Even though it’s often presented as a rare modern U.S. foreign policy success story, Colombia has been rocked by a massive civil strike and protest mobilization that began on April 28th. While pockets of resistance remain on the streets of some cities, there seems to be relative calm at present as the union, student and other groups coordinating as the National Strike Committee signed off on a ‘pre-agreement’ with the government to call off the protests on Monday.
An already deeply unequal society that faced a similar mobilization in 2019, life has only become more difficult for the majority of the Andean nation’s citizens during the ongoing pandemic. Since last year, around 5 million people in the country of just over 50 million have been added to the already swelling ranks of the unemployed. This means that more than 40% of Colombians now live in poverty.
With the country in the midst of a 4th wave of novel coronavirus infections, Colombia’s far right president, Ivan Duque, seemed to think it was a good time to push neoliberal tax reforms to put the country’s books in order. As observers might have expected from a country ruled by a small number of wealthy oligarchs, the pain of this new round of economic austerity would mainly be borne by working people.
To add insult to injury, the bill, withdrawn on May 2nd, was named the ‘Sustainable Solidarity Law’, which as Estafania Martinez wrote recently in Jacobin is “essentially a bill asking for solidarity with Colombia’s ruling class”.
While the comparison is imperfect, some commentators made a link between Duque’s ‘tax reforms’ and the populist ‘Gilets Jaunes’ or Yellow Vest protests that spread in France in late 2018. As in those earlier protests, which began over increased taxes on fuel and drew from the country’s middle classes, Duque’s proposals for increased taxation on everyday goods and services, including utilities and some foods, brought significant numbers of this important constituency out onto the streets, fomenting rare solidarity between the Colombia’s relatively small but influential middle class and the majority working poor.
Whether this holds up over time remains to be seen.
In another parallel with earlier protests, heavily armed and armored security forces that looked a lot like those deployed against Black Lives Matter protesters in North America and parts of Europe last summer confronted protesters throughout the nation. They were soon joined in many places by active duty military.
The heavy handedness of these forces, especially in areas where protesters had created makeshift barricades blocking traffic, resulted in at least 43 dead (a number disputed by the government, which claimed just 19 killed) and hundreds injured. Some 1,000 arrests have been reported, but this figure is not believed to include dozens of protesters who have ‘disappeared’ in recent weeks, always a troubling word in the Latin American context.
It should be noted that the United States alone supplies Colombia with $300 million in aid each year, with up to half of this money going to law enforcement and the military. This is on top of the billions spent on ‘modernizing’ these institutions as part of Plan Colombia starting in 2000, a program thecurrent U.S. president had a hand in creating when he was still in the U.S. Senate.
Much of the worst violence during the latest citizen strike occurred in the country’s 3rd largest city, Cali. As we have seen in other places, the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and now live dissemination of video evidence has made it easier for activists to dispute official accounts of events.
One instance of this occurred on May 2nd, when riot police in Cali killed a young artist and father, Nicolás Guerrero, whose execution by a bullet to the head was live streamed on Instagram. Just as with the George Floyd case in the U.S., the existence of the footage contradicted the story initially told by authorities about the dangers they faced from the protesters and the need to use lethal force.
In a somewhat confusing statement to the Washington Post, what are described simply as ‘Colombian police’ said, “Something that we have to rethink as a society is the use of violence within legitimate scenarios of public protest.”
Reports and video evidence from the marches and barricades show hopeful, even joyous, gatherings with music and dancing, deeply contrasting some in government who claim, like the American right did with BLM protests last summer, that the streets of Colombia’s cities have been overrun by ‘leftwing terrorists’ bent on destruction.
The violence and lies on the part of authorities will probably just reinforce the erosion of trust in these institutions, with the actions of law enforcement and the military opening up the possibility that some now peacefully protesting will take up arms against the government in frustration. As explained in an opinion piece on Al Jazeera, “This, in turn, could be used by the ruling elite to restart the counterinsurgency efforts and shut down democratic channels of participation and representation, as it has done in the past.”
While the English language media’s focus has often been on the participation of the middle class in the protests, many long suffering groups, especially Colombian’s of African descent, feminists and indigenous groups, have also come forward to express their grievances with the state.
In a rebuke to both the colonizers who touched off centuries of murder, torture and dispossession of their people, as well as the continuing injustice they face from the contemporary government, as reported by the site Newsbeezer, “On May 7, indigenous people of the Misak community knocked down the statue of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada as part of the protests against the national strike. In a symbolic act as part of the peaceful demonstrations in Colombia, artist groups, indigenous people and citizens gathered on the square of the Universidad del Rosario, where the image of the conqueror used to be, to put a statue of Dilan Cruz in its place.”
Cruz, an 18 year old high school student, was killed by one of the most feared of all law enforcement agencies in the country, ESMAD riot police, during the 2019 protests.
Many indigenous protesters, who have joined or created blockades called ‘mingas’, have come under what seems to be targeted attack, not only from uniformed agents of the state but also unknown assailants in civilian garb.
On May 10th President Duque demanded indigenous protesters, “return to their reservations.. [to] avoid violent confrontations with citizens”.
The president ordered the military to remove the barricades exactly a week later.
Arguably even more disturbing than the violence of uniformed soldiers and police, were the armed attacks on protesters by people in civilian clothes like those against indigenous people in many parts of the country, raising the specter of civil war after a 2016 peace agreement ended the long running conflict between the government and the FARC rebel group.
Duque’s party, the Democratic Center, formed by former president Alvaro Uribe, who called for police and soldiers to “use their weapons” against protesters engaged in “vandalism terrorism” shortly after the strike began, is anything but what the name seems to imply. The current Colombian president and his subordinates,like his far right counterparts in the American Republican Party, insist that it’s socialists and ‘Castro-Chavistas’ that are causing the unrest. In fairness, at least Colombia has a history of insurgent groups.
What’s most concerning about what’s happening in Colombia for those in the U.S. and other countries that firmly support its government are the parallels between the rhetoric used to describe protesters by officials and some media there, the enthusiasm of these groups for a quick return to neoliberal austerity and the growing wealth of the country’s oligarchs. It leaves one wondering whether the Andean country is becoming more like its most important ally as many in the western press insist, or if the politics of the United States and its allies are becoming more like those of Colombia.