport – this is in addition to airport security. And what you have to know about Barranca is that the city and surrounding area are in the hands of the AUC paramilitaries (paras).
We came to offer our solidarity to USO, the OilWorkers’ Union and other social organisations, and to see how they manage to operate under such difficult conditions. We had to move about in a convoy of four vehicles for our own protection .
Popular Women's Organisation
The OFP Organizacion Femenina Popular (Popular Women's Organisation) grew out of a Church project targeted at the poor in the diocese. Initially they provided cheap breakfasts, additionally developing projects relating to food security. The OFP has been targeted by the paras who accuse its members being in the ELN (Ejercito Liberacion Nacional National Liberation Army, the second largest guerrilla group), and "bad examples" to other women. However now the paras have changed slightly because of the popularity of the OFP, accepting the OFP's social provision but not their political work regarding empowerment of women.
Showdown at Cantagallo
We are taken by boat to Cantagallo along the river from Barranca, for a meeting with the authorities with respect to what they are doing to guarantee human rights. On arrival, we are delayed by the military taking our names and organisations.
As we near the OFP office we see that there is a mobilisation against the meeting taking place. There about 100 people milling about outside. Some have placards saying "We are sympathisers of the AUC". It's a shocking sight. The interpreter tells me that the paras have gone round peoples houses ordering them to turn out, and threatening to turn off the water supply of those who don't go along. There are four or five men going through the crowd orchestrating the commotion and encouraging others to shout. They are out for confrontation. There is an argument between the Defensor del Pueblo (human rights Ombudsman) and people shouting from the crowd. The army is around but makes no attempt to calm the situation.
We in the delegation move to go inside the OFP building. Most of the crowd follows. The top army officer present appears to be from military intelligence, he is taking photos of everyone on his digital camera. (The head of army is apparently away on a human rights training course!) The meeting is overrun. The Army, Police and Mayor are saying that they did not know why it is taking place at all as they have not had any complaints about human rights. When army spoke they were loudly cheered and applauded. This organised intervention has let them off the hook.
As a demonstration of how the extreme right functions, in how the threat of violence without it actually taking place can work, this was very informative. The "paras" succeeded in making the local executive of USO withdraw and also the withdrawal of the complaints.
Early next morning, we are at a meeting outside the refinery gates to catch the early shift. I speak in faltering Spanish to make links regarding same policies inflicted on us here as they have upon them. We visit the USO office and various plant meetings called to build for the strike. Some doubts expressed by workers but they appear to have a grim determination to resist.
The main protest is at dinnertime – denunciations of management outside their office. Heavy presence of the army – armed and ready for action. Protests made about privatisation, attacks on the union – its leaders and activists, and that no worker should pay for this war with their job.
MEETING WITH NGOs
Peace Brigades generally accompany people with a political profile who do not have access to the bodyguard programme and have a clear threat against them.
Permanent Committee for the Defence of Human Rights making denunciations of human rights abuses both nationally and internationally. Organises training for protection of human and civil rights. Situation in Magdelena Medio deteriorating as the paramilitary terror is leading to the disintegration of civil society as social and political organisations are unable to function. (The reports of Colombian NGOs have a depressing consistency about them – killings, disappearances, torture and military-paramilitary collusion.)
German Delegation for Peace and Justice is supporting social groups as the first step to a bigger idea: a popular (solidarity) embassy in Bogotá.
Christian peacemaker teams believes in non-violent means to change situations and also state policy i.e. when meeting armed groups pray with them bringing a message of non-violence.
USTC detailed attacks on telecoms workers at present resisting attempted removal of overtime rates for Sunday workers now on alert.
SINALTRAINAL reported that of trade unionists who work in Barranca and other centers for multinational corporations 8 have been murdered and 65 displaced. The local manager of Coca Cola gives 100 crates to the paras, who sell them and keep the profit.
