By Gerry Byrne
Based on a report by Nathalie Alsop and Ramon Acevedo, members of the Committee for a New Colombia.
On 16 September, only one month after Uribe Velez took office as President, over 800,000 people protested against the government's policies of war and repression throughout Colombia. The new Colombian government's programme includes:
- A labour reform that reduces wages and overtime
- A pension reform that increases the retirement age by a third
- The reduction of public sector salaries by 30%.
These changes angered workers and their unions, who declared a day of protest and a 24-hour strike of state workers on 16 September.
The government's programme is simple: more work for less pay, and fewer jobs to go around. It is simply taking the policies of the past ten years to an extreme. The laws that made these "reforms", Law 50 and Law 100, were put forward by the new president on the pretext of reducing unemployment. They have, instead, and predictably, increased it.
The strike, especially in the environs of Bogota, brought oil refineries, airports, courts, hospitals, and government offices to a standstill. Schools closed and at 10 am teachers and students joined the marches which had been prohibited but were later permitted. The marches brought 150,000 to Bogota alone: there were also big marches in Cali, Barranquilla, Pereira, Pasto, Barrancabermeja and other cities.
The government's first response was intimidation: the minister of defense, Martha Ramirez, said that the guerrillas were behind the mobilisation and threatened numerous repercussions for those who participated. The day after the march the Colombian press and Uribe government was intent on downplaying the importance of this huge national mobilisation.
The press described the day as one without much turmoil, even though the state forces attacked numerous marches and arbitrarily detained and beat protesters throughout the nation while paramilitaries threatened poor peasants in at least two regions.
The national mobilisation was a conglomeration of different sectors of society, primarily workers, campesinos and youth. Workers demanded the elimination of three economic reforms currently in Congress that set the stage for union-breaking, end pension privileges, increase the age for receiving pensions and eliminate government jobs. The campesinos demanded a repeal of the agrarian reform, which is not a reform but a continuation of the neoliberal policies that take land from the campesinos. And the youth demanded the right to state public education on all levels and the right to political and public participation in the practices of the state. Even though each had separate demands they supported the demands of the other sectors.
In Bogota, more than 3,000 youth from all over Colombia marched from the National University to join unionists and campesinos in a march to the Plaza de Bolivar where more than 60,000 people gathered. They encountered continual state intimidation and police repression.
Despite the peaceful nature of the protest, at least 70 protesters were arbitrarily detained and beaten. The police shot canisters of tear gas at the youth march twice and tried to split the joint march, unsuccessfully. In Bucaramanga 15,000 protesters took to the streets and over 300 campesinos took over INCORA, the Colombian Institute for Agrarian Reform. In the department of Tolima, 5,000 people blocked the roads. In the same department, the military raided a gathering of campesinos preparing to march to the blockade, stole all their food.
Many people were detained.
- In Bogotá, the Secretary of the Human Rights Department for CUT (Colombian Union federation) Youth, was arbitrarily detained. Seventy students on the youth march in Bogotá were detained.
- In Sucre Departament, at Chalán on 15 September, the army detained Rubel Robles, the Secretary-General of the Farmworkers Union in Sucre, and two international delegates from the Spanish NGO Soldepaz Pachakutti.
- In Cauca Department, with the open complicity of the military authorities and the police, paramilitary groups stopped the peaceful peasant demonstrations in the following municipalities: La Vega, Argelia, Balboa, Corinto, Piendamó and El Tambo. The paramilitary group installed road blocks in some places, where they seized food and stopped vehicles, and made death threats to those participating in the march.
- In Caldas Department, approximately 90 families belonging to indigenous communities have been detained by the army, simply for having joined the demonstration. The paramilitary groups have announced that they will assassinate whoever participates in this march.
Uribe's policies of war and repression are only possible because of the billions of dollars that the United States has given to the Colombian government, furnishing it with the weapons it uses to repress anyone who speaks out for a more just society. Since the United States increased its military aid to Colombia in 1998, war and repression in Colombia have expanded greatly. In 1998, the Colombian military was a poorly trained conscript force that was underequipped and ineffective. After 2 billion dollars in mostly military aid from the United States, the Colombian military now has a trained force of 50,000 paid soldiers, fleets of U.S. made helicopters and advanced intelligence and combat equipment. The connection between the military and the national police is much stronger in Colombia than in the United States. The aid the United States government had given to Colombia has gone to both forces, which participated directly in the repression of the national mobilisation on 16 September 16.
Send your letters of protest to:
Álavaro Uribe Velez Presidente de la República,
Presidencia de la República Carrera 8 No. 7-26 Palacio de Nariño, Santa Fe de Bogotá
Telfono. +57.1.5629300 Ext. 3550 (571) 284 33 00
Fax +(57)1 - 286 74 34 -286, 68 42 -284 21 8
Programa Presidencial de DDHH y Derecho Internacional Humanitario
Send copies to:
Colombia Solidarity Campaign firstname.lastname@example.org