On the Front Lines

Lessons from Colombia

By Terry Zahorski

June 2004

The government in Colombia is fascist and reactionary, regular violator of human rights, and it views unions as blocking “progress.” The intent of the government is to liquidate the trade union movement completely in order to wipe out the gains made over the years by labour.

In mid-May, political leaders of the USA and Canada were in Bogota, Colombia negotiating a bi-lateral agreement Meanwhile, Jorge Alvin Anaya, the treasurer and financial secretary for the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia (CUT), was in Regina as part of a cross-country tour sponsored by three Canadian public sector unions (CUPW, CUPE and PSAC) and the Canadian Labour Congress. The CUT is the largest labour federation in Colombia.

The “Defending Public Services: Canadian and Colombian Workers on the Front Lines” tour provided an opportunity for Colombian trade unionists and activists to talk to members of the three unions, community organizations and the public about their struggles to prevent the privatization of public services, and about the impact of privatization to date on workers, services and communities in Colombia.

Anaya informed that he was here not for charity, but to request the highest form of solidarity from Canadians. This he felt manifests itself in our ability to unite the working class over issues that threaten the gains made by the labour movement, not only here in Canada but internationally as well.

Colombian Security

Over the last 40 years in Colombia, there has been constant fighting between the armed insurgents of the left, the right-wing paramilitary, and guerilla groups. The people of Colombia were at the end of their ropes and demanded a peace process be put in place. Their demands were answered in the form of “Democratic Security,” which was the platform of Alvaro Uribe Perez in the last Colombian election. This resulted in his being swept into power on the motto of “Firm Hand, Big Heart.” If people spoke out against this, they were seen as terrorists and not in favour of peace.

Uribe has sold the Colombians a bill of goods; that “democratic security” will bring peace to Colombia. What Uribe really needs is to have the economic policies and the military policies mesh; this would achieve his hidden agenda of privatization of the public sector. It is the accepted duty of the trade unions to expose this hidden agenda for all to see. Only then will they have a chance to hold off privatization.

The strategy of the Colombian government is to take away the traditional role of the state (public services), and hand them over to private sector corporations. This is accomplished in a two-fold method. First the government makes large cuts to social spending in both the federal and provincial budgets. This, in effect, removes the responsibility of the state to the people; at the same time any ability of the state to function socially is lost. This opens the door to privatization, where all the services can be sold to the highest bidder. Secondly, an attempt is made to discredit public services and manufacture the situation that they are inefficient and not cost-effective. This provokes an artificial crisis which is used to discredit the unions by placing the blame directly on them for the crisis. An opportunity is then created for the private sector companies to come in and have the public see them as “saving the day” by purchasing the failing public services.

The World Plan

This situation is not limited to Colombia. Throughout the world, private corporations are demanding the right to deliver public services. They are being supported by governments who are pressured to do so by the policies of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). In Colombia, against the backdrop of a prolonged civil war, trade unions are courageously fighting an extremely repressive government which is completely restructuring the Colombian public sector through privatization at the command of the IMF.

In order to make a profit, the private sector companies cut corners that result in reduced services, the creation of user fees, lower wages and benefits for workers, as well as a lack of accountability for these services.

The Colombian Method

The neo liberal model for Colombia was first introduced 14 years ago. Pressured by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the model was applied by signing accords between the IMF and the Colombian Government, and then passing massive reforms to laws (labour, taxation and judicial), the governments, and even their Constitution. They could then implement the model by way of a three pronged attack:

They “liquidated” the weakest unions in the public sector (railroad, maritime and the banks).

They simply went ahead and privatized other public sector areas such as the telecommunications and energy companies.

Where the public sector unions had the highest level of resistance (health, education, judicial, oil) they “restructured” those services so that in the future they could privatize them much easier.

In terms of the constant threat of privatization, the Colombian unions and civil society have worked together. The last 14 years have had a huge negative effect on Colombian society and on the workers. About 300,000 workers have lost their jobs and 4,000 trade unionists have been assassinated.

The Reaction

Throughout this, the trade union movement in Colombia has taken on a leadership role by becoming a social agitator. They have been successful in revealing the hidden agenda of their current government, and in changing public opinion. This was never more evident than when the Colombian trade union movement garnered enough support with a huge national protest to defeat a national referendum that was designed to clear a path for privatization.

The National Democratic Coalition (NDC) was created out of this movement and committed itself to defend the working class and civil society. In October of 2003, the NDC managed to get trade union leaders elected to several different levels of government. This was significant because it strengthened the trade union movement and showed civil society that the trade union movement could play a key role in government.

Not only is it important to get Labour leaders into government; it is equally important to hold them accountable to those from where they came. Now, more than ever, the ability to develop policies for the future is a reality. The challenge becomes how to undertake these new ventures without compromising dedication to the working class and civil society.

Economic globalization is the umbrella that trade talk is carried out under. Their program of macroeconomics is to transcend all levels of government in all countries.

To be successful in combating this, a base of interest and commitment must be constructed in the international trade union movement to develop a capacity between workers everywhere to work together to produce strategies on anti-privatization with an international perspective.

Terry Zahorski is a member of the Regina local of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers who realizes the necessity of international solidarity.

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