Astonishing events have unfolded in the Colombian capital Bogota over the last few days. Within the space of less than 24 hours last Wednesday hundreds of trade unionists, students, Bogota city cabinet members, left-wing senators and nearly all of the 15,000 impoverished members of the recycling community occupied the offices of the publicly owned water and sewerage company of Bogota – EEAB – despite the massive aggressive presence of the riot squad.
The latter were seeking to enforce a “lightning inspection” by bullying members of the Superintendency of Industry and Commerce (SIC), the regulatory arm of the Ministry of Commerce and Tourism in President Juan Manuel Santos’s neoliberal government.
The “regulators” removed computers, office equipment and local government documents.
According to the occupiers the regulator’s office has heavily contravened both regional and national laws by this violent interference in the lawful activities of both the EEAB and the democratically elected Bogota government.
The hundreds of occupiers now refuse to leave the premises of this public utility and are demanding that central government and the courts investigate the incident, return its property and allow for the peaceful and normal resumption of this public service.
Their actions symbolise solidarity with public-sector workers and with ex-guerilla Mayor Gustavo Petro, who has also decided to camp out in the EEAB offices over the next few days.
This is a raw physical fight for the right to public space and to a decent, transparent public service as against the enforced continued privatisation carried out by Colombian mafias.
Refuse collection has brought huge financial gains in 99 per cent of Colombia’s municipalities for just two rapacious wealthy Colombians – William Velez and Alberto Rios, both apparently close friends of far-right ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez.
There is ample recorded evidence of paramilitary collusion with their private businesses, linked to their disastrous takeover of refuse collection in the north of Colombia and elsewhere.
The refuse service of the capital has been characterised by chronic problems – irregular collections and a lack of a rational recycling strategy.
In this context the entirely wholesome intentions of Petro’s Bogota council has been to create a proper public sewage and refuse service, together with EEAB, with increased recycling and decreased costs to consumers and – most importantly – to formalise the employment conditions of the 15,000 families of destitute recyclers who have been living on below-poverty wages for decades.
But the paramilitary and their big business friends will not give up the stranglehold they have over the juicy gains to be made in construction and refuse operations in the country.
It is thought that they manoeuvered this week’s chaos through illegal contacts within the national system of regulation in order to generate a false picture of corruption by the Bogota local government and effectively perpetuate their business monopoly, irrespective of the environmental chaos and poverty it evidently generates.
And this is not the first time private interests have behaved in this way in Colombia.
A meeting between Petro’s city authorities and President Santos takes place tomorrow.
Meanwhile the occupiers remain – even under the usual threats of violence and possible eventual selective murders of activists by the paramilitary guardians of big business.
Bogota’s citizens are still wondering why the SIC regulators have not, over decades, carried out “lightning investigations” on the self-evidently inept privatised service provided by Velez and other minor players instead of hampering the wholly legal activities of Bogota’s centre-left government.
And why has a superfluous “special presidential overseer for Bogota” been recently appointed by central government in the controversial and unelected figure of Gina Parody – a self-confessed neoliberal opponent of Petro’s policies? This has merely exacerbated the tension.
Even more seriously, what does all this bode for the construction of respect between diverse political currents, an item of supreme importance for the peace process negotiations now taking place in Havana?
We need to give our backing to the EEAB occupiers. This struggle could have repercussions far beyond Bogota.