Speech given to the One World Centre in Belfast, 28th June 2001
I would like to thank you for inviting us and letting me explain the social problems that we have in Colombia. The situation is very difficult. We are experiencing great difficulties, however it is presented in the news here. I’m going to tell you the story of the public sector municipal workers in Cali, and our union which is called SINTRAEMCALI. We have been struggling for seven years in a very big confrontation to save public services in our city. As a result we are now in charge of the corporation EMCALI that supplies drinking water, drainage, electricity and telephones. A struggle against privatisation that has resulted in workers control is something that has not been seen in Colombia before, and perhaps not in the world either. We are now in control of generating policies that ensure we delivery these services for the good of the whole community.
We have achieved this, but not for free. This achievement has been at great human cost. Thirteen of our members have been murdered. As a result of our confrontations with state forces in Cali we have 70 or 80 comrades who are under legal charges, including the whole of the union’s executive committee. We have had comrades kidnapped. We are victims of constant harassment and persecution by the state’s forces and in particular by military intelligence. There have been many assassination attempts, especially against our President Alexander Lopez. The third attempt meant that Alexander had to leave our country urgently and come over to England for six months.
This is all part of a dirty war which is ever more intense against trade union organisation. Our struggle against the state is not over. All the time they arepushing ahead with the imposition of neo-liberalism, that is to saysavage capitalism. They want to dispose of state assets to whoever wants to take advantage, and make profits form our common wealth. It is not only us. The situation that we are living through is generalised throughout the country. We are all suffering from Plan Colombia. This plan has different components to it.
The way it is being presented to the outside world is that this is a plan against narco- trafficking, a plan against drugs. But in reality it is a plan for war. It is essentially the military invasion of an imperial power into our country. One of the plan’s key components is to strengthening repression of the social movement and of the trade unions. In the last 10 years there has been a genocide conducted by paramilitary groups, known firstly as the Convivir and more recently as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) These dark forces have been directed by the state. Our comrades who are refugees can tell you their experiences of this. There has been a campaign of assassinations that was directed against the Patriotic Union, against defenders of human rights, against social leaders and trade unionists. Over this period between 4,500 and 5,000 of my comrades have been slaughtered.
Last year 136 trade unionists were assassinated. So far to the end of June this year, 54 trade unionists have been killed. Amongst those in the last week of May, just before we came to Europe, three members of my union were killed. There was a public declaration recently by Carlos Castaño, who is the top leader of the AUC paramilitaries, in the daily newspaper El Tiempo, where he claimed that the paramilitaries had 5,000 new members joining their ranks in the previous two months. He also said that trade unionists would be exterminated, they have become targets because they interfere in normal business activity.
In Colombia last year alone the armed conflict has claimed 25,000 lives. This is according to the official figures of DANE which are managed to serve the interests of the state, we believe the real figure is a lot more. The major part of these killings are carried out by the paramilitaries who perpetrate barbarous massacres. This is part of a wider strategy, which is to displace the peasantry from the countryside. That is to say the massacres have a definite function of displacement. There are three million brothers and sisters who have been displaced from the countryside. As soon as they move out, the multinational companies move in. They move in to parts of the country where there are a lot of mineral resources, where energy production is taking place. Even this figure is without taking into account the further displacement that is being generated by the fumigations, the crop sprayings under Plan Colombia.
These fumigations have massively damaging consequences, the most striking of which is that pregnant women, who against their will absorb these chemicals, give birth to deformed children. Animals are dying in the zones that they are fumigating. There is a destructive effect in general on the natural resources, the fumigated regions are being rendered arid and unproductive.
We agree that the coca crops should be eradicated, but not in this inhuman manner. There should be a manual eradication programme, but it is not only the technique of eradication that is the issue. It is the policy framework. The government must provide a structural solution to the countryside and support the peasantry so that our brothers and sisters can survive by cultivating other crops. The imposition of Plan Colombia through our nefarious president Pastrana is linked with two other policies: the criminalisation of social protest and pushing through privatisation. Health and education are right at the point of being privatised. Schools are being closed. A lot of children do not have access to education any more. They are also raising the retirement age from 55 to 65 years old. And there is a major attack on labour rights. All of these are components in the same programme, the programme of the IMF, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and even the Latin American Labour Fund.
Alongside these economic policies, there is another part of the overall strategy of dirty war to eliminate trade unions in Colombia. A new Security Statute has just been passed. This resembles a lot of the laws we had in the 1980s. This new law empowers the military to enter within the legal process. The military will have the power to make arrests, to prepare the evidence against somebody who is accused, they will be able to control the court process, they will be able to control the sentencing of people. All of these powers will be used, we believe, against people who dare to think differently to the regime. They will be used to criminalise people who are fighting against savage capitalism and against the US intervention in our country.
There is much more that could be said about the barbarity, massacres and genocide that is going on in my country. And even more on the assault on the right to think and express oneself differently. Have no doubt that we who are in Colombia, and in my organisation which has become an example at the national level, we are going to keep on fighting. We are going to continue resisting neoliberalism, and we are going to confront the US military invasion (the USA already has two major bases in Colombia). We have got Blackhawks arriving, [Huey] helicopters that were used in Viet Nam, we have got stealth aeroplanes, we have got heavy artillery all being brought in.
We want to confront these things. Comrades, our struggle in Colombia needs the solidarity of the international community. It is not possible to succeed without the support and solidarity of our fellow workers. The comrades who are now refugees also have a really important role in building up this international solidarity. We hope that here in Ireland our Latin American friends working with Irish people will respond to the situation. We urge you to do urgent solidarity actions, mobilise protest against the Pastrana government, against George Bush, against those European states who support Plan Colombia. We have to stop Plan Colombia. It is not about fighting drugs and it is not for social investment. Thank you.
Luis Hernandez, Vice-President SINTRAEMCALI