By Berta Joubert-Ceci
Published May 15, 2011 8:55 AM
While the United States-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is being pushed by President Barack Obama’s administration, the Colombian government continues to violate the human rights of unionists and social activists. However, this time it’s not by paramilitary president, Álvaro Uribe, but by the new “democratic” president, Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s former minister of defense.
On May Day, hundreds of thousands of people marched throughout Colombia in honor of the Chicago martyrs who marched in 1886 for workers’ rights: They inspired generations of working people around the world in upholding the banner of international working-class struggle and solidarity. Colombians also marched in opposition to President Santos. Their message was urgent: No to the National Development Plan and the signing of the FTA with the U.S.
Santos is pushing education and health care reform laws aimed at privatization of these essential services, which will further endanger access to schooling and health care for the vast majority of Colombians. Already U.S. transnational corporations keep a hold on the natural wealth and riches that belong to the Colombian people. An FTA will completely destroy the economy just as it did in Mexico.
Massive marches were held in many cities. The largest demonstration was in Bogotá, where more than 200,000 people peacefully converged in the central Plaza Bolívar. The march was called “United May Day,” to highlight the unity among diverse social, student, youth and labor organizations.
The government’s forces, the National Police and the ESMAD (riot police) furiously attacked the protesters with a massive amount of tear gas, shock grenades and bricks. Activists point at state agents who had infiltrated the demonstration for provoking the attack. The coordinator of Organizations and Social Movements of Colombia released a public statement at the end of the day saying that 65 people were detained and 17 injured in Bogotá. (www.polodemocratico.net)
This violence was repeated in the Colombian cities of Cali, Medellín and Facatativá, where even youth and physically disabled people were attacked.
International solidarity keeps labor and social activists alive
Colombia suffers the highest number of unionists killed per year. Were it not for the attention and solidarity from labor and progressive forces throughout the world, the numbers would be even higher.
This has been the situation for many years. However, now it is even more crucial to show solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Colombia, since the public image of the new Colombian administration is being painted as “fair” and “friendly,” in order to gain approval of the FTA.
However, the brutal fact is that the same forces that were active under Uribe are carrying out the repression. They are just targeting victims more selectively. On May Day, for example, leaders of Sinaltrainal, the union of Coca-Cola workers, were beaten and arrested. The father of a youth killed on May Day in 2005 was arrested for defending youth in the march, and police shot a tear gas canister at an opposition representative in the Bogotá government.
Santos is determined to end “the conflict,” the decades-old struggle of the armed insurgency, not by a negotiated political solution, but by military means. In the process, he is criminalizing any opposition to his neoliberal policies, from electoral opposition and labor struggles to students protesting privatization of education. Days before the May Day march, the mainstream media announced “agents of terrorism” would be on the marches. With this approach, Santos is increasing the repression and stigmatization of social protests, making it extremely difficult for the people to voice their opposition.