At least 30 people in Colombia have been reportedly killed since a nationwide uprising erupted against the government of right-wing President Iván Duque. Protesters are vowing to remain in the streets amid a deadly crackdown by police and military officers. About 800 people have been injured and 87 people are missing in the midst of the demonstrations, which were initially sparked by a now-withdrawn tax reform proposal, but they have since expanded in scope. People in Colombia are also denouncing rampant police brutality and demanding broader social, economic and political reforms. At least 15 people were killed in a massacre in the city of Cali on April 30 after police repeatedly opened fire on protesters. “The country has been a place of repression,” says Emilia Márquez Pizano, sex and gender director with the Colombian nonprofit Temblores, which collects data on police violence in the country. We also speak with Manuel Rozental, a Colombian activist with more than 40 years of involvement in grassroots political organizing and member of the collective Pueblos en Camino. He says “Colombians are fed up” with what he describes as the “fascist mafia regime” of Iván Duque. “They have pushed Colombians into the streets because most Colombians have nothing to lose,” Rozental says.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. You can sign up for our Daily Digest, our email we send out, by texting the word “democracynow” — one word, no space — to 66866, “democracynow,” text it to 66866.
A nationwide popular strike in Colombia has entered its ninth day despite a deadly crackdown by police and military officers. Over two dozen protesters have been killed since the nationwide uprising erupted last week against the U.S.-backed government of right-wing President Iván Duque and his neoliberal economic policies. Eight hundred people have been injured; 87 are missing. Protesters are vowing to stay in the streets.
PROTESTER: [translated] The strike will continue because we’re up against a government that doesn’t listen, that doesn’t want to listen, that doesn’t want to have talks with the National Strike Committee. There has been terrible repression, attacks on Colombians that are mobilizing across the country.
AMY GOODMAN: The protests began against a now-withdrawn tax reform proposal, but they’ve since expanded in scope. On Wednesday, hundreds staged a die-in in Bogotá to protest the rampant police brutality over the past week. On Tuesday night, over a dozen police stations were set on fire in the capital Bogotá.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has said it’s, quote, “deeply alarmed” by the situation in Cali, where at least 15 protesters have been killed after police repeatedly opened fire. The Afro-Colombian human rights defender Charo Mina Rojas spoke to Democracy Now! Wednesday from her home in Cali.
CHARO MINA ROJAS: The people in Colombia have been mobilized since May 28th as the national strike was called out, demanding not only they withdraw the past reform, but also the health and other reforms that will be very damaging for already impoverished and disenfranchised Black people in cities like Cali, where the main brutal repression has been concentrated. Many of those shot, arrested, injured and disappeared are from Black neighborhoods in Cali.
AMY GOODMAN: The protests come as Colombia is facing a deadly third wave of COVID cases. On average, nearly 500 people are now dying every day. According to The Wall Street Journal, Colombia’s per capita death rate is higher than even India’s. More than 76,000 people have died from COVID in Colombia, the third-highest total in Latin America. The pandemic has also devastated Colombia’s economy, leaving millions out of work and hungry.
We’re joined now by two guests. Dr. Manuel Rozental is a Colombian physician, an activist with more than 40 years of involvement in grassroots political organizing with youth, Indigenous communities, and urban and rural social movements. He has been exiled several times for his political activities. He’s part of the organization Pueblos en Camino, or People on the Path. He’s joining us from Risaralda, which is in the central part of the country, a coffee-growing region. And in Bogotá, we’re joined by Emilia Márquez Pizano, sex and gender director with the Colombian nonprofit Temblores, or Tremors, which collects data on police violence across Colombia.
Emilia, let’s begin with you in Bogotá. Talk about the beginning of this protest, the violent response by the Duque government. Even as he said he’ll pull back the tax reforms he proposed, the protests have only gotten larger.
