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Report from Colombia An Economy in Meltdown

Report from Colombia


We were able to meet with some of the Union members over in Colombia. We met with SINALTRAINAL–the food service worker’s union and the USO–the oil-workers. It was very inspiring. We looked at these union members as heroes. They are heroes. Many of them had been tortured or arrested. Torture is an institution in Colombia. The union members are on the frontline of the struggle against war, violence and repression. They aren’t just fighting for their own rights. They are fighting for our rights. When the corporate multinationals are finished with Colombia, they’re coming after U.S. labor. The U.S. government is trying to push the FTAA on top of Latin America. Every labor organization in Latin America is opposed to the FTAA. U.S. labor is opposed to the FTAA.

Since 1964, about 200,000 people have been killed in political violence. Colombia is a very militarized society. We saw a lot of beggars and homeless The beggars were in terrible shape–worse than Iraq. It was agonizing to see. There are currently about 2-3 million internal refugees, most are in Bogota. I had expected to find a country filled with people in despair–people who were demoralized. Instead, we found a very vibrant people–people who were filled with resistance. Every time a union member is killed, he becomes a permanent member of the union. During the meetings at role call, the name of the victim is called out and the entire audience chants “presente, presente, presente.” The unions are militant and full of fight. The meetings are loud and tumultuous.

We looked at the Colombian economy. It is a complete train-wreck–one of the worst in Latin America. 50-60% of Colombians live in extreme poverty. The unemployment rate is between 20-25% depending on whose figures you use. The foreign debt has doubled since 1997 while inflation has soared and per capita incomes have declined. Much of this can be traced backed to 1997 when the economic situation worsened dramatically. We’re not sure if this is because of the neoliberal “reforms” that were instituted in the late 90s or the general world-wide economic downturn which started in 1997. It’s probably both.

We also noticed that as the Colombian economy began to fall, the violence in Colombia began to intensify. There is a direct correlation between increasing poverty and increasing state-sponsored violence. This also correlates with Plan Colombia which was instituted in 1998. Since then, $2 billion in U.S. military aid has been given to the Colombian government. Human rights abuses have greatly intensified.

It’s easy to see U.S. strategic priorities. We can look at foreign aid to a particular region. The Middle-East is first in aid (Israel, Egypt, Turkey), but Colombia is third on the list of U.S. priorities. This shows how important the struggle in Colombia is to U.S. interests. It’s a major priority. Latin America constitutes an important labor and raw materials market. Popular socialist and democracy movements are also sweeping the region. Unfettered violence is the U.S. answer. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Colombia’s right-wing death squads are responsible for 75% of civilian deaths. The Colombian government has one of the worst human rights records in the Western hemisphere.

The original claim of Plan Colombia was that it was necessary to fight the “war on drugs.” We know that this is a complete farce. First of all, the Colombian state economy is dependent on drug revenues. Drugs account for a third of all export revenue, oil accounts for the other third. With the economy in a state of decline, soaring unemployment, growing poverty, the Uribe government isn’t going to try to eliminate a third of its export revenues. The economy would then completely collapse. The Colombian government is dependent on drug revenues. It is a drug state accounting for 75% of the cocaine supply. The U.S. knows this. This is policy. We also know that about $31 billion dollars in drug revenues leaves Colombia every year. In ten years, this would amount to about a third of a trillion dollars. This is an enormous sum. Where it goes, nobody seems to know, but most of it undoubtedly enters the U.S. banking system. Colombian drug income helps prop up the U.S. banking system which may be one of the reasons why Plan Colombia is so important.

Plan Colombia is about the destruction and repression of popular movements. Labor is a primary target of this repression. Violence and intimidation against organized labor has increased significantly. Hundreds of union workers have been killed. Attacks are also being carried out on the educational system. President Uribe is trying to reform the educational system by privatizing it. Organized student unions are resisting this, therefore they also are under attack. Two students were recently murdered by state-security forces, including one on campus. The military closed down National University on November 30th. Many of the student leaders are in hiding. Numerous student demonstrations have been carried out. The students have issued a statement that puts the blame for this situation directly on the U.S. government. They know who their enemy is.

What was inspiring to see was the way these popular institutions supported each other. Organized labor supported student demonstrations. The students support labor. We saw how organizations such as CED-INS helped communities and provided food, shelter and other support to the refugees in Zone One–a sprawling shantytown where there are no public services, like much of Colombia. No electricity, no running water. No educational system. No local elections. Organizations like CED-INS and the Catholic Church move in and fill the void. These organizations all work together. The situation is so difficult that in Colombia, if you don’t work together, you don’t survive. It’s that simple. It’s a matter of organization. I think there’s an important lesson for us in this.

Michael Wolf can be reached at: writewolff@hotmail.com