BOGOTA, Colombia — The office of the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) is on a pleasant residential street in this nation’s capital.
On June 3, it’s a beehive of activity leading up to the party’s 19th Congress. Delegates arrive, some right from work, others after long bus and plane rides from all corners of this, South America’s second most populous country.
Inside, the corridors are lined with portraits and photos of beloved departed leaders. It’s shocking to see, not old men, but the still unwrinkled faces of leaders shot down in their prime gazing out at arriving delegates.
Twenty years of unrelenting waves of assassination of communist, trade union and rural leaders have taken an unimaginable toll. More than 3,500 labor leaders have been assassinated or “disappeared” since the onslaught of what Colombians call “the dirty war.”
Nevertheless, the party forges ahead, drawing its optimism from its deep roots among Colombia’s indomitable working people.
Campo Elias Puentes proudly wears his union jacket to the congress’ opening session; he’s attending his first party congress.
He works for the government-owned telephone system where he operates the hydraulic lifts that boost the linemen high on the poles. It’s tough for a young rank-and-file activist to learn to be a union leader; there are few veterans. He explains simply, “The older generation was assassinated.”
Roots of the conflict
Carlos Lozano, a member of the party’s executive board and the editor of its weekly publication Voz, explains that the absence of land reform lies at the root of the conflict.
An oligarchy of landowners, latifundistas, who made up only 4 percent of the population, controlled 70 percent of the land. Since the 1940s, Lozano says, the campesinos, the rural farmers and farm workers, have fiercely fought for their land. They won political control of many rural districts. But the landowners funded private armies, “paramilitaries,” to terrorize the campesinos and their political supporters.
“The party’s slogan is that the land should belong to the people who work it,” says Lozano. Leading members of the Communist youth went to the countryside 20 years ago to work with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), determined to help the campesinos organize to defend themselves against the aggressions of the latifundistas.
Today FARC is a separate organization, with its own structure and policies, but still has fraternal ties to the party due to their common roots.
“The population is different today than 50 years ago when everything was centered around the production of coffee,” Lozano continues. “Today Colombia is more or less industrialized and most people live in urban centers.” But under new conditions, the paramilitaries and their death squads continue to terrorize the populace.
The party congress is held June 3-6 over a long weekend in a large meeting room at the YMCA near the party’s headquarters. The hall is barely large enough to hold the more than 400 delegates.
Delegates represent a rainbow of Colombia’s diverse population, from the Pacific and Caribbean coasts to the Andean mountains and Amazon region.
Martin Louiza, a 36-year-old mechanic, is a member of the indigenous community in Tolima. He describes a growing struggle by indigenous people to regain their culture and language as well as their lands. Afro-Colombians, who make up close to 20 percent of the population, also have a strong presence at the congress.
Elsida Rojas, 39, is one of 10 delegates from Cartagena. Women seem to constitute about a fourth of the congress, but Rojas is impatient.
“We have made a lot of progress,” she says, but doesn’t hold back on her opinion that more needs to be done to bring in women. She is a secretary who works in the human rights field and also runs a program to feed undernourished children.
The cost of ‘free trade’
The “free trade agreement” being pushed by Colombia’s right-wing President Alvaro Uribe, in partnership with U.S. President George W. Bush, is “oriented to intensifying the exploitation of the work force through the reduction of wages, lengthening the workday, reducing union rights, cutting social security, moving production,” says the PCC congress’ 40-page thesis.
During the next day’s plenary session, rank-and-file delegates are lining up to speak on the political report when someone interrupts from the floor to make an announcement. The brother of one of the delegates was assassinated that morning!
The roar of collective grief and rage lasts only seconds, then a call goes out for a moment of silence. But the delegates come back with a well practiced response, “Ni un momento de silencio!” Then with thunderous clapping and a cry that is more a promise than a lament, they shout, “He who dies in the struggle lives on in every compañero. Somos el partido de esperanza, somos el partido comunista colombiano — We are the party of hope, we are the Colombian Communist Party.”
A U.S.–Colombia military pact, a corollary of the free trade agreement, is already in effect. Named “Plan Colombia,” it was enacted in 1999 under the pretext of a war on drugs. Its real purpose is to channel billions of dollars of U.S. military aid to the legions of paramilitaries who work in the service of an unholy alliance of the old landowner oligarchy with the transnational corporations and the U.S. military. The Bush administration has just raised the cap on the number of military “advisers” in Colombia from 400 to 800, with 600 civilian contractors also employed.
Narco-traffickers also enter into this toxic formula, taking over land to use for drug cultivation. Thus, there is even more concentration of land ownership than before, as narco-traffickers and paramilitaries join with the armed forces to force campesinos off the land.
