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Date: Tue, 21 Sep 1999 23:10:58 -0500 (CDT)
From: Michael Eisenscher <meisenscher@igc.org>
Subject: Colombian general strike shakes up gov't
Article: 77290
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.8261.19990922091645@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

- Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the Sept. 16, 1999 issue of Workers World newspaper

General strike shakes up U.S.-backed government

By Monica Somocurcio, Workers World, 16 September 1999

A massive general strike in Colombia ended Sept. 2 after two days of mass rallies, demonstrations, civil disobedience and clashes with police. The strike--called by Colombia's labor unions in conjunction with unorganized workers, peasant, grass-roots, student and community organizations--demanded an end to Colombian President Andres Pastrana's economic policies of austerity and privatizations.

The unions united around a list of 41 demands, including an end to privatizations and a moratorium on payment of the foreign debt. The workers also called for the government to scrap a proposed public-sector wage freeze and reject a proposed year-2000 cut in the social spending budget.

The International Monetary Fund is demanding these measures in exchange for a $3 billion loan.

The workers' demands were "a national protest against the government's social and economic policies," said Luis Eduardo Garzon, leader of the United Workers Federation (CUT).

According to a Sept. 2 French Press Agency (AFP) report, union leader Tarciso Mora declared that "the Colombian people and workers have won."

The government agreed to establish a month-long working group to negotiate all 41 of the workers' demands--including their demands regarding economic policy.

The government also agreed to unconditionally release all protesters arrested during the strike, and pledged not to retaliate against public-sector strikers.

"You can expect more action from the Colombian people," warned Mora, if the demands are not met within a month.

The strike was the latest of 13 so far this year and 41 since 1997. It took place amid the worst economic crisis Colombia has seen in 70 years.

Official unemployment is 20 percent, among the highest rates in Latin America.

20 million act as one About 1.5 million unionized workers from Colombia's three union federations took part in the strike. But AFP reported that a total of 20 million workers, peasants, and other allies staged actions to support the general strike.

On Sept. 2, Reuters reported that students supporting the strike clashed with riot police in front of Bogota's National University. In three towns in the outskirts of Bogota, police established a curfew after pitched battles with strike supporters on Sept. 1.

Peasant organizations blockaded major highways across the country, bringing commerce to a halt. In Nario, the Indigenous community of Los Pastos blocked the Pan-American Highway for five days. That caused an estimated $10 million loss in commerce, according to the local Chamber of Commerce.

Indigenous groups kept up their protests for days after the strike ended, taking down the blockades only after the government promised $600,000 for land.

On Sept. 1, strikers and their supporters blocked a major highway connecting the capital with the second city of Medellin. There were clashes with police in downtown Bogota, Cartagena, Riohacha, Cali, Fusagasuga, Ibague, Pereira, Pasto and other towns.

The tremendous resurgence in the Colombian mass struggle comes despite a wave of right-wing violence aimed at the people's movement. On the first night of the strike, right-wing paramilitary death squads murdered at least 20 peasants in the town of Yolombo, in Antioquia province.

Death squads routinely attack populations who defend their rights or are believed to support the revolutionary movement.

On Sept. 1, paramilitaries fired on Domingo Tobar, an executive member of the CUT, narrowly missing him but injuring his bodyguard. "This was carried out by the military working with paramilitaries," said Wilson Borja, head of the public-sector workers' union.

Paramilitary groups were also blamed for throwing dynamite into three union offices and one community organization's office.

The strength of the latest general strike exposes the extreme fragility of the ruling class's hold on power. Facing militant workers in the streets, the weakened Colombian bourgeoisie also faces the oldest and biggest revolutionary movement in Latin America.

While the direct ties between the mass organizations and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have been cut by decades of death-squad violence, the two forces share common interests and demands.

On Aug. 31, in solidarity with the general strike, fighters from the FARC-EP took control of the Empresa de Energia del Pacifico (EPSA) hydroelectric plant in the southwestern town of Anchicaya. "The FARC-EP has given the order to support the workers' movement with these type of actions," said FARC-EP commander JJ from inside the EPSA plant.

The FARC-EP has demanded a 30-percent reduction of electricity tariffs for the province and called on the privately owned plant to carry out social development projects in the area.

U.S. intervention The latest phase of the struggle comes amid escalating U.S. intervention in Colombia.

Washington and the Pentagon are trying to shore up the tottering Colombian ruling class before a victory by the revolutionary forces. It has been widely reported that U.S. advisers are currently training at least five Colombian army battalions and Washington is sending additional military aid to fight the widening rebellion.

U.S. drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey has requested a $1 billion increase in U.S. counterinsurgency aid to the region, including advanced helicopters. Already, on Sept. 1, Colombian government forces received six newly refurbished Vietnam-era UH-1H helicopter gunships from the Pentagon.

Two membrs of the U.S. Congress, Republican Cass Ballenger and Democrat William Delahunt, were there for the delivery.

In addition, the U.S. Embassy said in a statement issued on the same day that four "Super-Huey" helicopters rebuilt at a cost of $1.4 million each and three more sophisticated Blackhawk helicopters would be delivered later in the year. U.S. military funding for Colombia tripled from $89 million in 1997 to $289 million in 1998.

There have also been reports that Washington is pushing for regional intervention in the crisis. On Aug. 29, Peruvian television reported that McCaffrey had informally urged Latin American leaders in his recent trip there to organized a "military intervention force to pacify Colombia."

The TV station Frecuencia Latina, which is closely tied to the Peruvian military intelligence service SIN, reported one plan: Colombian President Pastrana would fail to achieve peace with the revolutionary forces by January 2000 and would declare a state of internal war. He would then call for regional help, including forces from Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, as well as support from U.S. warships now stationed on Colombia's Caribbean and Pacific coasts.

The key to this plan is to get Pastrana to appeal for help. In an Aug.

30 report by the Pulsar news agency, Uruguayan Chancellor Didier Opertti said, "Uruguay will not join an international intervention force in Colombian territory unless it has the support of the Colombian government." Opertti added that most of the region's countries would be in favor of this international force as long as Colombia requests it.

Frecuencia Latina said that 5,000 Peruvian troops have already been deployed to the border with Colombia. These soldiers are reported to be veterans of the war against Peru's guerrilla movement, the Peruvian Communist Party "Shining Path" and the MRTA.

Although Colombian officials and McCaffrey himself deny the reports, an Aug. 31 report by the Pulsar news agency indicated that Costa Rican Chancellor Roberto Rojas has stated his support for a multinational intervention force. Rojas said that the problem was not the war on drugs but the war against the guerrillas.

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