MEETING WITH USO JUNTA DIRECTIVA
USO International Secretary Hernando Hernandez (HH) outlined the union's history, what they fight for and proposals for international solidarity.
USO was founded as a union on 12 February 1923. At that time an oil monopoly existed, the US-owned Tropical Oil Company. The workers were treated inhumanely without respect for basic rights and no guarantees for their families. USO's struggle at this time was to create living conditions for workers and their families. Strikes in 1924, 1928, 1933 and 1937 were savagely repressed. USO managed progressively to improve the conditions of the workers and obtain guarantees for their families.
Since its foundation USO had as a political strategy the objective of nationalising the oil industry. The great strike of 1948 was brutally repressed but it achieved the nationalisation of the oil monopoly and the creation of state oil corporation ECO-PETROL. From then until now there has almost been a state of war between the state and the multinationals on one side trying to privatise ECOPETROL and the USO on the other arguing for rational development of resources and infrastructure.
In 1963, 1971 and 1977 there were strikes to defend the industry. In the 1971 strike a worker Fermin Amaya was murdered by the army, and 30 unionists were detained and condemned in military tribunals to between 20 and 30 years. These sentences were reduced to 1 to 2 years by intense struggle. In 1977, 270 workers were fired.
The union has been viewed as an obstacle to privatisation that has to be dealt with. Different tactics have been used. For example, on 15 January 1988 members of the security forces assassinated the president of the union Manuel Chicano. Of those responsible, one active member of the navy was convicted. Between 1988 and 1992, 80 members and leaders of USO were murdered. In spite of these murders it was not possible for the state to weaken or suppress USO. "The river of blood from USO gives us the courage and strength to fight for our industry and the workers. Many workers put themselves at the disposal of the union to take up our banner".
Later the policy of physical elimination threatened the lives of 100 members and leaders. This forced many into exile. In 1993 a new repressive model introduced the jailing of union leaders penalising union activities. The president of the union at that time was accused of being a guerrilla, of terrorism, of murder and of attacking ECOPETROL infrastructure. In this latest repressive model 27 members imprisoned some given 7 years others 2 or 3 years. All are now, free absolved by the courts, pronounced innocent. They were imprisoned for being trade unionists not for anything else. Documents from the trials are filed with the union. At the present time 5 members under house arrest (including Hernando Hernandez detained on 15 January. He chose the union head office as his place of residence).
The Colombian state alleges that union leaders are ELN guerrilla leaders or have close relations with the guerrilla. USO in these last few years permanently denouncing the state for its actions the union has demonstrated its autonomy and independence. The military accuse USO of having close links to the guerrilla because of the similarity of statements made by USO and ELN. USO counters the idea of the coincidence of the statements by stating that the union was founded before the guerrilla. "It is their statements that coincide with ours and not the other way round".
The state's strategy appears to be to weaken USO for the reprehensible crime of defending the workers and their industry. USO demonstrates that despite its leadership being declared "military objectives" and facing house arrest and jail USO continues to face the state.
Challenge now being given by the Uribe regime to liquidate USO and union collective agreements that give the workers certain guarantees. In the last 2 months the state has been hitting USO hard. Its presence in the plants is being attacked. The union is not being allowed access to their members "on the job". All members of executive have been threatened.
USO is now going on the offensive. They are resolved to fight. The executive has been given authorisation to declare "hour zero", strike action. The union is now working hard to have the support of the whole people. The union believes ECOPETROL to be national patrimony. The strike when it is called may be brutally repressed, maybe with even more hate than usual.
In closing HH stressed the great importance of international solidarity. He mentioned the three USO "ambassadors" in Europe: Freddy Pulecio in Brussels, and Cesar Carillo and Gilberto Torres in Madrid.
USO wants the following international solidarity:
Denounce Uribe's false reforms and attacks on the social movement;
Oppose the criminalisation of trade unions;
Help the fight against privatisation of all state enterprises and ECOPETROL in particular.