EMILIA MÁRQUEZ PIZANO: Yes. So, right now the protests have gotten larger, and I think one of the reasons for that is that the government’s repression on these protests has been huge. So, people in Colombia right now are not only tired of — or, are not only protesting because of the political reforms, but because the country has been a place of repression for the last years of this government. And this has led to the murder of social leaders. And now we have this crisis where, up to yesterday, we had 1,700 and more victims of police violence.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Emilia, can you give a sense of why, do you think, the government has responded, the security forces have responded, so brutally to these protests?
EMILIA MÁRQUEZ PIZANO: Well, we cannot be sure of why this is happening. There is obviously some kind of norm that is going on inside the closed doors of the police force. But we can assure that the government has said that the protest is illegitimate. We can say that the government has been calling protesters terrorists. And this has obviously led to more violence. This is obviously a discourse of violence coming from our government. And this, we don’t know if it has a direct consequence on the police violence, but it obviously is not helping stop it.
AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, the Colombian President Iván Duque addressed the nation.
PRESIDENT IVÁN DUQUE: [translated] If an action is presented outside the framework of the Constitution that affects people’s rights, as I have always done, I will not accept it in any way. As corresponds to the rule of law, we will promote all investigations, internal and with the control bodies. But we have to be clear: To those who work for the security of Colombians, all our support and, at the same time, all our expectation. … I want to announce that we will create a space to listen to citizens and construct solutions oriented towards those goals, where our most profound patriotism, and not political differences, should intercede.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Colombia’s right-wing President Iván Duque. Manuel Rozental is joining us, as well, in the central part of Colombia. You’ve been out in the streets. Can you talk about what it looks like there, what happened on Wednesday, and how these protests have grown to include protests of police brutality, inequality, poverty?
DR. MANUEL ROZENTAL: Yes. Good morning, Amy. And it’s wonderful also to be here with Emilia from Temblores. They’ve been doing a fantastic job, the most reliable job, during this episode, during these circumstances in the country.
I’ll summarize this for people to understand. Colombians are fed up. Seventy-three percent of the people in this country approved the strike before it started. And it has only grown since then. And how it feels like, it feels like there is a massive uprising in this country that nobody runs and nobody controls. There’s no vanguard leading this. Although many organizations and unions and organizations have put all their strength into this, this is a spontaneous, massive, national uprising against — and I’m not exaggerating; this is not a political rhetoric — against a fascist mafia regime. There are assassinations and massacres in Colombia throughout the country after the peace agreement with FARC was signed, counted by the thousands. There are also impoverishment of the people. The healthcare system doesn’t work. We didn’t have a healthcare system prior to the pandemic; the pandemic has only made this a lot worse. There is a direct attack against the poor Indigenous people, Afro-Colombians throughout the country. There is ongoing impoverishment.
But here’s what’s happening that explains everything. On the one hand, the Colombian elite and government are linked with drug trafficking, drug trade. That’s why we say mafia. The returns of money from drug trade, Colombia produces 92% of the cocaine that goes around the global market, 40% of which is not going to the U.S. anymore, but to Europe, Asia, Africa, etc. The returns of that equate, more or less — amount to, more or less, 5% of the national product, the PBI. So, there are millions and millions of dollars coming into this country that go to the elites, that permeate all the institutions and that support not this government, which is far right, but a state that has been privatizing, excluding the poor, and using a policy of violence and war against people. That has led the Army and the Colombian police to become private institutions at the service of corporate interests, both transnational extractive industries and drug trade.
So, this is what is happening in the country. The Colombians’ foreign debt is 60% of Colombia’s national product and growing. And that amount of debt is actually — has been created by these elites. But when these elites can’t pay it, they channel a tax reform on the poorest, that are already dying of starvation, unemployment and policies of privatization and generalized violence. So they have pushed Colombians into the streets, because most Colombians have nothing to lose. Amy, two days after the strike began, the Colombian National Statistic Institution, well known to manipulate information to service the government, couldn’t cover up the fact that unemployment, poverty, inequality have grown in such a way in Colombia, in cities like Cali, that’s the center of the uprising, that it is hell for most Colombians.
