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Date: Sun, 26 Sep 1999 21:40:02 -0500 (CDT)
From: Colombian Labor Monitor <xx738@prairienet.org>
Subject: GLW: Behind Colombia's general strike
Article: 77756
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.1019.19990927121648@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Behind Colombia's general strike

By Dick Nichols, Green Left Weekly, 22 September 1999

BOGOTA, Colombia -- From August 31 to September 2, Colombia's workers, unemployed, peasants, shantytown dwellers and Indian minorities burst onto the political scene in a national stoppage against the economic austerity plans of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Conservative government of President Andres Pastrana.

It was been 22 years since Colombia experienced an indefinite national strike, and it is easy to understand why the country's three trade union confederations -- the majority United Workers Central (CUT), the smaller General Confederation of Democratic Workers and Confederation of Colombian Workers -- came together with other unions and peasant, student and civic organisations to form the National Strike Command (CNP) that organised the stoppage.

The Colombian crisis is appallingly deep. Practically the only Latin American economy which managed to maintain reasonable growth through the 1980s stagnation, Colombia presently suffers 20% official unemployment (up from 10% in 1990), a basic interest rate of 28%, declining real wages and a government budget which is in deficit to the tune of 5% of gross domestic product and of which 45% goes to paying off debt.

Inflation is falling below 10%, but that is because only 65% of Colombia's industrial capacity is being used and private investment has stalled in the face of falling demand and high interest rates.

The country would have experienced recession in the best of cases: because of oversupply, the world prices of its main exports (coffee, coal, nickel, petrol, sugar and bananas) fell by 57% in 1997 then by 16% in 1998. However, recession in the rest of Latin America, combined with the “fight inflation first” policy of the country's independent central bank, have converted unavoidable stagnation into a black hole of depression.

As well, the Pastrana government is conducting a war against the country's remaining state sector industries. From telecommunications to water supply, entire sectors of infrastructure are marked for privatisation at prices below their

value to the Colombian people but usually too high for domestic capital. The main beneficiaries will be the big corporations of the First World.

To top it all off, to meet the IMF's demands, the state budget deficit has to be cut. Because this cannot be achieved through economic growth (or, of course, by taxing the oligarchy), the spending cuts are brutal (for example, two public hospitals a month are presently being closed).

Social crisis

Sectors of the country's middle class, previously untouched by the crisis, were drawn into the strike. Prominent among these are users of Colombia's system of guaranteeing the value of savings for home buyers, the Constant Purchasing Power Unit (UPAC), a mortgage bank designed to even out the real cost of home loan repayments. With interest rates now at more than 50%, home buyers in debt to the system are paying at least 50% of household income in repayments.

The Colombian establishment is seriously worried. As Senator Juan Manuel Ospina wrote in the country's main financial daily, La Republica: "Important sections of the middle classes have lost their savings and homes and see their jobs future and standard of living threatened. History shows that it is these impoverished and threatened middle classes which adopt really subversive attitudes.

"The most significant feature of the funeral of Jaime Garzon [a popular radio comedian murdered by right-wing paramilitaries] was the massive presence and open fury of a middle class burning to `eat leaders', as the saying goes."

Not surprisingly, then, the strike was marked by massive support. For example:

In the main cities on the first strike day, the mass of the population either stayed at home or gathered to protest in front of their work places. Clashes with the police produced more than 1000 arrests.

Protest actions occurred across the country, with those sectors most targeted by the Pastrana government, like health workers and social security recipients, particularly prominent.

There were mass rallies in a number of shanty towns, such as Soacha to the south of Bogotá where 30,000 residents gathered to protest the lack of basic amenities and clashed with the police.

The country's four main peasant organisations came out in support and rural workers set up road blocks in many regions.

Ten thousand Indian people in the south of the country blockaded and isolated the towns of Ipiales and Tumaco, forcing the government to provide the funds needed to buy back traditional lands.