Paramilitary groups themselves have become important players in the drug business and its profits provide even more funds for their deadly activities. Through Plan Colombia, the U.S. government has poured gasoline on the embers of the armed conflict in Colombia’s countryside.
A major facet of Plan Colombia is the poisoning of the countryside, supposedly to destroy the coca crops which supply the illegal drug market in the United States. But subsistence farmers and their children, crops and animals have been the targets of massive spraying of glyphosate, sold by Monsanto Chemical.
The result is respiratory damage, birth defects, cancer and skin rashes, and the contamination of banana, coffee, and other crops and water sources which affect the entire Amazon area.
Three million of Colombia’s 40 million people have now been displaced, driven from their homes to faraway cities with no means of support, fleeing the violence, theft of land and toxic spraying.
The ideological component of Plan Colombia is an international campaign to portray FARC and the campesinos defending their land as terrorists and drug dealers, and the paramilitaries as defenders of law and order.
How effective in fighting drug use is the $2 million a day that U.S. taxpayers pour into Plan Colombia? Critics call the program a “costly failure.”
After six years, the National Drug Intelligence Center reports cocaine availability in the U.S. as “stable or slightly increased.” A 1994 RAND study concluded that treatment for cocaine users is 23 times more effective than drug crop eradication.
Not only the latifundistas but also transnational corporations moving into Colombia’s economy have been quick to use paramilitaries as their private armies, murdering thousands of the country’s militant trade unionists.
According to a suit against Coca-Cola Corp. filed in U.S. federal court by the United Steelworkers union, during local contract negotiations a Coke bottling plant manager in Carepa gave the order to paramilitaries “to carry out the task of destroying the union.”
The paramilitary troops gunned down union leader Isidro Segundo Gil at the plant gates, rounded up the plant’s workers and forced them to quit the union. They drove 27 workers out of the region under threat of their lives. That ended contract negotiations.
The plant manager and local paramilitary leaders were arrested, then released without charges, but five union leaders who protested the incident were locked up for six months.
Why has the U.S. government made Colombia the third-biggest recipient of its military “aid”? Like recipients one and two (Israel and Egypt), Colombia anchors an important oil-producing region, says PCC International Secretary Alfredo Holguin. Colombia is the seventh-largest U.S. oil supplier.
But the U.S. also wants to use Colombia as a launching pad against Venezuela, with which it shares a border, and against the rest of Latin America. Making Colombia into a beachhead for U.S. military and political power in Latin America would provide a base for disrupting the new networks of solidarity being launched by progressive governments in Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay and Cuba.
The Uribe government
Alvaro Uribe, elected in 2002, is a close ally of the Bush administration and a champion of both Plan Colombia and the free trade agreement still under negotiation. While condemning in words the activities of the paramilitaries, Uribe’s administration allows them to carry out their death squad activities with impunity — fewer than a dozen charges have been placed in the thousands of assassinations.
The Uribe government has also sought to undermine the militant class-conscious labor movement both ideologically and through “labor law reform.” Uribe claims his programs are aimed at creating a classless pais de propietarios or a “society of owners,” an eerie echo of Bush’s “ownership society.” In practice, where workers previously had contracts guaranteeing their jobs, they now can be fired “at will,” and social security benefits — which in Colombia include health care — have been slashed.
Ending the violence tops the agenda of the Colombian people. The PCC sees the defeat of Uribe as critical to the goal of achieving a negotiated settlement of the armed conflict. Uribe’s government refuses to negotiate even the most elementary questions, such as humanitarian prisoner exchanges, insisting on only a military “solution.”
Gran Coalición Democratica
Colombia’s largest labor federation, Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), has brought together and is leading an unprecedented array of organizations and social movements called the Gran Coalición Democratica, which will put forth a candidate for president in 2006. The coalition includes other labor federations, several left parties, including the Communist Party, and organizations of indigenous people, as well as civic and community groups.
The second day of the congress culminates in a public event at a convention center. Featured speakers are PCC General Secretary Jaime Caycedo and Sen. Carlos Gaviria, whom the party is supporting to be the GCD’s candidate for president. Gaviria is a member of the Alternativa Democratica, a coalition of left parties in the Parliament.
The 5,000 Colombians who jam the hall include many members of organizations in coalition with the PCC. Inside is a riot of color from the streaming red banners and glorious flowers of Colombia which bedeck the speakers’ platform.
Caycedo stresses that the upcoming election is critical to all of Latin America. Its outcome will be decisive to blocking the intervention of the North American military. “The people in Venezuela can count on the people and workers of Colombia,” Caycedo vows.
Soon the delegates return to their homes, armed with plans for unity and struggle, nourished with solidarity, full of hope and fight for this beautiful country.
Roberta Wood (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the People’s Weekly World labor editor. She represented the Communist Party USA at the recent Colombian Communist Party congress. Cristóbal Cavazos contributed to this story.