The Colombian Political Process Must Open Up
Published on Saturday, August 10, 2002 by
The Colombian Political Process Must Open Up
by J.P. Leary

Amidst scenes of the violence that helped propel him into power, Alvaro Uribe took office yesterday as the new president of Colombia, pledging to crush the guerrillas that three generations of politicians have failed to eliminate by force. But not all Colombians were celebrating the event.

Hector Castro probably wouldn’t have darkened the door of Uribe’s inauguration ball even if he’d been invited. He was unavailable anyway; the union leader has been in the United States for much of the past year, forced out of his country by death threats from the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC), a rightist paramilitary army that targets labor organizers and, he says, is supported by the Colombian military. Under a program sponsored by the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, the former electrician in a plastics factory has been given safe harbor in the United States for one year. Even in New York, however, his mind is on Colombia. When the threats started, he says, “I had several choices: to go to Europe, Canada, or Costa Rica, and then this opportunity [to go to the United States] came up. I came to the US for two reasons: it is only temporary, and here, I can continue the campaign” for labor rights and peace back home.

Uribe has promised to decisively defeat the country’s two main guerilla movements. But some fear that this war strategy, coupled with his conservative economic policies, will only deepen Colombia’s social strife. “Uribe is totally anti-union,” says Castro, a municipal secretary-general of the Colombian trade union congress (CUT), which has had its membership decimated in the last few years by the AUC, which is devoted in theory to battling the guerillas but responsible for the deaths of hundreds of union members, peasant leaders, human-rights activists, and others. Uribe has promised several sweeping changes that Castro argues will harm Colombian workers already reeling from the country’s failing economy (most of Colombia’s tax revenue goes to pay off its massive foreign debt and finance its huge military, which Uribe has already pledged to double). A proposed new law, for example, would make labor relations more “flexible” by limiting new union organizing to so-called “worker’s associations,” informal, shop-by-shop groups without real bargaining power. The new president also plans to privatize health care and social security.

At the same time, human-rights groups and American government investigators have pointed to strong links between the Colombian military and the AUC, which is responsible for 75% of human-rights violations in the country. (Last week, conveniently just before Uribe’s inauguration, the AUC announced plans to officially disband, news which must have come as cold comfort to the family of one petroleum industry union member kidnapped that same week.) Uribe has also announced plans to mobilize 1 million Colombians in a network of informants on the guerrillas. These teams of zapos, or “frogs,” Castro says, will only serve to further polarize the country. The United States has thus far given Uribe a green light for his military campaign, helping to whitewash the Colombian military’s dismal rights record in official reports and freeing up billions of dollars in military aid.

So far, there is little evidence that U.S. military aid has succeeded in either of its stated goals: eradicating the cocaine trade and defeating the guerrillas. Meanwhile, as Uribe privatizes social services and woos international lending agencies, 3.5 million Colombian children are not enrolled in school, 2 million citizens are displaced by fighting, and a majority live in poverty. However, Castro believes that a strong campaign from the labor movement and other sectors of Colombian civil society can help break this cycle to create a democratic alternative. “The Colombian political process must open up,” he says, “so that the Colombian people can actually take part in it for the first time.”

J.P. Leary is a writer in New York City.