On Nov. 9, thousands of workers, students, campesinos and indigenous people marched in Colombian cities and towns to protest the economic and social policies of rightwing president Alvaro Uribe Velez. The protesters specifically blasted a free trade treaty (commonly referred to by its initials in Spanish, TLC) currently being negotiated with the US, as well as the planned privatization of 20% of the state oil company, Ecopetrol, and a proposed tax reform being considered by Congress. Marchers also demanded an end to the killing of unionists; the International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that nearly 800 Colombian labor leaders have been killed since 2000. The Unitary Workers Federation (CUT) called the national day of action, but two other labor federations joined it: the Colombian Workers Confederation (CTC) and the General Confederation of Workers (CGT). (El Diario-La Prensa, NY, Nov. 10)
The day of action also included a work stoppage by state workers; organizers said about 70% of the country’s 500,000 public employees observed the strike, with participation strongest among teachers and health workers. About 80% of the 280,000 members of the Colombian Educators Federation (Fecode) participated in the strike, according to union representative Witney Chavez. (El Universal, Venezuela, Nov. 9; AP, Nov. 9)
According to AP, about 5,000 people marched in Bogota. (AP, Nov. 9) The CUT said some 40,000 people took part in two marches that met at Bogota’s Plaza de Bolivar. The CUT reported 15,000 marchers in Medellin; 15,000 in Barranquilla (Atlantico), including many teachers and other protesters from nearby Cartagena, capital of Bolivar department, where a march was held the previous day; more than 10,000 in Cali; and 8,000 in Bucaramanga (Santander). Protesters traveled from nearby areas to the larger marches in those five cities. More than 6,000 people reportedly marched in Ibague (Tolima), and marches were also held in Pereira (Risaralda) and Manizales (Caldas), in the coffee-growing region of central Colombia. In the town of Rumichaca on the Ecuadoran border, Colombian teachers joined their Ecuadoran counterparts in a demonstration that was attacked by police. (Message posted by Hector Franco of Semanario Voz on Colombia Indymedia, Nov. 15) According to CUT vice president Fabio Arias, protests took place in all the departmental capitals. (ED-LP, Nov. 10)
In Bucaramanga, protest organizers reported that the Mobile Anti- Riot Squad (ESMAD) of the National Police acted with violence against the marchers. Agents beat and arrested two students, and fired some type of fragmentation grenades which injured a number of people. (Communique, Nov. 10 from Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Santander, Asamblea Permanente de la Sociedad Civil por la Paz, Fundacion Comite de Solidaridad con los Presos Politicos, Coordinacion Colombia – Europa – Estados Unidos]
President Uribe arrived in Washington on Nov. 13 for a hastily planned visit, hoping to win support from Democratic members of Congress for the trade deal. The administration of US president George W. Bush has pledged to push for swift passage of trade pacts negotiated this year with Peru and Colombia, but approval is now in the hands of the Democrats, who take control of the House and Senate in January after having routed the Republicans in national elections on Nov. 7. Under “fast-track” rules currently in effect, Congress can only ratify or reject trade deals without modifying them. The fast-track authority is set to expire in July, and is unlikely to be renewed.
Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, in line to be the next chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, would not comment on his Nov. 14 meeting with Uribe. As Uribe looked on–visibly tense–Rangel said it was up to the new Congress to “review” the Bush administration’s trade deal with Colombia. “Everything is possible,” Rangel said. House and Senate staff members say Democrats are concerned about the pact’s potential impact on US jobs, and about the Colombian government’s failure to protect trade unionists. Rangel confirmed that he raised the issue of Colombia’s labor record with Uribe, although he declined to provide further details. According to AP, Colombia may have to settle for unilateral trade preferences instead of the original deal, which would permanently remove tariffs on $14.3 billion in annual trade. (Miami Herald, Nov. 15)
La Guajira: unionist killed
Union activist Douglas Alonso Mejia Pinto was shot to death in his vehicle on Oct. 18 in the city of Riohacha, in the northeastern Colombian department of La Guajira. He was hit with 11 bullets just after dropping off his children at school. Mejia had been a court worker for 15 years and was secretary of the leadership board for the Guajira section of Asonal Judicial, a union representing court employees. Mejia was also the secretary of the recently-created First Administrative Court of Riohacha. The motives for the crime are unknown; he had not faced any threats to his life, according to the national leadership board of Asonal Judicial. (Asonal Judicial Oct. 30 via Colombia Indymedia)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 19
See our last post on Colombia.