By James Vassilopoulos
During the recent 21-day public sector strike in Colombia, eight trade unionists were assassinated. The murderers were paramilitary units possibly linked to the conservative government of Andres Pastrana, elected in August.
The nationwide public sector strike, involving 800,000 workers, began on October 7. The struggle waged by the public sector union, Fenaltrase, and the United Workers' Federation (CUT), the main national union body, included a mass demonstration of 200,000 in Bogotá, the country's capital.
While the army forcibly removed oil workers who had occupied refineries, bank workers sprayed police with high pressure hoses, to stop police from evicting them from the state-run bank.
The unionists were protesting against the government's austerity program and regressive tax changes. The government wants to extend the 16% goods and services tax more broadly.
Finance minister Juan Camilo Restrepo said he wants to reduce the public sector deficit from 4.5% of gross domestic product to 2% within 14 months. This would mean severe cuts in social services and increases in taxes on the poor.
Although the government's austerity program is largely intact, the unions won concessions in the form of a 15% wage increase.
Jorge Luis Ortega Garcia, vice-president of the CUT, was gunned down on October 20. He was shot six times as he entered the building in which he lived.
A statement signed by more than 30 human rights organisations declared that they "do not hesitate to identify the Colombian state, and the governments of Presidents Sampler and Pastrana as the only authors of this abominable crime".
The statement outlined the evidence implicating the government in the murder. Ortega one day before his death identified the state as the only institution responsible if there was any attempt on his life. For five months Ortega had asked for security measures to protect him, but he had received no assistance.
One month before his death, Ortega's house was searched by armed men and his wife beaten. He held a meeting with the minister of the interior to demand protection, but none was given.
Other unionists murdered since the beginning of the strike included Jairo Cruz, president of a local branch of the CUT; Hortensia Alfaro Banderas, a nurse who was head of the health workers' union in César; Marco Perez from the electricity workers' union; and Macario Barrera Villota, a teacher from the education union in Huila.
Assassinations of left and trade union activists are nothing new in Colombia. According to the Colombian Labor Monitor, 2300 CUT activists have been assassinated since 1986. The state has charged only one suspect.
The reign of terror includes a propaganda campaign which paints unionists as "narcoterrorist bands" linked to "narcoguerrillas" to undermine "democracy".
A law passed this year makes it illegal to protest. Decree No. 180 states: "Whoever provokes or maintains the population or the sector of the same in a state of unrest or terror ..., the physical integrity or the liberty of persons or the buildings of the media, transport, fuel plants, using means capable of creating hardship will face up to 20 years in prison".
According to Freddy Pulecio, secretary of the oil workers' union, USO, a number of western oil companies are implicated in the violence. It is calling for demonstrations outside the offices of the transnational companies British Petroleum, Amoco, Shell, Exxon and Texaco. The USO is also calling for demonstrations outside Colombian embassies.
The government has suffered a serious setback in failing to recapture the remote state capital of Mitu on November 3, recently taken by the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The FARC and the government are about to begin discussions to end the 34-year civil war. The FARC will be negotiating from a strong position, as they have not lost a battle in nearly a decade.
They have similar demands to the public sector workers, including opposition to austerity and regressive tax changes.