Peasant Protests Spread In Colombia
BOGOTA, Colombia - Seven thousand peasants marched at the end of August in Norte de Santander, Colombia, raising demands for electrification of their areas, construction of paved roads to get their goods to the market, and building of schools.
At the same time, tens of thousands of coca growers have been protesting the fumigation of their crops by the government and students have demonstrated in support of the peasant struggle. The protests have been taking place for two months in several regions while the government has responded with brutal killings of peasant activists.
Many small producers have been forced into coca production as a highly lucrative cash crop. Low market prices of basic agricultural food stuffs and lack of government assistance for fertilizer, seeds, and other inputs to produce grains and food have forced peasants into the coca market. Thousands of peasants growing food crops have also been part of the protests.
According to the New York Times, since mid-July about 130,000 people have been involved in demonstrations around the country. As a result, the peasants have won some concessions, including promises of credits and price supports by the government.
The Colombian government is wracked with scandals. Vice-president Humberto de la Calle resigned September 10, saying President Ernesto Samper's alleged ties to the drug industry had undermined the government's credibility. He called on Samper to resign as well. Ten politicians and some of Samper's campaign officers have been jailed on drug-related charges. Last June, Colombia's Congress cleared the president of charges of taking drug money during his campaign.
Samper has been under heavy pressure from Washington to carry out the "war on drugs" against Colombian peasants. In March, the Clinton administration "decertified" Colombia as a nation cooperating in the fight against drugs, and threatened economic sanctions. In July, Samper's U.S. visa was canceled by Washington.
Workers here told Militant reporters that the Colombian government has used military helicopters, ammunition, and funding from Washington against the labor and peasant movement, as well as the guerrilla struggle.
During the first week of September the guerrillas of the FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) carried out actions in 15 counties, cutting the country in two. According to El Universo, FARC also cut electric power and kidnapped 67 members of Colombia's army, after attacking a Putumayo military base, killing 27 and wounding 20 others. For three weeks in September, FARC blocked a major highway in the banana-growing region of Ubaba and Medelli'n, 300 miles north of Bogota'.
At the same time transport workers carried out a strike in the region. Middle men took advantage of the crisis and raised the prices of basic foodstuffs between 20 and 40 percent.
The press and television reported that a Red Cross ambulance had been used to transport arms to fight the guerrillas. After this, and because of regular coverage of the guerrillas, the National Television Commission ordered the ending of transmission of unofficial information. Television news directors immediately protested these limitations on freedom of expression.
In mid-July a national forum, which included Amnesty International, was held on human rights.
The forum released information that 250,000 people have been assassinated in Colombia during the past ten years. This has included homicides, massacres, kidnappings and thousands of disappearances. One of the many cases highlighted was that of political and community activist Wilson Ca'ceres Gonza'lez, candidate for mayor of Sabana de Torres.
Paramilitary groups, such as the right-wing Autodefensas Campesinas de Colombia (Peasant Self-defense of Colombia), were said to be responsible for his disappearance, according to SINTRAVA, the newspaper of the National Union of Airline Workers of Avianca.
He vanished after his name was published in a list by this group. Many leaders and activists of group Unidad Popular (Peoples' Unity), have also disappeared or been assassinated.
On August 28 a television station aired a reporter's video of military personnel beating a group of peasants. The government is questioning 15 military men in this incident and has promised to open up regional human rights offices.
SINTRAVA also reports that since 1986 thousands of people have been assassinated. And since the formation of the CUT (United Workers Federation), more than 2,500 activists have been assassinated.
As the government drives to carry through privatizations and layoffs, SINTRAVA reports, the bosses have attacked workers' rights and closed or privatized many businesses. For example, the recently passed Law 50 prohibits national strikes and workers' rights to negotiate in health, telephone, and airline industries.
Airline labor negotiations have been going on since May. The company, Avianca, is pushing - with government backing -to make the majority of airline workers temporary and working for minimum wage. Temporary workers, now numbering 500, are not allowed to join the union. Avianca wants to buy out 8,000 workers and replace them with employees receiving lower wages under six-month to one-year personal contracts. Company letters threatening injured workers and higher seniority workers have been used as intimidation.
The airline workers unions, representing pilots, ramp workers, and flight attendants, have joined together to combat these attacks.
Union leaders Fabio Ma'rmol and Ce'sar Alvarez said in an interview that airline workers are fighting for the re-hiring of the fired workers; a 30 percent wage increase and a cost-of- living clause in the face of 20 percent annual inflation; for increased benefits and workers compensation; and for a starting wage of twice the minimum wage.
To win these demands the unions - totaling about 3,500 Avianca workers - have launched a public campaign that includes leafleting Avianca passengers to solicit their support, and a series of demonstrations at the airport and all Avianca offices in the major cities.
The unions have appealed for support to labor organizations in Latin America, the United States, and other countries. Messages demanding that Avianca stop its union-busting efforts can be sent to: Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Avianca, Carrera 15 no. 39A- 11, Apartado Ae'reo 4489, Direccio'n Telegra'fica, Bogota', Colombia.
Mark Friedman is a member of the International Association of Machinists in Los Angeles, California.
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