Thursday 24th of January, 2002
At 6.00am this morning in the city of Santiago de Cali, the working class movement, shoulder to shoulder with the community, began to raise the stakes and the significance of the occupation of the CAM Tower in defence of public services.
Three of the most important roads, which link the city to the rest of the country, were blocked by thousands of workers. The blockades were maintained until 11.30.a.m, preventing anything and anyone from entering or leaving the city by road. For the first time in this dispute, the commercial life of the city has been seriously affected, a strategy which the union had, prior to today, done its best to avoid. Since the occupation began EMCALI’s services have remained intact, and apart from the marches disrupting traffic, city life has remained fairly normal.
Today things changed, and for five and a half hours road links to the rest of Colombia were cut. While serious conflict between the police and the worker/community alliance was avoided, there was tension in all three locations. At 11.30a.m the workers and the communities, accompanied by convoys of EMCALI trucks and jeeps, marched back in to the centre, reunited in a mass of humanity that filled the streets outside the CAM Tower. The city’s transport system ground to a halt, and traffic jams could be seen in all directions. If the government thought that the occupation was running out of steam and losing community support, today it received a firm and resounding response, and things are likely to escalate further with the build up for the Municipal Civic Strike which is planned for Monday. In the rally that followed, union leaders inside the CAM Tower explained that yet again the government had postponed the negotiations, this time until next Monday: “If this is how they want to play the game, then so be it. Today is just a warning. If they think that they are going to tire us out, they are wrong. We have now spent 30 days inside this Tower, and if we have to we can spend another thirty more to achieve our objectives,” said one of the union leaders from the balcony of the tower, face covered with the balaclava that has become the symbol of the occupation.
The governments waiting game is a dangerous one, and they are forcing an escalation of the conflict which threatens to spin out of control. Unemployment in Cali has doubled in the last four years from 12% to 24% and according to CEPAL (Centre for Latin American Statistics) a United Nations research centre, 70% of Cali’s population now live below the official poverty line. This situation has been worsened by the influx of thousands of peasants who live in slums on the outskirts of the city or on the inner city streets. Most were forced from their land by the paramilitaries, others by the economic collapse of the agricultural industry. But not everyone is suffering under neo-liberalism, and this is reflected in the rise in inequality. In 1990 when Colombia began this economic model, the difference in revenue between the poorest 10% and the richest 10% was 1:40, it is now 1:80. Resentment is growing, and I witnessed this in the anger of the march when the crowds began shouting at the residents in the high rse luxury apartments that line the streets of one of the richest parts of the city. Cali is a potential powder-keg, and one serious incident over the coming days may just light the match.