Colombia: a long struggle against imperialism

FRFI 174 August / September 2003

Plan Colombia is restructuring the country to meet the demands of US imperialism which needs to plunder the huge natural riches of South America to maintain its global position. Britain and other European powers are keen to join in. Fascist Colombian President Uribe is pressing home the asset-stripping programme of the US. The telecom industry has been privatised and now the state oil industry Ecopetrol is to follow. A referendum in October aims to create a corporate state that will finally end the years of internecine struggle within the ruling class. Meanwhile the state is concentrating its attack on the resistance of the working class and the poor peasantry. Alvaro Michaels reports.

On the third anniversary of Plan Colombia, the pretext of a war against narco-farming is barely maintained. One way or another, the same quantity continues to be grown, to make real money for the wealthy producers in Colombia, and the dealers in the US and Europe. The massive use of chemical sprays simply destroys the lives of the ordinary peasants, driving many of them from the land. Those that hold on are offered inducements to grow export crops instead of much-needed staples. These are subject to speculation and over-supply so that the peasants risk debt and starvation. On 26 June, resistance forced an Administrative Tribunal to order the suspension of aerial fumigation, and, conceding the right of Colombians to enjoy a healthy environment, to order proper studies of the chemicals used. This did not stop Uribe announcing the continuation of such schemes in speeches he made during July.

Plan Colombia involves re-establishing the power of the Colombian state over the entire country, and forcing through privatisation and participation in the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). In January, US Treasury Secretary John Snow visited Colombia to agree a bilateral free trade pact to push forward the FTAA. Plan Colombia has now been renamed the Andean Anti-narcotic Initiative with $697 million to spend this year alone. The Initiative aims to get other Latin American states to provide troops to fight in Colombia. Venezuela and Brazil have refused, but the Chilean Government turns a blind eye to many in its armed forces volunteering.

Since his election last August, Uribe has been building up the armed bands that hold his ‘modernising’ state together, devoting ‘much effort to weakening his country’s rebel armies’ (The Economist, 19 July). Amid heavy security, US Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Bogota in December and promised to pour another $200 million into the military and police forces. The US has more troops in Colombia at this time than it had in Central America during the 1980s, when Washington was intervening in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

In July, the Colombian ambassador to the US announced that ‘the fight against terrorism would be the priority’ in the next phase of the Plan. He also said US support would be necessary long after the previously suggested reduction in participation by 2006. Now the Colombian government has presented a project for voluntary and obligatory military and social service for women over 18, to start in 2004. European history shows such programmes of social discipline, launched by business in the face of massive unemployment and discontent, to be typically proto-fascist.

The widespread use of paramilitary forces by local and regional land owners is now being replaced by an expanded national army and the creation of new local militias, which will be motivated by the prices placed on the heads of revolutionaries. The government and the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) began negotiating in December to dissolve the latter’s terror gangs. They will be absorbed into the newly expanded military and police forces. On 15 July representatives of many of the AUC gangs signed a ten-point agreement with the government to demobilise. However, five did not, and, with at least 9,000 armed thugs, continue to murder opponents of land reform and privatisation.

All the terrorist gangs continued to operate during the negotiations with army support. They were resisted by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Army of National Liberation (ELN). On 28 December, members of the FARC 24th Front and the ELN wiped out an extreme right wing paramilitary base in San Pablo. During a fierce battle 60 AUC members were killed. In the same month, paramilitaries from the AUC lost more than 150 lives in three separate battles. In February FARC attempted to assassinate Uribe. Now the official military campaign against FARC and the ELN is growing. Uribe refuses to speak to FARC except through the UN, rejects a demilitarised zone to conduct prisoner exchanges and says that if an exchange of prisoners ever takes place, those held by the government must leave the country. FARC is demanding direct talks, the establishment of a negotiation zone and no exile for exchanged prisoners.

Britain’s role
On 9 July, Tony Blair hosted an international conference on Colombia, the second in two years. 23 governments from the EU, US and Latin America, together with the World Bank, attended. To maintain its influence Britain has become the second biggest donor of aid to Uribe. In 1995, SAS training and operations in Colombia dating back to 1989 were revealed in Andy McNab’s paperback Immediate Action. In 1999 the Foreign Office was forced to admit training Colombian forces in urban warfare and counter guerrilla strategy and ‘psychiatry’. Since 1997 Blair has considerably expanded MI6 work in the country, whilst between 2001 and 2002, British military exports to Colombia increased by 50%. This has included submarine technology. It is therefore no surprise that Uribe has confidently demanded on 24 April that Nicaragua stop exploration for oil in a disputed zone in the Caribbean Sea covering 50,000 square kilometres, especially given that BP has removed so much oil from Colombia since the early 1990s. Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell has said that ‘to deny [Colombian] personnel defence related equipment would allow illegal armed groups [to succeed] and would leave the state unable to uphold law and order. There is concern about the lack of any police or armed forces presence in much of the country’.