So, while the Colombian government speaks of removing the tax reform, the minister that proposed it, and actually opening for dialogue, this is just a cover-up. In fact, we have a fascist regime that has ordered the police to shoot and kill. Former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who is actually the president of Colombia and the strongman of this country, has stated, based on the theory of Alexis López, a neo-Nazi from Chile that is teaching at a military university in Colombia, that there is a molecular revolution going on without leaders. And so, the population, being manipulated by a global leftist conspiracy, is leading to the instability of the regime, and they must be crushed by force. So, they have ordered the armed forces, the police to shoot to kill. But not only that, worse than that, they have ordered to shoot and kill anybody, everybody, everywhere. So, during the day, you have a party here, a festivity of people marching peacefully, singing, chanting and wanting a change, because we’re fed up with the regime. And then, at night, the police, the armed forces and then hitmen come out, target people and kill them. So, what we’re facing right now is the promise by Uribe, the Duque government, the Duque administration, the police forces and the armed forces of assassinations throughout.
And finally, just to give you an overview, Colombian president has used — the Constitution of Colombia to allow for a state of exception, where the Army can be called to assist the cities, if needed. But that is for a major earthquake, a national catastrophe. But he has used that to call on the Army to enter the major cities of this country. So, in fact, Bogotá, Cali, Medellín are under the control of the armed forces. The mayors, elected mayors, have no power at the moment. The cities are overrun by the armed forces. And the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, involved in the past in false positives, has promised the wealthy that it will crush the rebellion. So you have, on the one side, people that want a change, that want freedom, that can’t stand anymore poverty, war, terror, a foreign elite that he’s enriching itself beyond belief, and, on the other hand, you have a fascist regime that has promised to crush this and kill everybody.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Rozental, if you could talk about — you’ve just said that major cities in Colombia have been — are now controlled by the military. Do you expect that more parts of the country will come under direct military control?
DR. MANUEL ROZENTAL: Yes, yes, absolutely. I mean, there has been an intention in the past, in previous protests and mobilizations, of this exact same script. In November of 2019, President Duque called for a dialogue. And for him, dialoguing is meeting with the far-right political parties, then the liberal parties, then Colombian national government institutions, and eventually, after six, eight, 10 months, he will meet with popular movements. There was a national strike of students in this country that lasted months, just in protection for education as a right. President Duque met with Maluma, a singer, a rapper, and he did not meet with the students. In the meantime, he continued to murder them.
So we are absolutely convinced that we are advancing towards a military control of the entire country. While his rhetoric is one of dialogue, and he will remove one or two ministers, etc., and a piece of legislation that he will actually implement in another way, we do not believe him. We know — we know — fascism is advancing in Colombia. And, Amy, with your question, if this is not stopped in Colombia — Álvaro Uribe is admired by the newly elected president of Ecuador, he’s admired by Piñera in Chile, he’s admired by Bolsonaro in Brazil — you will have a fascist wave in this country.
So, if President Biden and his government are not just rhetoric, they have to show that they are not going to support this. And the only — the only — force and power that this country responds to is the United States. And this government, in particular, has always knelt down to U.S. policies. So I can say openly and clearly to those listening to us: If the U.S. stops this, it will stop fascism. If it doesn’t, they are in complicity with what is happening here.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Rozental, you mentioned earlier the fact that the healthcare system in Colombia was already on the verge of collapse prior to the pandemic. Could you talk a little bit more about what’s happened since the pandemic began, and now especially as the country is facing the third wave, these protests are ongoing, and the effects on poverty levels of these repeated lockdowns as a result of which many people have not been able to work?
DR. MANUEL ROZENTAL: Yes. When you introduced this segment, you mentioned the fact that the COVID pandemic is affecting people — the rate of attack is greater than that in India, where there’s a global catastrophe and disaster.
