The Guardian November 5, 2003


Important victories for the people of Colombia

by Bob Briton

In recent weeks the people of Colombia have snatched two 
important victories from the extreme right government of 
President Alvaro Uribe.

Uribe failed to get the endorsement he required for a host of 
austerity and other reactionary measures in a referendum held on 
October 25. The government was trying to get approval for a 
package that included a two-year freeze on state wages and 
pensions, the possibility of successive terms for the President 
of the republic, greater powers for the President and the army 
and a reduction in the size of Congress among the 15 propositions 
to be voted on.

A reduction in the size of the Congress was clearly aimed at the 
left, to further cripple its ability to take part in the 
mainstream of political life. Left-wing parties and trade unions 
already face all manner of official harassment as well as a 
campaign of intimidation and murder at the hands of 
paramilitaries.

The regime pulled out all the stops to get the minimum 25 percent 
of those eligible to cast their vote. On the cynically named 
"Civic Day", public transport was provided free to voters and 
those who would normally be working were given a paid holiday. It 
was reported that large numbers of workers took advantage of this 
offer to return blank or mutilated voting slips.

Uribe was hoping that the measures would serve, among other 
things, to save US$7 billion over the next seven years. The money 
was to be redirected to infrastructure projects and, in 
particular, to escalating the war on leftist guerrilla groups 
like the FARC and the ELN.

He also wanted the measures in place before the arrival next 
month of an IMF mission that will be reviewing Colombia's 
"progress" in applying the terms of a US$2.1 billion, two-year 
accord signed in January. The agreement demanded the imposition 
of austerity measures on the already impoverished Colombian 
people.

In the end, the referendum fell far short of the quota required. 
The embarrassment caused cabinet members to offer their 
resignations. Uribe has since recovered his composure 
sufficiently to threaten the US$7 billion worth of savings 
without the sanction of the people.

Seventeen union leaders who were at the forefront of the campaign 
to abstain from voting had lock themselves in their headquarters 
to avoid assassination attempts by the government-connected 
paramilitaries.

The Uribe Government ignored calls for guarantees for their 
safety. The Communist Party and the Social and Political Front 
had also been targeted for their activity in opposition to the 
referendum.

The defeat of the referendum coincided with a resounding victory 
for left and progressive forces at the partial elections held on 
the same weekend. Luis Eduardo ("Lucho") Garzon was elected mayor 
of the capital Bogota, a city of seven million people. He is the 
Bogota's first left-wing mayor.

The position is considered the second most important in the 
country after the President and is traditionally viewed as a 
springboard for the presidency.

Lucho, a former cleaner and trade union leader, campaigned in 
favour of the interests of the poor and against the 
confrontationist policies of the government. His Independent 
Democratic Party wants improvements in health, education and the 
establishment of food banks for the poor. It also calls for the 
military to be put in its place. "We believe that security 
policies must be based on the premise that the citizens are above 
the military", Lucho told supporters recently.

Left-wing candidates also won the mayoralty in the Valle del 
Cauca department, in Medellmn, Colombia's second biggest city and 
in Barrancabermeja, the nation's central urban port where the 
production and export of oil is concentrated.

The Colombian election result and the defeat of the referendum 
are only the latest examples of a growing popular resistance to 
the neo-liberal agenda being imposed on Latin America. Last month 
Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was forced to resign 
when the people rose up against government plans to deliver that 
country's rich natural gas deposits into the hands of the 
transnationals for export.

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