Tuesday, 15th January 2002
As day breaks there is some movement in the negotiations, and a buzz of optimism can be felt around the occupation. Last night the Mayor of Cali and the government negotiation team signed a deal which would ensure that EMCALI, and the public services it provides would be kept in the public domain, but be handed back to the regional authority. The union was excluded from the negotiations, but this is more front than content, as they know now that the Mayor will enter into direct talks with the union to try to clinch a deal and end the occupation.
While a move forward it throws up just as many complications as solutions. While not exhaustive these are some of the stumbling blocks. Who will manage the debt? How much money is the government prepared to invest? What would be the role of the union in the new administration? How would a peaceful ending to the occupation be assured?
Most of these questions had been floating around before the occupation began. The union has argued consistently, and presented a range of cases to demonstrate, that it is not the case that state public services cannot be run efficiently and economically, but that the reason for the massive public debts that EMCALI has is due to the cancer of corruption which has plagued the company, and the failure of central government to provide the funding that it had promised. Politically appointed managers and their cronies have siphoned off money from the company for years, and only recently since the union began co-administering the company has this problem been addressed. If the government was responsible for employing these corrupt managers is it right that Cali citizens pay the price? What inflames the situation even more is the impunity which exists for those who flagrantly abused their position, but continue to evade prosecution. Furthermore, in the case of the PTAR (water treatment plant) despite a signed greement that it would provide half of the funding, the government has never invested the money.
The second problem is that of who is to manage the company. In the last 9 months the union has played a key role in the management of the company, alongside the local mayor, and the General Manager Juan Manuel Pulido (whose dismissal lead to the occupation). Through prudent and honest management they had managed to begin to turn the company around, a fact which the government, engaged in a propaganda war to push through privatization, was loathe to recognise. In any negotiation the union seeks to ensure that the bad old days of public corruption will not return, and see themselves as the guardian and defender of these vital funds for the community.
The third problem concerns the ending of the occupation and the security situation that will prevail afterwards. The brutal history of para-state assassinations in Colombia means that those in occupation will emerge in fear of their lives. Many death threats and bomb threats have arrived at the union in the last weeks from the paramilitary organization the AUC (Self Defence Forces of Colombia), and the relationship between them and the 3rd Brigade (the local army) is well documented, and worrying. The union needs to negotiate a secure exit, and also extra means of protection in the coming months, which as recent Colombian history demonstrates is the time when the paramilitaries take revenge for any worker victories.
All of these factors are likely to keep the conflict going for some time, and thus the task for the union is to keep the protest going, and keep the pressure up from the community both national and international. Tomorrow there is a delegate’s assembly in the morning, and a general workers assembly in the afternoon. Today there were meetings with campesino organisations in the union headquarters, and the regional strike command, comprising trade union and social organisations, is meeting again on Thursday. All these meetings aim at keeping the mobilizations going, and maintaining the unity of the different organisations that have taken up the gauntlet of public services as a problem for us all. And for those inside the tower morale needs to be maintained after 21 difficult days without family and all the trappings of a normal life.
In the union headquarters the Urgent Actions keep going out: denouncing the death threats, the government’s lack of political will, and rejecting the calls for a military solution to the occupation being called for by the regional representatives of the business elite.
So despite the tentative steps forward the hard work goes on, and as I finish another document to be sent out to the International Community explaining the situation and calling for solidarity and support I switch off the computer and make my way to the tower. Time to peel potatoes for dinner, wave and shout to those inside, and to spend time with my friends and comrades, who like me feel part of something much bigger than ourselves.