The majority of high school and university students walked out of class.

Sections of small business used the strike to begin a campaign of civil disobedience marked by non-payment of taxes.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) used the strike to carry out an occupation of the hydro-electric plant of Anchicayá, demanding a cut in electricity tariffs and securing an agreement that a regional forum on the issue will be held in the city of Cali in October.

In short, the strike, although weakening in its second and third days, gave massive expression to the anger of the vast majority of Colombian people.

Now where?

The conservative media has been declaring the strike a failure, but the government's response has exposed this as spin doctoring. To end the strike, the government had to agree to negotiate the 41 demands of the CNP at ministerial level.

In the negotiations, representatives of all the popular organisations involved in the struggle will sit opposite the appropriate government minister who will have decision-making power in the issues in dispute. If no progress is made in a month, strike action will be relaunched.

It is difficult to see how Pastrana and his ministers can accede to the main demands of the strike. These include a moratorium on the country's debt repayments in order to reverse social spending cuts, an end to the flood of imports provoked by the government's "free" trade policies, ending the independence of the central bank, an end to the Colombian equivalent of Peter Reith's "second wave" industrial legislation, the suspension of all privatisation plans, a freeze on public transport fares and fuel prices, increased expenditure on public housing funded by a restructuring of UPAC, an end to the financial strangulation of the social security system, boosted funding to education and guarantees of democratic rights, which are daily violated on a massive scale in Colombia.

While the extreme right and sectors of big business are advising Pastrana to stand firm, the majority of ruling-class opinion is that the government simply doesn't have the strength and political legitimacy to sustain a struggle against the FARC and National Liberation Army in the countryside, as well as class war in the cities. In brief, the government must manoeuvre to split the forces that make up the CNP.

A recent meeting in Bogotŕ of the unions and popular organisations to assess the strike showed where the government could direct its fire. Through a frank discussion it emerged that, while the strike had been a success, serious weaknesses still have to solved for the next wave of struggle (which most judge to be inevitable). These weaknesses include a lack of rank-and-file structures to organise mass action, due mainly to the rather bureaucratic traditions and top-down methods of many Colombian unions.

While the overwhelming majority of unionised workers struck, some striking workers failed to show up for union-organised protests. Many unionised private sector workers, in fear for their jobs, yielded to employer intimidation, especially on the second and third days of the strike. This contrasted with the more dynamic participation of the shantytown dwellers, who have nothing to lose.

Rank-and-file delegates also stressed that in many cases the people simply didn't know or understand the strike demands. It was not enough to take out ads in the country's main dailies when many Colombians can't afford to buy a paper. The Bogota regional CNP consequently decided to mass produce leaflets explaining the demands of the strike and of a regional public sector stoppage on September 14.

Speakers at the meeting also warned strongly against the divide-and-rule tactic the government was sure to employ at the negotiating forums. An obvious move for the government would be to give some extra crumbs to shantytown dwellers. Another would be to arrange an ersatz "debt renegotiation" with the IMF. A third would be to exploit the tensions between the different union and peasant confederations.

One thing is certain. Violence and intimidation will remain part of the government's recipe. A meeting of the CNP's human rights network, established to monitor police and army action during the strike, revealed that at least four (possibly up to seven) people had "disappeared" during the action. At a critical moment in the protests in Soacha, the police had withdrawn to give way to paramilitary thugs. A 12-year-old girl died during the ensuing clash.

Over the past decade, at least 2000 unionists have lost their lives in Colombia, and there are threats and attacks against unionists daily. The latest example is CUT leader and teachers' union activist Domingo Tovar, who was shot at outside the teachers' union headquarters in Bogotá last week and escaped only because of prompt action by his bodyguards.

In fighting the government and IMF's plans, Colombia's unionists stand in the front line of an increasingly violent and critical class struggle. They need all our solidarity.

Copyright 1999 Green Left Weekly