Colombia's Public Services

An interview with Alex Lopez of SINTRAEMCALI*

April 15, 2003

Alexander Lopez Maya is one of the union activists who exposed corruption at the top levels of Cali Municipal Utilities between 1998 and 2002. He helped build international solidarity for Cali's public services union, SINTRAEMCALI, and led peaceful occupations of municipal buildings in 1998 to prevent privatization. In 2001, when another attempt was made to privatize the city's public utilities corporation (EMCALI), SINTRAEMCALI occupied Cali's city hall and again prevented privatization. The struggle of SINTRAEMCALI to success despite persecution by the government and threats by paramilitaries is an incredible story, and Alex Lopez is one of the leaders of that movement.

In March 2002 he was elected to the Colombian House of Representatives as part of the 'Polo Democratico', one of the few members in Congress who are not part of Colombia's two party, Liberal/Conservative monopoly on politics, and is now actively campaigning against Uribe's proposed omnibus referendum. He was interviewed in Toronto in March 2002.

Tell us about Uribe's proposed referendum.

Referenda are a mechanism established in the constitution of 1991. According to that constitution, referenda are meant to consult citizens on major strategic issues facing the whole country. So, you would imagine that such a referendum would have a question like-should we go to war. Or should we join the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Or, in Northern Ireland, should we accept the peace process. You would expect 1, or perhaps 2 questions.

Uribe wants to use the referendum to get approval for his International Monetary Fund-sponsored policy, and his referendum ballot has 19 questions.

The questions come in three blocs. First, the economic agenda. Second, the political agenda, and third, the IMF's agenda. And if you vote for one, you're voting for them all. And the most important questions are at the end of the ballot.

What parts of the referendum are the IMF's agenda?

Proposals for new taxes for workers. Labour reforms that take away worker's rights. A pension reform that reduces benefits. There is one that is supposedly to 'remove corruption' in the public services-by privatizing them, which means by handing them over to the corruptors themselves and those who serve them. The political agenda involves removing protections and guarantees to political forces outside of the Liberal/Conservative bloc.

Your own political group, the 'Polo Democratico', isn't part of the Liberal or Conservative parties. You come from a militant union activist background, some of the most militant and activist organizing going on. What has your experience been like, in the Colombian Congress?

It has been important. It was perplexing to see how the country is run. This congress was supposedly selected by the people of the country but it works against their interests and in the interests of people outside the country. So, seeing how all this works from the inside has been positive, but sad.

SINTRAEMCALI's story of successfully beating a privatization is an inspiration to so many. Can you tell us some of how it was done?

Some background: in 1991, there was a constitutional reform in Colombia that had some important positive aspects but also brought neoliberalism to Colombia. From that constitution's ratification in 1991, there was a delay while the neoliberal model was developed through specific laws-on health, education, and so on. In 1993, the law on public sector privatization was passed. This involved water, electricity-- public services.

At the time I was working in the public sector. In 1994, law 142 was passed, allowing the state to sell its enterprises. Until that point, the union I was part of was just a calm, normal union working on normal grievances. I was studying law at the time as well, and I got to studying law 142. I realized that the law was against the interests not only of the union, but of the users of these public services as well. In 1995, a group of us occupied the Spanish Embassy to protest the privatizations. We organized some national marches.

The first fight in Cali came in 1996. The municipal council had decided to sell the public energy and telecommunications to a US companies, and the water system to a Spanish company. We did some occupations and were severely sanctioned. 600 workers were sanctioned for 90 days. The privatization was to take effect in 1998.

The decision changed the character of our union and our direction. In 1998, we took over the municipal building for 16 days, until the municipality passed a bylaw suspending the privatizations. We were working in the communities and neighbourhoods, showing videos, giving talks, working in local community radio and television since 1994, so there was a high level of understanding about what public services meant.

In 1998, the union prepared a full proposal, with technical and political components, defending the public patrimony. That work provided a solid basis and a strong case, because the other side simply lacked arguments. The public services were making money, providing good services, very good services, to 97-98% of the population!

The mayor then went to President Pastrana, trying to argue that it was financially unviable, trying to persuade the national government to take it over in order to liquidate it. Law 142 states that the national government can liquidate a financially unviable public enterprise at any time. We went to municipal council and defeated that initiative on 14 separate occasions.

In 2000, I had to leave the country after 3 attempts on my life. I was able to continue working for the union from the UK, and that experience also helped us build our network of international solidarity. In January of 2001, the union won a very good deal with Pastrana: no privatization, controls on user fees, and a commission to investigate corruption. The corruption issue is important because one of the reasons they want to privatize is in order to hide the corruption that is going on at the high levels of these enterprises. Between 1995-2001, our estimates are that about $500 million USD was embezzled from EMCALI.

The deal held until Alvaro Uribe Velez, who doesn't honour agreements, took over. On December 2001 the intention to privatize became known, so we occupied the municipal towers again, this time for 36 days, and managed to prevent privatization, for now.

What is the Polo Democratico doing?

We have presented a law against all privatizations. This law is not going to get passed in Congress, but we will use the law to launch a movement. As we did with our proposal in Cali, we will take this law to the people, and Colombians will defend it. There is movement already-already in many cities where privatizations have happened citizens are simply refusing to pay. We want to coordinate the struggles using this proposal as a tool. It worked in Cali, it can work all over the country. Poor people spend 40% of their income on utilities, in some jurisdictions.

Does EMCALI have a relationship to USO, the oil-workers who are out on strike?

Yes, we support USO. The government says that USO's strike is illegal. The agenda is the same. Uribe has said he wants to privatize EMCALI before May. At the same time, the government has given out 20 new oil concessions. That's not coincidental.

Uribe has made Colombia a member of the US 'coalition of the willing' in the war on Iraq. Is there a relationship between Uribe's foreign and domestic policy?

Uribe has bet everything on his relationship with the United States. If the US asked him to cut his own head off, he would.

The social sectors of the country have repudiated a war on Iraq, and joining it will be politically costly for Uribe. People are asking-in Colombia, we have a civil war, a conflict that this president has been unable to solve. What business does he have going to war in another country? And this leads to the broader questions of 'what kind of president is this?' 'Whose interests is he serving, anyway?'

*by Justin Podur

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