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Pope and U.S juggle agendas: jailed Colombian union leaders enmeshed in U.S. intrigues.

BOGOTA, Colombia -- In early July, Pope John Paul II sent a message of solidarity to 13 jailed union leaders from Colombia's national telephone company, Telecom, The pope did not protest the arrest of the labor activists for alleged "terrorism."

But his gesture of support is a significant one: It reveals a willingness by the Vatican to take a stance against neoliberal economic policies and to side with the interests of Latin American workers, following the trend outlined by the bishops of the region during their October 1992 conference in Santo Domingo.

The pope's apostolic blessing was echoed by a declaration from Msgr. Guillermo Vega, assistant director for the Commission for Life, Justice and Peace of the Colombian Episcopal Conference. Vega went a step further than the Vatican, criticizing the terrorism charges slapped on the Telecom union members.

By supporting the Telecom workers, the church is making an indirect statement, albeit weak, against the economic plans the United States has for Latin America. These economic plans include "free" trade for multinationals and foreign investors, privatization of companies owned by Latin American governments and structural adjustment programs -- all strategies that analysts say will bring prosperity to the rich and further impoverishment to the poor.

The Telecom case reveals the way U.S. foreign policy issues, in this case the war on drugs, contain hidden agendas that permit the imposition of economic policies.

On Feb. 24, 1993, a "faceless" Colombian judge issued preliminary charges of terrorism against the 13 union members. The judge -- referred to as faceless because these officials' identities are kept confidential for security reasons -- is a member of a special corps of the judiciary that oversees primarily crimes committed by drug traffickers and left-wing guerrillas.

According to the indictment, the labor leaders were responsible for upsetting public order by leading a strike in April 1992 that left Colombia without long-distance telecommunications services for seven days. The judge claimed the union leaders sabotaged company equipment with talcum powder and removed microchips from computers to paralyze telecommunications service.

The strike was called to force the Colombian government into reconsidering the privatization of Telecom, one of the state's most profitable enterprises and a $5.5 billion asset. Government officials were politically forced to renege on privatization plans, a direct result of the work stoppage, union and Telecom officials say.

"The strike had a lot to do with the government's decision not to privatize Telecom," said Juan Castillo, Telecom's press officer. "And by accusing the leaders of terrorism, the government is sending a message to other state company workers, like members of the USO, the oil company's union, or to workers from the (state- owned banks) saying, look, this can happen to you, too."

A crackdown on Telecom could bring substantial benefits to the U.S. multinational AT&T, especially if the judiciary's hard-line stance speeds up the privatization process. According to an official from the Colombian Ministry of Communications, AT&T's rate of expansion within the United States is reaching its limits, and the company is hungrily seeking new market investments. The telecommunications market in Latin America is presently growing 10 percent each year, as compared to a sluggish 5 percent in other parts of the world.

With privatization policies opening up the market, AT&T's Latin American division is booming. "We should double sales again in three years, and by 1997 we expect to have sales of $1 billion. You have to remember that before 1990, we had no product sales at all in Latin America," Don Smith, the director of AT&T Latin America told the Miami-based International Business Chronicle.

Smith said growth is limited in countries where privatization is lagging behind. And he hailed how sales are "exploding" in Central America "since (former Nicaraguan President Daniel) Ortega and (deposed Panamanian strongman Manuel) Noriega have gone."

Direct intervention from the United States -- the CIA's funding and training of the contras and the 1989 invasion of Panama -- helped create the favorable investment climate in Central America that AT&T's Smith mentioned. Indirect U.S. influence on judicial reforms may eventually bring about similar results in Colombia.

Colombia's antiterrorist legislation and the creation of the office of the Fiscalia, a powerful judicial division not unlike the U.S. federal prosecutor, which oversees the faceless judges and the cases of terrorism, were not solely President Cesar Gaviria's inventions. Ghost writers from the U.S. Agency of International Development's "Administration of Justice" program were influencing the Colombian architects of the judicial reforms throughout the entire process.

AOJ programs in Latin America aim to strengthen democratic processes in nations receiving judicial aid. In the case of Colombia, however, AOJ funds and advisory assistance have helped prop up a system of antiterrorist legislation and the creation of judicial offices that are being used, in part, to repress legitimate social protest.

Yale law student Chris Jochnick conducted a series of interviews in Colombia in July and August 1991 as part of a university practicum on human rights. He drafted an analysis about U.S. judicial and military aid, human rights and the war on drugs in Colombia for the Colombian branch of the Andean Commission of Jurists. Jochnick's interviews with Jim Smith, at the time the U.S. Embassy's AID representative and coordinator of the AOJ program, revealed the magnitude of influence exercised by U.S. advisers in the process of designing Colombia's antiterrorist judicial strategies.

Smith told Jochnick that AID committed $36 million to the Colombian judiciary for a four-year period beginning in 1991, making the program the biggest of its kind run by the United States in the world.

The AOJ aid represents a huge increase in the U.S. government's commitment to financially prop up the Colombian judiciary. The rise in aid paralleled the intensification of the repressive nature of Colombian antiterrorist legislation. From an average of $750,000 per year in the last half of the 1980s, U.S. aid jumped to $36 million for that four-year period beginning in 1991 -- an average of $9 million per year, or an increase of 1,100 percent.

AID's Smith admitted to Jochnick that the United States had substantially influenced the reforms. He said joint planning between AID-AOJ and high ranking members of the judiciary had been going on for four years. Smith admitted that the design of the public-order courts was influenced through U.S. funds that supported an investigative group that set up plans for these tribunals.

Granted, U.S. support has helped some of Colombia's faceless judges issue sentences against drug traffickers.

Last year, Cali narcotics entrepreneur Ivan Urdinola got a weak four-and-a-half-year sentence for drug trafficking. Intelligence sources in Colombia had Pope John Paul II sent a message of solidarity to 13 jailed union leaders from Colombia's national telephone company, Telecom, and did not protest the arrest of the labor activists for alleged "terrorism." linked Urdinola to a ruthless band of paramilitary killers in the northern region of the country's Valle department. One of the victims of these squadrons of killers was a parish priest, Tiberio de Jesus Fernandez, who was hacked to death with a chain saw along with 16 peasants in 1991.

Urdinola has not been charged with paramilitary crimes and his sentence for trafficking could be further reduced if he works, studies and behaves well in prison. Medellin drug cartel leader Jorge Luis Ochoa, meanwhile, got a light eight-and-a-half-year sentence earlier this year. He may also get out sooner on good behavior.

Eduardo Umana, the lawyer defending the Telecom union leaders charged with terrorism, said if his clients are convicted they will most likely get 10-to 15-year sentences.
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Title Annotation:Pope John Paul II issues statement of support
Author:Wirpsa, Leslie
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jul 30, 1993
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