I must just mention briefly the fact that the Colombian health system was created — and I know this because I was there when it happened — was created through legislation that was presented to Congress by Álvaro Uribe Vélez. The purpose of this legislation and this system is to transfer funds and savings of Colombian population to the financial private sector. And it transferred the responsibility for the care of people in Colombia to the financial sector. So, what it actually did was use health as a pretext to capitalize the private sector. So the healthcare system in Colombia is very effective, because it was created to further enrich the richest. It was not created to look after the health needs of the poor. And that’s how it works.
If you go, normally, to be looked after because you’re ill, they’ll probably give you acetaminophen and send you home and will not look after you. So, the access to the healthcare system, you have to go through suing the government regularly and these private corporations in order to access your right to healthcare. They will not give you anything further than basic care, because they are there to make a lot of money. So, this will give you an idea as to how — what the situation was before we went into the COVID pandemic. I am a physician. I have physician friends. I have taught medicine here. And I am frightened if I have to go to a hospital. They will not look after me. It’s a systematic, structural mechanism to not look after you so that they can make money. Under these circumstances, access to intensive care units, access to diagnostics were almost impossible.
So, Colombia, the Colombian minister of health, the Ministry of Health and the government lie about the pandemic. The registration and the number of cases we have is way below the truth. I went to the hospital in April of last year with my daughter, with symptoms that could have been COVID. They were dengue fever. I was not tested. And the physician in charge told me I was not allowed to be tested, by the government. So, there’s subregistration of the number of cases, on the one hand. Then, 90% of the deaths from COVID in Colombia have occurred in the three lower strata of the population, so it’s killing the poor. Poor people cannot stay at home, because the informal economy forces them to be on the streets to survive. And, of course, staying at home to prevent an infection has led to the impoverishment of the people, horrendous impoverishment.
But further still, we are under state of siege throughout the country. Because of COVID, they have ordered us to stay in, and they have placed military, Army, police throughout the country. And it is in places where the Army and the police are and we cannot get out, where massacres and assassinations of social leaders have occurred.
So, at the moment when the strike began, we were facing despair and the third wave of COVID. Where I am now, there are no ICU beds left. People are simply dying without access to ICU. Cities like Bogotá, Cali and Medellín have more than 95% occupation of ICU beds, so they cannot deal with this. And —
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Manuel Rozental —
DR. MANUEL ROZENTAL: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us, Colombian physician and activist, and end with Emilia Márquez Pizano in Bogotá. Emilia, where do you see these massive protests going and the increasingly violent police crackdown?
EMILIA MÁRQUEZ PIZANO: Well, what we are seeing in Temblores is that if the government does not speak directly to the police forces in the country, this will just keep going. Yesterday, after we, in Temblores, had a discussion with the U.N. Verification Mission, that [inaudible], we had two more murders of young men who were just trying to do a pacific protest in Pereira, where Dr. Rozental is. So, we are seeing that this violence is not stopping. It is not going to stop. We do not see a clear direction from the government to try to stop the violence. And instead, it is all of the country. They are promoting more militarization of cities. They are giving us a discourse that is clearly trying to make protesting illegitimate, which is, of course, a very dangerous place for a democracy to be in, because people do not have the right to protest, which is one of the fundamental rights in a government. People are not being respected for their right to live or to have physical integrity in the streets. And we are just not seeing this stopping anytime soon, if the government does not take clear action towards a control of their police force and right now of their military force. If this does not stop, we do not see this violence going down anytime soon.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you for being with us, Emilia Márquez Pizano, sex and gender director with the Colombian nonprofit Temblores, or Tremors. And, of course, we will continue to follow the situation. There were protests here in New York yesterday and today. The former President Uribe addressed New York University, and he was protested. There was a protest in front of the Colombian Consulate in New York, and there’s one planned for Times Square today.
Next up, we’ll look at a Facebook board deciding not to allow President Trump to be on Facebook — at least for the next six months. So we’ll look at the significance of this with Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Stay with us.