8 Sept 2008

Derek Wall addresses Colombian Left Party in London

I had the pleasure of addressing the London members of Polo Democrático the Colombian left party on saturday , the great Diana Raby spoke as well and translated my words. My Spanish is nearly ok for reading leaflets and asking for Cafe con leche, por favor but little else, I am afraid.

Polo have a nice site I would recommend glancing at

I hoping that all progressive Colombians including the Greens can work together, political conflict has been endemic since Gaitan the great radical leader was killed in 1948. Under Uribe trade unionists are still being killed as this report in the Morning Star notes:

The other Colombia
(Monday 08 September 2008)

In focus: PAUL HASTE investigates why trade unions are in Colombia's firing line.

COLOMBIA'S unions endure the most extreme persecution imaginable. More than 40 union activists, including health workers, teachers, oil and mine workers and even bank employees, have been assassinated so far this year, while other union reps escape the bullets only to be thrown into jail by "anti-terrorist" police units.

Forced disappearances, intimidation and death threats are regular occurrences and the far-right paramilitaries who are thought to be responsible for inflicting this reign of terror on Colombia's workers do so with impunity.

One of the reasons for this repression is the trade union movement's determination to fight on behalf of the "other Colombia," revealing the plight of the poor and the dispossessed, and its demands that the country's elite give up some of its massive wealth to tackle the problem.

This is not a message that the politicians and their hired guns want to hear. But the unions, together with the left opposition Polo Democrático party, will not back down.

They are fighting for the likes of 12-year-old Ángela, who was displaced from her home on the Pacific coast when far-right paramilitaries seized her family's land to make way for lucrative cash-crop plantations.

She and her family fled to the slums of Colombia's capital Bogotá, but big-city life has brought little relief from poverty.

"I know I am malnourished because they told me so at school," she says bluntly, leaning against a Coca-Cola advertising hoarding that also serves as the wall to someone's home.

"This is because, when I was very little, I ate dirt. Now, it's better in the city. I can eat the scraps that are thrown out behind the stores."

Ángela is one of around 28 million Colombians living in poverty. Even the government concedes that almost 50 per cent of all its citizens are condemned to live on less than 7,500 pesos - a little more than £2 - a day.

More than 6 million Colombians endure "miseria," extreme poverty, and attempt to survive on less than 3,000 pesos (90p) a day.

The displaced and dispossessed who make it to Bogotá attempt to settle, as Ángela's family did, in the huge workers' barrio or neighbourhood in the south of the city called Ciudad Bolívar.

More than one million people are scattered among makeshift homes in the close, narrow streets that cover what the barrio residents call "the mountain."

There is water and electricity in the homes further down the steep slopes, but the most recent arrivals have to start their new life in the city in the highest streets in the barrio, where utilities are scarce.

Ángela runs for shelter as a fierce torrential rainstorm begins to convert the dirt streets in the barrio into thick mud streams. The brick walls of the homes here have no mortar and the roofs - a collection of scrap-metal zinc sheets and wooden planks - drip water onto hard earth floors.

Drinking water is collected from a communal tap that trickles out a flow for barely two hours a day.

Ángela sometimes has to miss school to stand in line in the hope that her wait will coincide with those two hours, but she says that it is better than missing school to ask for coins from car drivers at traffic lights.

Ángela's father Hernández works as a baker and sometimes gives her little hot bread rolls called "pan de yuca" so she can sell them to people going to work on the bus.

The legal minimum wage in Colombia is 461,000 pesos a month - about £135 - but Hernández is paid much less and still has to work every day of the week.

Still, he believes that he is fortunate to have work at all. "No-one wants to hire a desterrado," he says, using the term for people who have lost literally everything.

"I had to lie to get work because bosses don't want those who live in Ciudad Bolívar. For the displaced like us, there are no opportunities - you are nothing, no-one wants you."

Hernández and Ángela had to wait two months after arriving in Bogotá before receiving a little state assistance in the form of a 500,000 pesos (£145) grant that finally allowed Ángela to start school.

But, meanwhile, the paramilitaries that Colombian President Álvaro Uribe claimed had "demobilised" and turned in their guns have returned to the capital as criminal gangs.

One illegal armed force, the Águilas Negras or Black Eagles, undeterred by the armoured personnel carriers that serve as police cars in Ciudad Bolívar, has terrorised the residents with threats and even forcibly conscript teenage boys into its ranks.

Despite this, Hernández vows to stay. "It was men like this that made us leave our home. But we are not moving again," he says.

Colombia's unions have put workers like Hernández and his daughter at the forefront of their resistance to the neoliberal policies that are perpetuating the country's extreme poverty.

The Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), Colombia's TUC, has courageously denounced President Uribe for "prioritising war while millions endure poverty."

Union activists in the Polo Democrático point out that 2.5 million people in the capital, Hernández and Ángela among them, are below the poverty line.

And, in Chocó - the Pacific coast state from which they originally fled - the poverty rate reaches an incredible 85 per cent.

The Polo also revealed that at least 80 people, 50 of them children, died of malnutrition last year in Chocó alone, while, throughout Colombia as a whole, an estimated 1,000 children under five years of age die each year from nutritional deficiencies and associated illnesses.

"The country's riches - the wealth from our gold, oil, emeralds, sugar, coffee and exotic fruits - have the potential to end the disgrace that allows a million people to go hungry each day," the Polo has declared.

"Uribe's economic policies profit the multinational companies and the most wealthy and deepen our people's poverty."

Undaunted by the state's repression and the paramilitaries' threats and assassinations, Colombia's opposition have put the elite on notice that they remain determined to expose the injustice of the country's inequalities.

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