Saturday, 19th January 2002
Day 26 of the occupation, and for the last two days formal negotiations between the union, the government, the mayor of Cali, and community leaders began.
Several union leaders and their bodyguards left the occupation in the late afternoon to head for a local cultural centre, and there meet up with the delegated community spokespeople. As they emerged from the parking lot beneath the tower, workers outside blocked off the roads. From the windows of the tower occupying workers dropped a snowstorm of tiny pieces of white paper on the crowd below, as the Internationale played from loud speakers.
With representatives of the government, the municipality, and the union all present in one place, security in the cultural centre was very tight. Machine guns and bullet-proofed vests in abundance, and every entrance and exit covered. The dirty war carried out by the paramilitaries means that trade union leaders are always in a permanent state of alert, but with the taking of the CAM Tower things have moved to a new and dangerous level. The question has to be raised as to how the paramilitaries have managed to grow so quickly in the last years to an estimated 10,000 members, a growth which has paralleled the implementation of the US initiated PLAN COLOMBIA, a two billion dollar largely military aid package supposedly aimed at the eradication of cocaine production. Curiously the paramilitaries have been untouched by this military war on drugs, despite admitting that they fund themselves largely from drug production in the areas under their control. The war on drugs is clearly focussed on those areas where he left wing guerrilla movements are located.
Could it be that that the US is fighting not against drugs, but against resistance to the imposition of an economic model based on privatisation, budget cuts, and rising inequality? If it is, then the stakes at this negotiation table here are high, for if the Cali community, and SINTRAEMCALI stop the privatisation of public services, and prevent price increases for the poor, then they are not just preventing government plans, but the plans of the IMF and the World Bank, and their US masters. Plans that seek to ensure that Colombia fits in to the neo-liberal block being developed across the region.
The negotiations are complicated, and I try to follow them as best I can from the corridor outside the negotiating room, where periodically the delegates emerge to consult with a broader group of the spokespeople. We all sit on the floor, and listen to what the government and the mayor have put forward so far, and different sectors of the community give their opinions. The Cali community and the union’s central demands are for an end to the policy of privatisation, no price increases for public services, and a high-level anti-corruption commission to bring to justice those who have drained the company’s resources.
This implies that the financial security of the company needs to be secured, government obligations to fund past projects need to be fulfilled, a new General Manager needs to be agreed, and unequivocal willingness is present on the part of the government to investigate corruption. These are big things, and progress is slow. Talks on the first night finished at 2.00am, and resumed the following afternoon. By the second day everyone in the SINTRAEMCALI and Community negotiating group, and their advisers, were tired. Hours go by moving in and out of rooms, discussing with the Mayor and the Minister of Labour and then returning to the bigger group to explain developments and seek advice.
The situation is tense in our room, and tempers are frayed, it isn’t easy breaking through a corporate mode of negotiation, and discussing decisions with the community. But this is the new direction that the union has taken: that to fight the politics of privatisation the union and the community have to stand together, and for that more voices have to be heard. The negotiators are well aware of the responsibilities on their shoulders, and also of the events going on in the country as a whole. The deadline for the end of the demilitarised zone agreed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is only a day away, and the security of those inside the CAM tower may drastically change if the civil war escalates.
The talks break down at 1.00 a.m. with the government refusing to move on the key areas of funding and corruption, and the future of the negotiations are left up in the air. Those in the room agree to bring forward the Municipal Civic Strike, if possible to Friday, and head back to the CAM Tower in a convoy of cars speeding down the city’s streets knowing full well that more pressure has to be applied.