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.