Militarised privatisations: water, telecommunications and oil

Privatisation is central to Uribe’s strategy. The privatised Colombian electric companies ISA and ISAGEN have already bought up the electricity grids of Peru and Bolivia, essential infrastructure for the FTAA. On 23 January 2003, Uribe ordered the seizure of the Cali Waste Water Corporation. State security forces surrounded and harassed groups of workers, threatening to kill workers at the company’s Colon Plant. Previous attempts to privatise it have failed. On 29 January, more than 5,000 people assembled in the square in front of the Municipal Administration Centre to oppose Uribe’s decree. There were two explosions as the demonstration started. In the ensuing commotion, police attacked and arrested the organisers. Later, they also attacked students, workers and members of the community who demanded their release outside the police station. Police threw more explosives at the demonstrators from the Municipal Administration Centre, and shot teargas into the square, dispersing everyone, without a care for the children, pregnant women and elderly people who were participating in the rally.

Ecopetrol, nationalised in 1951, is also on the way to being privatised; it has been converted into a public limited company as a first step. The company provides 35% of the countries exports and $2bn revenues to the state each year. It directly employs 7,000 workers and 100,000 indirectly. It represents massive potential shareholder value, with assets of 25bn pesos and liabilities of only 17bn pesos. In preparation, on 20 June, armed police invaded the Barrancabermeja oil refinery port, expelling the workers as shifts changed. 2,000 workers resisted teargas and water cannon. The next day they were violently dispersed after hours of confrontation. The Cartegena refinery was also militarised on 7 June. In Apiay oil field, unionised workers have been prevented from working.

100 oil workers have been murdered and many sacked and gaoled for their resistance to the state-appointed management. Now the state is forcibly handing the industry over to ‘real’ capitalists whilst reinforcing strict corporate discipline: ‘behaviour …(which) does not meet requirements and attitudes…(that) do not generate confidence’ will be stopped ‘by virtue of the powers that the company exercises over its employees’. In the face of working class resistance, however, the state has now offered negotiations and will allow workers to return if they accept the conversion of Ecopetrol into a private corporation. On 19 June there was a national strike of state employees, with marches throughout the country by workers and students and a further one is being called for 12 August.

The October referendum

Uribe’s proposed October referendum seeks to gain support with a single tick to wholesale attacks on the working class and poor. It proposes to dismiss 45,000 federal workers, strip away trade union rights, cut education, impose more taxes on workers whilst freezing wages, social spending and benefits, and reduce the size of Congress. So far the Constitutional Court has felt obliged to kick out four of the proposals and stop the remaining 15 being answered with a single tick! However, it left in the request for full approval of the IMF adjustment programme. The main objectives of this plebiscite are to legitimise the IMF plan, and to be able to enforce it by changing the constitution to allow executive power to override the courts or Congress. A 25% turn-out is all that is necessary to make the proposals law. It is vital, therefore, that all workers boycott the referendum.

International solidarity: boycott Coca-Cola!

Two years ago, Sinaltrainal – Colombia’s National Union of Food Industry Workers – filed a case in US courts accusing Coca-Cola and its locally-owned bottlers of using paramilitaries to intimidate and assassinate union organisers. It focused on the murder of Isidro Segundo Gil and the intimidation of five of his co-workers at a bottling plant in Carepa. In March, the judge removed Coca-Cola from the case; Sinaltrainal has appealed.

In December 2002, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark and other supporters of the Colombian union movement attended an international tribunal in Bogota. The event put Coca-Cola bosses on trial for criminal acts against trade unionists in Colombia and began with a national protest at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Bogota, called by Sinaltrainal, many of whose members have been murdered. The main banner read: ‘The people of the US demand justice for the people of Colombia. No to Coca-Cola and no to Plan Colombia.’ The protesters chanted ‘Who is paying for violence in Colombia? Coca-Cola!’ Marching to the US Embassy, chants turned to: ‘We don’t want to be a colony of the US, we want to be a free and sovereign Colombia’ and ‘The workers aren’t terrorists, US imperialism is the terrorist’. Speakers outlined how in the past 12 years eight Coca-Cola workers have been killed, 48 have been displaced and several exiled. Coca-Cola has a bloody history in Guatemala and India, and more recently in Venezuela.

Aprecio Atiz, president of the union federation CGTD declared that the rulers in Colombia today are assassins. In 2001, of 240 trade unionists assassinated worldwide, 201 were in Colombia. In 2002, the figures were 213 and 184 respectively. Another union speaker said ‘For every glass of Coca-Cola that we buy, we are buying a bullet to assassinate a Colombian. We do not believe in consultation with the transnational corporations. Imperialism doesn’t just want a little piece of Colombia, it wants the whole country. And it doesn’t just want Colombia, it wants all of Latin America. It wants us all to kneel and continue to be exploited’. In solidarity, an international campaign was launched on 24 July to boycott Coca-Cola. FRFI calls on its readers to support this action.

No to US terrorism in Colombia!
Boycott Coca-Cola!