In most countries if you take a public stand against the privatisation of state-owned companies, join a trade union or agitate for your rights the worst thing that might happen is you might be accused of being a ‘communist’ and get thrown in jail. In Colombia you would receive first - a bouquet of flowers (for your impending funeral) and within a week- a hail of bullets from right-wing paramilitaries.
A few days in this South American country and one begins to realize where the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s gets his inspiration to write the ‘magical realism’ stuff he is rightly famous for- most probably by just looking out of his window. Colombia is a country where nothing is academic, the extreme is ordinary, the mundane is surreal and the levels of violence are such they would make most other civil conflicts around the globe look like a tea party.
We got a taste of what life was like for most Colombians just a day after arriving in the capital city Bogota when we went to meet a senior activist of the national federation of electricity workers unions who just a fortnight ago survived the third assassination attempt on his life. We were told that a few gunmen on motorcycles had come and sprayed with bullets a window, on the second floor of the union building, near which he usually sat and worked.
To our surprise there were no bullet marks at all on the window that was shot at and on enquiring we were told that the windows in all union buildings throughout Colombia are usually made of bulletproof glass. It is mandatory for Union leaders to wear bulletproof vests while in public and travel with their own retinue of gun-toting security guards.
The reasons for such security are not hard to see. The electricity workers union alone has lost 8 activists to assassinations in the first six months of 2002 and the number of trade union activists killed in Colombia since 1990 alone is over 3800 i.e., a rate of more than one activist a day. And all this is not counting the 30,000 people who die every year, killed as part everyday violence or as part of the long-running civil war in the country between left-wing rebel groups and the government.
Despite such brazen murder and intimidation (or maybe because of it!) Colombia has one of the most militant trade union movements in all of Latin America- taking on everything from the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies to the blatant interference in the affairs of the country by Uncle Sam. What exactly the trade unions are angry about will be clear from the following data taken from an analysis of the Colombian economy published in the ‘Social Watch Report, 2001’
Prior to the IMF inspired economic liberalisation program that began in 1990 (around the same time as in India) for almost 60 years Colombia had a positive economic growth and one of most stable economies in all of Latin America. Since the implementation of the neo-liberal policies which included the usual prescription of lowering import tariffs, re-orienting the economy towards exports, cutting back public expenditure and privatising state owned companies Colombia has seen the worst growth indicators of the century, with growth at a negative -4.9 percent of GDP in 1999.
Just going by the statistics alone the experience of neo-liberal economics in Colombia is a complete horror story. Following are facts that speak for themselves:
• The average annual income which in 1994 was USD 2,158 fell by more than USD 100 to USD 2,043 in 2000
• The unemployment rate almost tripled between 1994 and 2000 from 7.6 % to 21 %
• The country’s external debt grew to USD 34.5 billion in 1999, five times greater than in 1980
• In 1998 Colombia paid USD4.6 billion in debt services, which amounted to 30 percent of Colombia’s income from exports, three times greater than the entire healthcare budget and more than the total sum spent on education.
Apart from all this in the decade of the 1990s agricultural production was practically dismantled. In August 1991 tariffs were reduced from an average of 38 % to 12 %. The effect was a drastic rise in agricultural imports, which grew from 700,000 to 7 million tons from 1991 to 1994 . Because of this crisis, agriculture’s share of the economy fell from 21.5 % of GDP in 1991 to 18.7 % in 1997. Also, massive imports of manufactured products generated a ‘de-industrialisation’ that led to the closing of five thousand small industries in the short period between 1997 and 1998. Industry’s share of GDP fell from 18.7 % to 16.2 % in 1995.
In trying to understand why is it that in country after country throughout the developing world governments are going in for neo-liberal economic policies the explanation that they are all in debt and under pressure from the IMF to ‘structurally reform’ is only partially true. The fact is that in many developing countries like Colombia (and increasingly in India) governments are captive to well-entrenched elite who benefit by becoming comprador agents on behalf of western nations and multinational corporations even if it means the destruction of their national sovereignty and domestic economies.
Colombia even before the economic reforms of the early nineties was one of the most unequal societies anywhere in the world. The reforms have only managed to worsen the score. The number of people living in poverty grew from 51.7 % of the total population in 1993 to 61.5 % in 2000. In 2000 49.5% of people in urban areas and 84.9 % of people in rural areas lived below the poverty line. The richest 20 % receive 61.5% of the annual income, while the poorest 20% survive with only 2.4% of the income. In 1991, the ratio between the incomes of the richest 10% and the poorest 10% was 52.1. By 1999, it was 80.
Five financial groups control 92% of the assets in the financial sector, 50 economic groups dominate more than 60% of industrial, service. commercial, transportation and agricultural sectors; 1.3% of landowners possess 48% of the land and just four economic groups possess 80% of the mass media.
On top of all this Colombia has also become a prime target for political and military intervention by the United States which is using the pretext of ‘fighting the drug trade’ to help the Colombian elites stave off defeat at the hands of left-wing guerrilla groups that have been waging a civil war since the seventies and already control large swathes of territory. Under the so-called ‘Plan Colombia’ imposed by the US Government to ostensibly fight against the drugs business in Colombia the US will provide over 600 million dollars and 2000 military instructors to combat drug barons. Critics of the plan allege that the operation is a thinly veiled attempt by the US military to fight left-wing guerrilla groups, ban left parties and turn the country into another Vietnam. Already in an action reminiscent of the spraying of carcinogenic Agent Orange chemicals during the Vietnam War the US is spraying toxic chemicals over densely forested parts of Colombia to eradicate coca plantations cultivated by desperate farmers escaping structural poverty and state repression.
The Colombian Government on its part views any group that criticise government policy as part of the guerrilla movement and in its eyes such groups should be eradicated. The draconian policies of the government towards trade unionists and human rights workers have encouraged right-wing paramilitaries, believed to be aided by sections of the Colombian military, to carry out wanton killings, intimidation and torture of anyone suspected to be ‘left-wing’.
Amidst all this doom and gloom there if of course a ray of hope that comes from the spirited fight put up by Colombian trade unions against the selling off of public interests by successive comprador governments. Around the beginning of this year activists from SINTRAEMCALI, a trade union representing members for the power and public sector company EMCALI in the region of Cali scored a major victory against privatisation after a historic 36 day siege of the main municipality headquarters in Cali city. After Bogota and Medellin, Cali is Colombia’s most important city and a centre of both rich agriculture and industry.
EMCALI was set for privatisation in 2001 under the national decree 142 and 143 (passed by parliament in 1994). But thanks to the radical action taken by SINTRAEMCALI activists in January this year the Colombian government has had to halt this process. As part of its fight against privatisation the union has also highlighted the corruption that exists in the EMCALI operation, and has pinpointed directors and contractors responsible for wasting public money and embezzlement.
In recent months Colombia has also seen a series of spontaneous protests by citizens against higher electricity and water prices, as a direct consequence of privatisation, in many towns around the country. Overall the mood in the country seems to be building up towards a big confrontation with the government over deteriorating economic conditions and growing pauperisation of the people.
The recent election of a Alvaro Uribe, a hard-line ‘anti-communist’ President however bodes ill for any chance of such a mass movement being peaceful. Uribe has called off his predecessor’s attempts to negotiate peace with the left-wing guerrillas and declared a state of ‘emergency’ suspending even the meagre civil liberties that existed.
If the United States does get involved, as widely anticipated, in military operations against the left-wing guerrillas, then Colombia will indeed become Latin America’s Vietnam. And given the strength of the Colombian resistance, like in Vietnam the outcome of the intervention will ultimately will be another humiliating defeat for the US imperialists.