At times masked beneath decades of paramilitary repression and hidden behind headlines about Colombia’s armed guerrilla armies, Colombia’s mass movement has survived against all odds. It is now reemerging into the light of day, seemingly without notice in the international press.
On November 9, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos seemed to retreat in the face of a massive nationwide student strike that has lasted since October 12. Santos offered to withdraw his “educational reform” bill from the Colombian congress and sit down to negotiate with the student movement.
Students responded with a massive demonstration today that closed all of the major thoroughfares of the city. (See photos from El Tiempo, the main newspaper of Colombia.)
Speaking at the main demonstration in the Plaza Bolivar, surrounded by the Presidential Palace and the Capitol, former senator Piedad Cordoba warned students, “The proposal of Santos has a loophole. Students must continue their national strike … this mobilisation is a victory for mothers and fathers of families, for campesinos and for victims of the state.” (“La propuesta de Santos tiene conejo. Los estudiantes deben continuar el paro nacional … esta movilización es una victoria de madres y padres de familia, de campesinos y víctimas del Estado”, El Espectador, November 11).
Students and faculty will be meeting over the weekend to decide on their course of action.
The students number about 550,000 students at 42 public universities scattered around the country in cities including Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla, Cartagena, Pereira, Bucaramanga, Cúcuta, Tunja, Popayán and Pasto. Their strike is against Law 30, which is billed as educational reform. It is in fact part of the international corporate educational reform movement aimed at privatising public education. Law 30 would take the first steps by redefining education as a service rather than as a right. Currently, Colombia’s constitution defines education as a right and Colombian law permits only two types of universities: public and non-profit.
The new law allows for a new category of university: mixed public-private universities. The original draft of the law specifically called for making these mixed ventures for-profit ventures, although the words “for profit” were dropped from more recent drafts in an effort to sneak the law past public opinion. The law would also permanently underfund public universities, thus opening the door wider to competition from better funded private universities, and establish a voucher like system to funnel off students from public universities into the new for-profit private system paid for with what used to be public university funds.
While the student movement never disappeared, over the years it had become smaller and was often dominated by los encapuchados (the hooded ones: black-hooded militants who fight with the police. Their chosen weapons are potatoes packed with nails and explosives). Exactly who the hooded militants are nobody knows, but when they appear to fight with the police, mass demonstrations become difficult or impossible. Recent demonstrations have seen students successful arguing with encapuchados against disruption. Today’s demonstrations saw an almost total absence of their activities. The government has used them as an excuse to invade campuses with police, violating the traditional autonomy of Colombia’s universities. (One of the student movement’s goals is complete restoration of university autonomy.)
The student movement is not the only part of the mass movement to reemerge, workers’ struggles are also on the rise. Last year’s long sugarcane workers’ struggle has now been followed by a sharp conflict between oil workers and their allies against Pacific Rubiales in the eastern llanos of Colombia; it continues unabated and unresolved. Pacific Rubiales is one of the oil companies established by former PDVSA executives after Hugo Chavez cleaned out the corrupt offices of that company in Venezuela. It is traded on the Toronto stock exchange even though a number of its officers are under investigation there for securities fraud. When British Petroleum sold its Colombian holdings to meet some of its obligations related to the gulf oil disaster, Pacific Rubiales became the second-largest oil producer in Colombia.
It is leading the charge to explore and develop heavy oil deposits in Colombia’s eastern llanos, which are essentially identical to the oilfields in western Venezuelan llanos.
Although Colombia’s state-owned oil company Ecopetrol has been turned into a for profit public-private mixed venture, its workers and their union, the USO, maintain high wage and benefit levels and relatively good working conditions. Ecopetrol is using Pacific Rubiales and other private companies to undermine USO and Colombian oil workers in general. The new private companies are non-union and offer abominable working conditions and wages often 50% less or lower than those of Ecopetrol workers.
In addition their drilling operations have violated the rights of Indigenous communities and have shown even more disregard for the environment than Ecopetrol and the larger multinationals. Ecopetrol is a partner in all of the Pacific Rubilaes ventures and receives a split of the oil rents the Colombian state has so generously given to foreign oil companies. The state keeps a small part of these rents in the form of royalties.
All of this has led to a revolt of oil workers, and the communities and Indigenous peoples living in the areas around the fields that Pacific Rubiales is developing.
This issue is not unrelated to the students’ protests since the underfunding of public education, and much more, could be funded with the country’s oil rents if they had not been handed out like candy to privately owned oil companies like Pacific Rubiales under the World Bank-sponsored private development model.
Polo Democratico Alternativo
The mass movement on the streets has been supported by the social-democratic electoral movement, now split into the Polo Democratico Alternativo and the Progressistas.
The Polo was an umbrella group that brought together the traditional Communist Party, Maoists, the M-19 movement, Trotskyists and many shades of social democrats, as well as the ANAPO movement descended from former military dictator Rojas Pinilla. The Polo nearly self-destructed when its two most important public leaders split over a major corruption scandal. The party’s most recent presidential candidate, Gustavo Petras, accused Bogotá’s Mayor Samuel Moreno and his brother Ivan Moreno of orchestrating massive fraud in the city’s construction contracting. As the scandal unraveled, the two brothers were suspended from Polo membership, then Ivan Moreno was arrested and Samuel Moreno was removed from his post as mayor.
Finally, the Polo split between supporters of Petro, a former M-19 leader, and defenders of Moreno. Most of the traditional left remained in the Polo, while Petro and his supporters left to form a new party called the Progressistas. In city elections held at the end of October, Petro was elected mayor as the candidate of the Progressistas, while the Polo’s candidate received only 2% of the vote.
Also worthy of note in those local and regional elections held around the country is the fact that candidates supported and sponsored by former president Alvaro Uribe were trounced. This is a sure sign that the usefulness of the paramilitaries to the big capitalists of Colombia and to foreign investors is coming to an end. Uribe was the pitbull of the ruling class let loose to fight the FARC and ELN, but once those organisations were politically and militarily defeated, the ruling class is putting the dog back on the chain.
The FARC has suffered from a very long string of political defeats that deprive it of popular support. Now its leadership is being systematically assassinated by the Colombian military. The most recent victim was Alfonso Cano (Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas), the FARC’s top commander.
Cano was assassinated near his camp in the mountains of Valle on November 4. Camped with about 25 other members of the FARC, the Colombian army attacked with 30 aircraft and 800 soldiers. The Colombian government almost certainly had known the location of Cano for a long time before the attack. FARC internet and cell phone communications have long been tracked by US contractors flying out of Colombian airbases. To this intelligence has been added the confessions of guerrilleros who have been captured or who demobilised and accepted payments of large rewards for information leading to the death or capture of FARC leaders.
In the case of Cano the government says it will pay about US$2,000,000 in rewards. The government also has been able to capture FARC computers and computer memories, but how much real information they have obtained from computers found after bombardments is open to debate. (In the most famous case, the computers of murdered FARC commander Raul Reyes, information was clearly doctored by the Colombian government.)
Like the assassinations of other FARC leaders in the recent past (Raul Reyes, Mono Jojoy and numerous others), the attack on Cano was timed for maximum political effect, occurring just days before a meeting with the presidents of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador here in Bogotá. This was the first time that all of the presidents of the Andean Community of Nations had met in Colombia in many years, and it was meant as a show of friendship that would have been impossible when Alvaro Uribe was president.
The killing of Cano was a nasty reminder of Colombia’s impunity in its attack on Ecuador, which resulted in the murder of FARC commander Raul Reyes.
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal , By Anthony Boynton, Bogotá, Colombia, November 10, 2011