Colombia’s nationwide strike has gone on for over a month now, its mass mobilization reaching historic proportions for the nation and for Latin America. This phase of resistance began with the April 28 call for a National Strike against the governent’s proposal to levy taxes on basic goods and services, raising the cost of living in a country where unemployment, poverty and inequality are at unprecedented levels. It has now become a struggle between extermination and emancipation.
Even after the Iván Duque government backed off in its bid to tax the “basic family basket,” the demonstrations quickly expanded to include demands by the Colombian people addressing a host of grievances, including the lack of education, employment and health services; constant state, paramilitary, criminal, patriarchal and racist violence; government sabotage of the peace process; ongoing executions of human rights defenders and grassroots leaders; military occupation of indigenous territories; and, most recently, repression of protesters. Millions risk their lives daily by participating in the demonstrations and roadblocks. Most of them are young people, because, as a group of young protesters in the city of Cali told the popular journalist Angélica Peñuela, “Hunger brought us here; we no longer have anything to lose.”
In a recent program of HECHO EN AMERICA, I interviewed four leaders of the protests in the epecienter of the resistance (and repression), the regional capital of Cali, and in other parts of Colombia. Jhoe Sauca, of the Traditional Authority of the Kokonuco People and the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca. He explained that the tax reform amgered the Colombian people and became the aggravating factor that finally mobilized millions. “We can’t take it anymore,” he said. “With the pandemic we have been enduring hunger, and our businesses have gone bankrupt, while the government supports the banks and large companies.” Sauca said that the peoples of Colombia have been organizing for 50 years under the principle of unity, and that the reform “tipped the balance in favor of the message that we have been transmitting to Colombian society — that we must join together fight for rights.”
He added, “I think that within this framework, we can increase our organizing capacity not only within the indigenous movement, but also at the society level.” Sauca noted that in 2017 the Social and Community Minga in Defense of Life, Territory, Democracy, Justice and Peace was organized. The Minga is a key actor in the protests today, mobilizing in indigeous territories and taking large contingents to the urban protests, especially in Cali.
Vilma Almendra, of the Nasa-Misak people and a member of Pueblos en Camino, pointed out the historic nature of the unity that has been achieved in the past few weeks: “Many people from the rural territories participate in the strike movement. According to Indepaz data, of the 1,123 municipalities in the country, 800 have mobilized. Some 15 million of us nationwide are protesting–it’s an unprecedented movement.” She sees the protest as the culmination of 529 years of colonization and resistance, of millennia of patriarchy, and of the false promises and expectations that arose from the Peace Agreement.
“Almost five years after the signing of the Peace Agreement, well yes, development in what are called the ‘inhospitable areas’ has been guaranteed. But what is ‘development?’ It’s mining concessions, oil concessions, expansion of the agricultural boundary, monocultures, water concessions — death projects that are dispossessing, killing and criminalizing the peasantry and the popular movements. They deceived us that there would be peace. They deceived us that there would be money. There is neither peace nor money.”
The Colombian government now views its own people as the enemy. The Institute for Development and Peace (Indepaz) documents 71 people killed from the start of the strike to May 31, almost all at the hands of the security forces and allied forces. Approximately 65% of the deaths have been in Cali. On Sunday, May 30, conservative President Duque ordered “maximum deployment of military assistance to the police” in Cali and Popayán. Negotiations with the Strike Committee are going nowhere, as the government insists that the blockades be dismantled as a precondition to talks, without committing to any demilitarization measures of its own. Failed dialogue is not the problem — negotiations have not even formally begun — but rather the lack of political will on the part of the government for a negotiated solution.
The right wing is increasingly open about its preference for war as a strategy, to justify authoritarian control and extermination of the opposition and of large parts of the population. Fernando Londoño, former justice minister in the government of strongman and ex-president Alvaro Uribe, put it in the form of a challenge to President Duque: “… If you don’t have the couage, if you are not able to deploy the legitimate force of the State to unblock the Port of Buenaventura, by whatever means necessary, you have no choice but to resign.”
This is not mere political posturing; the right-wing forces of Uribe, who is still the power behind the throne, are experts at doing things through violent means. Vicious practices developed under his rule, such as using false positives to execute or criminalize individuals by branding them as terrorists, reactivating brutal paramilitaries who never actually demobilized, and carrying out selective massacres, are returning. The internet has become the source of firsthand evidence of paramilitaries and undercover agents shooting protesters in cold-blood. State security forces’ use of paramilitary groups, infiltrators and covert operations to suppress protests violates the Colombian s Constitution but replicates illegal counterinsurgency tactics learned from the U.S. government and applied for decades.
Manuel Rozental, a Colombian doctor and also a member of Pueblos en Camino, stated bluntly, “If this process of popular uprising creates an opening for the Colombian state to massively exterminate people, it will. The question is whether those who say ‘business is business’ will be accomplices, even as they claim that it causes them pain.”
Rozental affirmed that the international response to the human rights crisis in Colombia will be a determining factor.
“As long as Joe Biden and the U.S. government do not come out in favor of suspending military aid to the genocidal government of Colombia, they are not only accomplices, but much more than that,” he said. “There is no bullet from the police, no gas grenade launched, no policy of repression that has not been financed, promoted and supported by the United States.”
Joe Biden was the main architect and promoter of Plan Colombia and continues to brag about it as a great success of U.S. policy in Latin America.
Rozental emphasized that the structural causes of the conflict go far beyond the current confrontation between protesters and authorities. He argued that capitalist growth in Colombia has no need of most of the population and the State and much of the business sector considers them a hindrance: “Our history, like the history of capitalism, can be summed up by saying that they come in first to explore, then they exploit what’s useful to them, then they exclude what’s left over in the peoples’ lands, and then they end up exterminating because when greed is sacred, stealing and killing is law.” Considering the imperative to capture scarce resources, Colombia has a surplus of population.
The government clearly believes that the Colombian people are in the way. Young people are in the way, and are met with bullets, because they are protesting the lack of opportunities in a country that ranks among the most unequal in the world, with an official unemployment rate of more than 15%. Human rights defenders who speak out against the grave violations of human rights are in the way–the Institute for Development and Peace, Indepaz, reports that so far this year alone, 67 human rights defenders who signed the Peace Agreement have been killed, making Colombia the number-one country in the world in the assassination of human rights defenders. Indigenous peoples are in the way because they insist on protecting the natural resources that sustain them and the planet, and stand up to the unrelenting land grabs by large companies and the political elite. Women are in the way because the demand their rights, which are being denied by the conservative government in power and the brutal reassertion of patriarchal domination. And the peace accords are in their way, in a flagrant effort to undermine the terms, 25 former FARC combatants who signed the accords have been assassinated or disappeared this year, sending a clear message that peace is not on the government’s agenda. Forty-one massacres have been registered so far this year, with 158 victims.
The Colombian people are risking it all in their fight against neoliberalism and the politics of death in their country. They represent the struggle of all of Latin America. We cannot ignore their struggle. The Colombian government and the international right have built a media wall to block information about what is happening on the ground in this historic mobilization, while the Duque administration’s statements attempt to divert attention to the blockades and vandalism and away from the lives lost to state repression and the legitimate demands of the people. Few journalists have been able to report from the area for the international press and the police have attacked those who try on several occasions. Mainstream commercial media tends to echo the government line. Still, in countries throughout the world, organized groups of the left, feminists, youth and other sectors have organized solidarity campaigns on secial media and in the streets. These campaigns have to grow and intensify if they are to truly to support and protect the Colombian protesters, who are fighting for all of us at this critical time.