AS BUSH ordered the first bombs to be dropped on Afghanistan, a US think tank declared the guerrilla movements in Colombia the greatest terrorist threat in the western hemisphere. The US government agrees and has showered military aid on the Colombian state. The $1.3 billion Plan Colombia package pretends to be about fighting drug trafficking.
In reality it is about smashing the guerrillas and wider social movements in Colombia while making the country fit for corporations to exploit. For the past ten years Colombia has been a laboratory for neo-liberal economic policies. The people paying the price are the workers and poor, and their resistance has been met with brutal repression.
The Colombian state and right wing paramilitaries have inflicted a massive death toll. Some 30,000 people have been killed. We heard awful testimony to the reality behind those figures. But we also heard inspiring testimony to resistance. What is happening in Colombia today mirrors what the US did in Central American countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s.
Then a gang in the US White House sent special advisers and military equipment, and backed brutal local regimes and paramilitary death squads to crush movements which threatened US interests. Tens of thousands of people were killed. That White House gang included many of the people now surrounding George W Bush. George Bush Sr was US vice-president back then. The current US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and US ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte were others up to their necks in the terror.
Colombia has abundant natural resources including oil and coal. Yet most people live in poverty and fear. Over 3,000 trade union activists have been assassinated since 1987. Already this year 110 trade unionists have been murdered. The latest killing occurred during our visit. It was of Gustavo Soler Mora, president of the mine workers' union at US multinational Drummond.
Drummond was one of the main lobbyists for US government backing for Plan Colombia. The enforcement of a 'free market' economy has brought disaster to millions in Colombia.
Official unemployment, an underestimate, has leapt from 8.5 percent to 22 percent in ten years. According to the government's own figures some 60 percent live in poverty.
The common experience we heard, of people putting their lives at risk for the sake of their communities, was hard to bear. We met people who told of hospital workers being assassinated, but of their comrades still fighting to stop hospital closures, of teachers threatened with assassination who continue to fight privatisation. While we were there two local teacher activists were assassinated. Just 15 minutes away from where we were staying, paramilitaries emptied a bus of passengers and executed them all.
Our delegation was invited to a conference of community groups and trade unions. It was held at the 14 month old occupation of the chicken factory in North Cali. Workers and their families are fighting a company that sacked them and tried to move the plant to Ecuador, where wages are cheaper. The occupation is guarded round the clock by armed members of the union. 'The international community must know what is happening here,' explained Malinlie. 'We are fighting but we need support, and the eyes and ears of the world.'
She spoke as one of a family of disappeared people. There have been 700 recorded disappearances this year but the real numbers are far higher. It is paramilitary groups acting on behalf of the rich landowners and the multinationals which are behind the killings and land clearances. Behind all this stands the US.
We spoke with people from the Saragosa region of Colombia, where British oil multinational BP is part of a consortium that ran pipelines across peasants' land, promising compensation and minimum disruption.
Communities were split in half by the course of the pipe, with curfews strictly enforced between 6pm and 6am, when people could be shot on sight. Peasants held meetings and protests. They received death threats. When paramilitaries moved towards the communities, 4,000 local people marched unarmed to confront them, saying, 'You will have to shoot us all.' The paramilitaries retreated.
Martha was eventually forced to leave the area because of death threats. She is now on the target list of paramilitaries suspected of receiving funds from both the oil company and the state. 'We have seen the enforced degradation of the people,' she explains. 'Thousands have been forced to leave their lands and live as displaced people in the city of Medellin-the majority now scraping an existence on a rubbish tip.'
Resistance grows despite repression
PEOPLE REFUSE to give in despite all the repression. There have been a growing number of street demonstrations against Plan Colombia and the whole neo-liberal privatisation project, with students forging links with workers' and peasants' organisations, and with Colombia's indigenous peoples.
In the north of Colombia three electricity plants are occupied by workers fighting to stop privatisation. And at the end of the year there is to be national action to fight the next wave of privatisations. At the heart of the resistance is SINTRAEMCALI. It is a local public sector trade union in the city of Cali, but operates as much more. SINTRAEMCALI has become a kind of magnet for social and political movements in the region.
In a bitter struggle over the last eight years the union has managed to defer the planned privatisation of EMCALI utilities company, which runs local telephones, water, electricity and sewage services. 'We have made clear gains,' believes union president Alexander Lopez. 'The politicians have been unable to carry out their plans, but at a high cost to us. Five SINTRAEMCALI leaders have been assassinated. More than 300 have been arrested and detained. All of the executive committee of SINTRAEMCALI have received death threats and I have suffered three assassination attempts.' As we left Cali, workers and their families prepared to occupy all the EMCALI plants.
US exporting terror
THE LATEST government declaration illustrates the real agenda behind Plan Colombia. Colombia is to have four special 'Export Zones' where there will be no right to trade unionism. Many fear that the zones will see an institutionalised reign of terror to smooth the way for the multinationals operating there.
The response is inspiring. Unions are calling a strike on 1 November-a national stoppage to include peasant organisations, students, indigenous and black organisations and workers. Each organisation involved knows it will lose people. But that is the stark choice the US and the regimes it sponsors are giving people.
We arrived back in Britain last week to hear of the marvellous anti-war demonstration in London. As we had left Colombia, students and workers there had been planning to march against the US-led war on Afghanistan.
Trade unions and groups in Britain should make urgent links with workers, students and local communities in Colombia.
The Colombia Solidarity Campaign is organising a tour with speakers from the delegation. Phone 07950 923 448 or e-mail [email protected]