Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has been adamant that 56 prisoners held by the country’s principal guerilla army, the left-leaning Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), would be freed by military rescue operations, not through a humanitarian exchange.
But on May 25, Uribe announced plans to release hundreds of guerrilla prisoners in preparation for a negotiated exchange. His switch suggests his mounting concerns over the political fallout from recent revelations about government-paramilitary ties and a rising popular mobilization against his policies.
Currently, 13 Colombian congresspersons are in jail because of ties to murderous, private, right-wing paramilitary groups. A former government intelligence chief has been implicated, and Uribe’s foreign minister resigned because of family connections with the paramilitaries.
In April, Sen. Gustavo Petro accused Uribe family members and the president himself of organizing and assisting paramilitaries and drug traffickers in Antioquia state. Petro has since received death threats.
Disclosures that the government had monitored telephone calls of politicians and union leaders for two years led to the recent resignation of high-ranking police officers, the national police chief and the intelligence head.
On May 15, former paramilitary chief Salvatore Mancuso confessed to hundreds of politically motivated killings and testified to corporate payments to paramilitaries. He had plotted with the vice president and defense minister. More embarrassing testimony is expected from 53 paramilitary chieftains yet to testify in return for light sentences.
On May 23, hundreds of thousands of Colombians participated in a general strike. Labor unions were heavily involved, as were activists in the Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA, Colombia’s opposition electoral coalition), along with students, who were described as the “backbone of the protests.”
Despite rain and hail, 11 columns of marchers converged on Bogota’s Plaza de Bolivar, filling it with demonstrators. They were demonstrating against the U.S. “free trade” agreement, neoliberalism, cuts in university funding and privatization.
Only six days before, 30,000 students demonstrated in Bogota against Uribe’s Plan for National Development, which calls reducing government contributions to public employee pensions. Such a move, students and teachers said, would lead to deeper cuts in student programs, curricula and staff pensions. Student fees would rise and teachers would leave, they said.
Echoing these concerns, the Colombian Federation of Educators, a union representing 300,000 teachers, participated in the May 23 general strike and announced its own strike against Uribe’s plan.
Indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples used May 23 to protest exploitation of natural resources, cuts in support programs, and failed education and health services. In La Guajira they blamed the El Cerrejon coal mining company for displacing communities, spoiling the environment and exploiting contract labor.
The next day peasants in Suarez, Cauca, launched a permanent assembly in defense of “collective patrimony, natural resources and their rights.” At a June 1-7 “open town meeting,” they plan to charge local officials with corruption and discrimination.
President Uribe has verbally abused the PDA as it begins to organize for regional elections on Oct. 27, accusing its leader and former presidential candidate Carlos Giviria of associating with “terrorists.”
But such maneuvers are less and less effective. False accusations and wiretap abuse have led the U.S. media to raise questions about continued U.S. support for Colombia. On May 17, the Washington Post characterized the wiretaps as “shameful for an ally that had received $4 billion in aid.”
Carlos Lozano, editor of the Communist newspaper Voz, sees President Richard Nixon as a model for Alvaro Uribe. “For much less than all of this, Richard Nixon fell in the United States. … This could mean the end of Uribe.”
Anti-government opposition remains predominantly peaceful. Sen. Petro wants “battalions of legal defenders for the victims,” not “battalions of soldiers.”
For the FARC, May 25 marked the 43rd anniversary of the battle of Marquetalia, when 42 peasants held off 16,000 soldiers engaged in a “final offensive.” The FARC’s battle continues against troops supported by U.S. military hardware and mercenaries. The insurgents, who see the Colombian government as corrupt and subservient to U.S. corporate interests, are looking toward “a space of convergence and unity of all who seek independence and democracy,” according to a statement.