By LeiLani Dowell
While the people of Colombia continue to bravely resist overwhelming repression, government forces and U.S.-funded military and paramilitary groups have escalated the terror against them in recent weeks. Attacks, resulting in death and grave injuries, have been made on trade unionists and Indigenous peoples.
Sugar cane cutters fight for their livelihood
For more than a month, 12,500 sugar cane cutters, many of them Afro-Colombians, have been on strike in the departments of Valle del Cauca and Cauca. Their demands include an end to subcontracting “work cooperatives”; benefits such as sick time and pensions for workers who are disabled by the job (an average of 200 workers a year); and a 30 percent wage increase—currently the workers receive about $1.42 per ton of cut cane. Until recently, the bosses have refused to negotiate with the unions, and as the strike fund becomes depleted, these cutters have faced a lack of food and medicine for their families.
On Oct. 9, the government of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez declared “a state of internal commotion” and sent in army troops to break up the strike. According to an e-mail from the food workers’ union, Sinaltrainal, one of the unions involved in the strike, with this decree “they will try and break the labor conflicts, repress the workers and continue with the process of annihilating social organizations, with the argument that these are issues of public order that put the national security at grave risk.”
Indigenous fight back, face fierce gov’t repression
On Indigenous People’s Day, Oct. 12, Colombia’s Indigenous communities participated in a national mobilization in Cauca called “Commotion of the Peoples.” The mobilization’s main points included a rejection of so-called “free trade” agreements, demands for government compliance with Indigenous accords, the construction of a People’s Agenda, and an end to Plan Colombia—the U.S. military aid program for Colombia.
Thirty-five people were wounded on Oct. 14 when Colombian military and anti-riot police surrounded, then shot indiscriminately into a crowd of 12,000 people who were blockading a part of the Pan-American Highway to demand a face-to-face meeting with pro-U.S. Uribe. Both the Association of Indigenous Townships and the National Organization of Indigenous People (ONIC) expressed grave concerns of a potential massacre at the hands of these forces. Four bodies were transferred to a morgue in the town of Caloto, but Indigenous authorities have been prevented from viewing and identifying them. ONIC reports that in the past two weeks, at least 19 Indigenous leaders have been killed throughout the country.
According to Jeremy Dear of the British organization, Justice for Colombia, more trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia during the Uribe regime that in the entire rest of the world in the same period. In the first part of 2008, those murders increased by 77 percent, according to the Colombian Trade Union Confederation. (www.counterpunch.org, Oct. 15)
Reams of evidence suggest that these murders are carried out in collusion with the Colombian government and military and the multinational corporations. The U.S. has given more than $5.5 billion in aid to Colombia, the majority of which goes to military spending. A report released this month by Human Rights Watch states that the Uribe government has attempted to obstruct and undermine investigations into the connections between paramilitary groups and the country’s leading politicians.
With these atrocities as a backdrop, Bush on Oct. 16 continued to push Congress for a free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia. Trade unionists and others in Colombia have fought passage of the FTA, as it will lead to greater privatization of social services and an even greater influx of multinational corporations into the country.
The sugar cane workers’ strike is in dire need of funds to continue their struggle. At this point they have no means to even feed themselves. A desperate call for resources has been issued by Sinaltrainal to help keep the pressure and the strike on. “It would be a disaster if the strike fails because there is no food. … There is no money to buy rice or potatoes to feed the workers, only water,” says a letter from a union organizer. The letter continues: “We have received great solidarity for the sugar cane conflict, but the situation worsens by the day since the funds diminish and there are 12,500 workers to feed. The situation with their families is even worse. There are close to 60,000 people whose basic needs of food and medical care are not met. … Solidarity is URGENT. The bosses want to weaken the struggle through hunger.”
For information on how to provide financial assistance to these workers, email: email@example.com.