democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Something is happening in Colombia

Colombia is going through a cycle of protests, led mainly by young people in the cities. Although it is too early to say anything for certain about the changes and continuities, this wave could end up strengthening new movements of the progressive centre. Español

Forrest Hylton
14 January 2020, 12.01am
Imagen: Revista Nueva Sociedad. Todos los derechos reservados.

As many Colombians have declared, the country is experiencing a historic moment. The wave of urban protests that began on 21st of November which have been organised and run by young people who are part of the precarious middle class, with women also turning out as important actors. The protests are unprecedented both in terms of magnitude and duration. On December 22nd, there were huge marches and a massive concert in Medellín, the birthplace of narco-paramilitary ‘Uribismo’ (a political ideology founded by ex-ultra right wing president Uribe). This is not part of the Christmas tradition of a parochial town that usually prefers gunpowder to protest. Something is going on.

The national strike on November 21 "for life and peace", called mainly by the workers' unions and representatives of the student movement, paralyzed almost all Colombian cities, which is a significant fact given that there are almost 50 million inhabitants in Colombia and an overwhelming majority of them live in urban areas: Bogotá, Medellín and Cali in the so-called golden triangle, the axis of industrialization in the 20th century, as well as cities such as Pereira, Manizales and Ibagué; Barranquilla, Cartagena, Santa Marta and Riohacha on the Caribbean coast; Tunja, Bucaramanga and Barrancabermeja in Boyacá and Los Santanderes; Neiva, Pasto and Popayán in the southwest; Quibdó in Chocó; Villavicencio in the eastern plains. In Bogotá, Medellín and Bucaramanga alone, almost 450,000 people mobilized.

In 550 of the 1,222 municipalities, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, peasants, retirees, schoolteachers and other public employees, feminists, pacifists, LGBTQ people, university students (from public and private institutions) and high school students, university professors and what is left of the liberal professions participated. Although militants from the centre (Greens) and left (Polo Democrático y Colombia Humana) participated, and senators and mayors supported the mobilizations, there is no political leadership. It is worth noting that despite the fact that those between the ages of 16 and 24 make up only 16% of the total population, urban middle-class youth have dominated in almost all the marches and demonstrations.

The package of neoliberal reforms introduced by Iván Duque in October ended up uniting the most diverse sectors

The package of neoliberal reforms introduced by Iván Duque in October ended up uniting the most diverse sectors, that would be negatively affected. The reforms included the reduction of the minimum wage, hourly contracts and the privatization of pensions, Ecopetrol, the radio and audio-visual networks, electricity (in addition to a tariff) and the auctioning off of the shares of state-owned companies in which the state has less than a 50% stake; tax reductions for multinational companies and a regressive and punitive tax reform for the middle class and the formal and informal working class.

On November 22, the government imposed a curfew in Bogotá which generated panic and terror among citizens about the possibility of widespread looting, while on November 21, three people died in Buenaventura and Cali in similar scenarios.

On November 23, an agent from the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) shot Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old high school student, in the back of the head with a tear gas canister. Cruz fell into a coma and with his death on November 25, became the first martyr of the movement.

Throughout December there were massive demonstrations throughout the country, with the overwhelming dominance of the capital's youth becoming increasingly evident, though in most regions the protests were declining as Christmas Eve approached. But the movement is far from over.

The National Unemployment Committee introduced 13 demands to negotiate with the government, which later became a 115-point petition; yet somehow there is a growing distance between the Committee's leaders and the mobilized bases. The government's willingness for serious dialogue is non-existent; and the tax reform has already been approved in Parliament, which shows the government's insistence on carrying out the reforms despite the protests.

The last time there was a nationwide urban protest was during the 1977 civic strike. After that, in the perverse and catastrophic dialectic of the Cold War, both the state and parastate counter-insurgency escalated in the face of the perceived insurgent threat to 'public order', defined at will by the forces of repression as rural armed insurgencies - not only the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), but also the M-19 and the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL) - began to expand beyond their traditional local and regional strongholds and spread nationwide.

While the "urban question" became increasingly important on the Latin American left, in Colombia the strategic target of the left, mainly the Communist Party and the FARC, remained rural, and the tactic, insurgency.

Until Alvaro Uribe became president in 2002, rural insurgencies continued despite the destruction of their real and imagined social bases.

According to a 2018 report, during Uribe's presidency (2002-2010), while narco-paramilitary groups were "demobilizing" in order to launder their fortunes so they could continue to commit crimes, the Colombian Armed Forces disappeared more than 10,000 young men from the suburbs of the main and secondary cities to inflate the numbers of insurgents killed in combat.

The result was an official figure of more than 80,000 missing in total, according to the Center for Historical Memory, in a seemingly eternal war. Since mid-December 2019, news reports have told of 16 new mass graves in Antioquia, Caldas, Magdalena and Sucre, one of them in Dabeiba, Antioquia, with more than 200 bodies.

These practices of state terror and a dirty counter-insurgency war also did not end during the negotiations between the Juan Manuel Santos government and the FARC (2012-2016), much less under Duque (who has been in office since 2018), who was chosen by Uribe to hinder the implementation of the Peace Agreement and empty it of content. On 12 November 2019, the armed forces bombed a camp of FARC dissidents with children in it in San Vicente de Caguán, a former zone of peace negotiations between the FARC and the Pastrana government. Several were killed; three survived the bombing but were reportedly hunted down with dogs and drones and killed with gunshots to the back of the head. Nearly 170 former FARC combatants and more than 700 social movement leaders, 200 of them indigenous, have been killed since the signing of the Havana Agreement.

As a consequence, one of the most important demands the protesters are making is for respect for protesting as a democratic right, as agreed between the government and the student movement, which in the second half of 2018 was the leading player in the most successful and largest strike in its remarkable history. Although this condition is necessary, it is not enough for the emerging urban left which is capable now both of proposing solutions and of forming new coalitions. However, instead of controlling the ESMAD, Duque ended 2019 by rewarding them for their violent, criminal and murderous behaviour, with a promise to increase the budget and expand the number of troops. Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez insists, without any evidence, that the protests are the work of the Russians, although it is clear from the records that state agents infiltrated the marches to commit acts of vandalism, with the aim of discrediting the movement and in coordination with the police and the ESMAD.

With the left almost non-existent and the far right on the rise, this wave could end up strengthening the centre and the regional coalitions

In Colombia, then, urban protest is seen by religious, business and political leaders, as well as representatives of the Donald Trump administration, as an international communist conspiracy orchestrated by rural guerrillas such as the ELN and what is left of the FARC, to introduce chaos and anarchy into the " society " that they claim they will protect in the name of national security.

Although it is too early to comment with certainty on the changes and continuities, with the left almost non-existent and the far right on the rise, this wave could end up strengthening the centre and the regional coalitions, the big winners in the local elections of October 27, 2019. But this is only a partial and tentative answer to the key question: where is Colombia located in the context of growing fascism in Brazil and Bolivia supported by the United States, on the one hand, and the popular-national uprisings in Ecuador and Chile, and the Peronist electoral victory in Argentina, on the other? The terrain is uncertain and nothing is clear yet, but what is at stake is the political and economic democratization of the most authoritarian and unequal country in South America, which also needs a peaceful solution to its internal armed conflict; a conflict that, despite the Havana Agreements, is not over yet.


This article is published as part of the editorial alliance with Nueva Sociedad. Read the original here

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