Wanted Man

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