Wednesday 23rd January, 2002
As the occupation begins its 5th week, a breakthrough has emerged, and a team of union/community representatives will tomorrow (Thursday 24th January) begin negotiations in Bogotá.
Despite President Pastrana’s reluctance to give credibility to the union’s dramatic actions, he is increasingly unable to avoid engaging directly with the situation. The negotiations have been set up in such a way that the Mayor negotiates with Andres Pastrana, while the union/community alliance negotiate with Government Ministers, all in the same building but not in the same room. The spatial geography of resistance now operates at the local, national, and international level, with actions being planned in Cali, Bogotá, and outside the Colombian Embassy in London in the next few days.
Solidarity messages have been flowing in to SINTRAEMCALI’s human rights department from all around the World. Yesterday we received messages of support from the Central Workers Federation of Indonesia, from the Norwegian Socialist Party, and an anti-imperialist organisation in the Philippines. Whilst on a colourful youth march, with hundred of schoolchildren, a Folk Bank and 4 metre high puppets marching in defence of public services, I was approached by an Italian who introduced himself: " Claudio, Anti-Capitalist Movement Genoa, Italy. " We are beginning to get the feeling that the world is starting to take note of what those inside the tower already know: this is an historic battle.
With a temporary deal between the FARC and the government signed on Sunday, the possibility of an escalation of the civil-war has resided, and the occupation of the CAM tower has been moved up the political agenda. Before the negotiations begin, it might be worthwhile briefly discussing the different positions of the various actors involved, and the continued attempts by the media to distort the issues to discredit the popular movement and sow divisions.
There are two major blocks: the government and the union/community alliance. The Mayor of Cali, in the manner of the classic populist leader, vacillates between the two attempting to please everyone but ending up by being distrusted by all. He has, however, played a crucial role by refusing to use force to dislodge the workers, and many believe that if a right wing mayor had been in office, the people would already be burying their dead comrades and friends.
The government has become deeply frustrated by the events of the last four weeks, surprised by the ingenuity of the workers and the solidarity that they have gained from the community. They are now attempting to save face. According to the Mayor, the government has agreed unofficially to provide 80% of the funding for the PTAR water treatment plant, which would facilitate most of the union’s demands, but they refuse to put this in writing. Politically they cannot afford a public defeat. The union/community alliance cannot except this for one simple reason explained by Alexander Lopez, the union’s president: "How can we accept a verbal agreement with the government, when the government is notorious for reneging on agreements even when they are written on paper in the presence of lawyers?" Last weekends negotiations broke down due to these reasons, and it became clear very quickly that the Minister of Labour had little power to make a concrete deal. Ultimately, it is with President Pastrana where the rea negotiations can take place.
From the union/community alliance position, the core elements of the three demands are non-negotiable: no privatisation, no tariff increases, and a high level anti-corruption committee to bring to justice those managers and corrupt officials who have bled the company dry over the last years. For the first two to become possible and sustainable, government agreement to funding PTAR is crucial. The union/community alliance is solid, but it has to be recognised that there are different degrees of responsibility and pressure. The union has hundreds of people inside the CAM tower, and if the police and military attempt to take the tower by force the consequences will be horrific. Nevertheless, and this needs to be made very clear, the union leadership and those inside the building are prepared for this possibility. It is probably hard for many people to understand or believe that these workers are ready to lay down their lives if necessary in the defence of public services. But those in the popular movement are well aware of the price of holding on to the dream of peace and social justice. In the last ten years 1535 trade union leaders and activists have been assassinated, and the memory of those friends and comrades killed in the class struggle creates, in the mind of those who remain, a collective class-consciousness which provides the energy and the enthusiasm to carry on. As an unpredicted consequence of the terrible repression and brutality of state and para-state forces, a beautiful dignity and resolve has emerged, and it is present inside and outside the CAM Tower.
In the battle of hearts and minds the union/community alliance wage a daily battle to get the message across to the population that their demands are in the interests of the people, with no discussion of collective agreements or personal sectoral interests. But the mass media, owned by the very same families of the oligarchy who would benefit from the privatisation of EMCALI continue to distort the facts, aided by a Mayor attempting to remain in control of a situation which has already gone way above his head. Yesterday in an interview on national radio he suggested that the community spokespeople do not represent anyone, and if it was just the union at the negotiating table then the deal would have already been signed. This is a lie, but those in power make their living from distorting the truth and these tactics of divide and rule are not lost on the union/community alliance. Counteracting these messages without access to massive funds is one of the biggest obstacles of the popular movement, both here nd in the wider world. Yesterday the financial collapse of the union was temporally abated when in a Workers Assembly members began donating there salaries to keep the occupation going with all its related costs, including leaflets and posters to be printed and sent out.
Each day the SINTRAEMCALI journalist churns out press releases, and the union and the Municipal Strike Command produce documents, posters and leaflets to be distributed across the cities poor neighbourhoods. This is strengthened by public meetings across the city, demonstrations, and Public Assemblies where the situation is explained and clarified. Reports and documents are sent out nationally and internationally to rally more support and solidarity, and the computers in the Human Rights Department have just crashed under the stress of it all. There are also a few humans on the verge of collapse here, but somehow everyone manages to keep going.
The next two days will be crucial, and we all need to do what we can to keep the movement going, not just for the 70% of people living in poverty in Cali, nor for the 60% living in poverty in Colombia, but for all of us who believe that a different world is possible. The occupation of the CAM Tower is a ray of hope, and we must do all we can to defend it.