by David Moberg
In These Times magazine, May 2000
When Luis Alfonso Velasquez walks into a bar in his native
Colombia, people who recognize him often leave. The problem isn't
Velasquez himself: He's a pleasant 47 year-old man of average
stature. It's who might be following him. After all, he is the
director of judicial and labor affairs at Colombia's main labor
union federation (the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, or CUT),
and Colombia is by far the most dangerous place on earth to take
part in trade union activities.
Over the past 15 years, about 3,000 unionists have been killed
by gunmen, bombers and other assassins in Colombia, 93 of them
in just the past six months. A little more than a year ago, the
vice president of CUT was assassinated, and the main suspect was
later strangled in jail. Out of all these cases, there have been
few arrests and only one conviction, a record that even rank incompetence
cannot explain. CUT's president travels in an armored car with
three bodyguards. Velasquez has no bodyguard, but says, "I
change places where I live constantly."
Yet assassinations are not the only worry of the Colombian
labor movement. The drug business has wildly distorted the local
economy. The country is in a deep economic depression: GDP dropped
by around 5 percent last year. The opening of the economy to global
trade and adoption of free-market, neoliberal government policies-partly
under pressure from the International Monetary Fund-have devastated
many Colombian businesses and left most people scrambling for
survival in the informal labor market. The combination of all
these trends has slashed union membership.
Velasquez, who recently visited the United States on a trip
funded by the AFL-CIO, was a successful organizer and leader in
a plastics and rubber industry union during the '80s. But in the
'90s, the government pursued policies promulgated by the United
States and international financial institutions.
With tariffs and other barriers dropped, cheap imports from
Asia wiped out many jobs. "We felt the impact of globalization
in a big way," he says.
In tandem, government and business also cut pensions, lengthened
the work day, changed fixed salaries into flexible wages and piece-rate
pay, and promoted subcontracting and temporary work. On top of
that, Velasquez says, "the entire arsenal of repression was
unleashed against the labor movement as well."
As a result, Velasquez explains, unions shrank (his old union
is little more than a quarter of its former size), collectively
bargained contracts are being replaced by employer-dictated "collective
pacts," government social protections have shriveled and
real incomes have dropped, with three-fourths of Colombian workers
in the formal sector earning the legal minimum of $135 a month.
Now about 20 percent of the work force is officially unemployed,
and more than half of all workers are in the informal sector,
often selling cheap imported goods on the street. The steadiest
jobs and unions are concentrated in the public sector, energy
and oil production, but even there unions have been attacked or
undermined by capital flight. Few global corporations want to
invest in such an unstable environment.
At the same time, the "dirty war" carried out by
government security forces and right-wing paramilitaries against
guerrilla forces "has had the impact of closing what little
democratic space there was in Colombia," Velasquez laments.
While the government feels it must deal with the guerrilla forces
and the International Monetary Fund, it ignores "the legal,
unarmed, popular opposition," he says. "To get President
Andres Pastrana to talk, you have to point a gun at him."
Unions have tried to join with other progressive social groups
to form political parties, but every single person elected under
their last banner-the Patriotic Union-was assassinated. Nevertheless,
in April CUT launched a National Social Front of "workers,
peasants, Indians, the unemployed and students."
CUT and its allies are critical of the drug trade, the big
traffickers and their paramilitary allies, but they also oppose
the war on drugs. The $1.6 billion U.S. aid package, recently
passed by the House and pending in the Senate, is overwhelmingly
for military hardware, with only about 9 percent of the money
designated for alternative development that might wean peasants
from coca farming. "We're totally opposed to the $1.6 billion
Colombia aid plan," Velasquez says. "Instead of sending
military aid, which is pouring gas on a fire, better to invest
in alternative development and to pay down the foreign debt."
Velasquez holds out hope for a "peaceful, negotiated
solution to the conflict." Along with Europe and other countries,
he says, the United States could help by serving as a guarantor
of any negotiated settlement. Yet peace in Colombia must involve
more than an end to the violence. "The conflict in Colombia
has to be seen as a class struggle at the same time," he
says. "If we talk about real peace, we have to talk about
social justice. Peace in an abstract way doesn't exist."
South America watch