In Medellín

Forrest Hylton

One of my students, Alejandro Palacio Restrepo, is a Green Party activist and a leading spokesperson of Colombia’s student movement. Their strike in the second half of 2018 won $1.4 billion in additional government funding for public higher education. Alejo received threats from masked demonstrators in November 2018, from the head of the cattle ranchers’ association in October 2019, and is now getting them from far right paramilitaries.

On 20 November, the day before what may have been Colombia’s largest mass protest since the great civic strike of 1977, Alejo and his fellow spokespeople Jennifer Pedraza and Julieth Rincón received messages from the paramilitary group Águilas Negras: ‘There’s nothing in our organisational design which prevents us from taking you out. Snitch-ass sons of bitches, you call yourselves student leaders you sons of bitches … We’ll be looking for you.’

Colombia is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for trade unionists and social movement leaders, many of whom are rural indigenous or Afro-Colombian. Most students are from the urban middle class, and few of them are indigenous or Afro-Colombian, which affords them some protection. Since the latest round of marches began in late September, however, ESMAD (riot police) violence has been dramatic and disproportionate. At the Universidad del Atlántico in Barranquilla, a student lost an eye after the ESMAD shot him in the face while he was trying to retrieve his bicycle.

In the bad old days, from the 1980s to the 2000s, Alejo, Jennifer and Julieth would probably have had 24 to 48 hours to leave the country. On 21 November, they marched with other students, trade unionists and activists from the indigenous, Afro-Colombian, peasant, environmental, youth, peace, feminist, queer, arts and retired peoples’ movements in favour of peace and life, and against the IMF, the OECD (which Colombia joined in 2018), the packet of neoliberal reforms introduced by the government of Iván Duque, and the ongoing murder of indigenous people and social movement leaders.

The nationwide strike on 21 November shut down many of Colombia’s major cities – Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla, Cartagena, Santa Marta, Bucaramanga, Pereira, Manizales, Pasto, Popayán, Villavicencio – most of which Duque lost in local elections on 27 October. In spite of a downpour, protesters filled the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá (which Duque also lost).

In Medellín, I marched near the front with indigenous students from the Universidad de Antioquia carrying a large Wiphala, the pan-Andean indigenous flag. Ahead of us were indigenous guards from Cauca, wearing red-and-green bandanas and black ponchos with purple and white stripes, blowing conch shells and bullhorns. According to the government, 250,000 people took part in 350 of Colombia’s 1222 municipalities, in 31 of the country’s 32 departments. A leading daily paper counted 446,000 in Bogotá, Medellín and Bucaramanga alone. Strike organisers said that 550 municipalities, in all 32 departments, participated. Colombians between the ages of 15 and 24 make up just over 16 per cent of the population, but they predominated in the marches and protests; women were prominent as organisers and spokespeople.

Left-wing senators – Iván Cepeda, Jorge Robledo, Gustavo Petro – expressed their support, but the marches weren’t organised by politicians or political parties. The protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, but three demonstrators died in southwestern Colombia, where looting and vandalism were widespread, and nearly a hundred were arrested. In Bogotá, an ESMAD agent kicked an unarmed young woman in the face, knocking her to the ground. She is in hospital.

In the face of massive public opposition, Duque seems too weak to push through a proposed package of neoliberal reforms: reducing the minimum wage; introducing hourly contracts and differential pay; turning the public pension fund over to private entities, eliminating the right of every worker to a pension, and lowering pensions below the minimum wage; privatising the state oil company, the airwaves, regional and national electric companies, and all enterprises in which the state holds fewer than half the shares; lowering taxes for multinational corporations and raising them for middle-class and working-class citizens.

As well as rejecting these measures, protesters demanded a dignified living wage, and the implementation of a range of accords the government has signed with teachers, public sector workers, students, indigenous and peasant movements, and the Farc.

Meeting these demands will be a tall order for a state that is not only corrupt and inefficient, but also unusually criminal. According to a 2018 report, during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe (2002-10) the armed forces murdered or disappeared more than 10,000 civilians, overwhelmingly poor young men, and claimed them as guerrilla casualties. The crimes continue under Duque. On 12 November, the armed forces massacred 18 minors in a Farc camp in San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá. Three had survived the bombing raid, only to be hunted down by army dogs and drones, and shot dead by soldiers.

A final key demand is for the government to stop criminalising and stigmatising social movements, and to respect the right to protest, a pre-requisite for the emergence of an urban Left. With the support of the US government, Colombia’s military, police, business, political and ecclesiastical leaders have long viewed social protest, especially in cities, as part of an organised conspiracy by rural insurgents to overthrow the state and destabilise society.

As night fell on 21 November, with the police firing live rounds and imposing a curfew in Cali, for the first time in Colombian history people came out into the streets across the country banging pots and pans. This cacerolazo was not planned but, once it started, spread rapidly in peripheral, working-class urban districts as well as more central areas. Duque promised to hold a national conversation beginning on Monday, 25 November.

On the morning of 22 November, then, the future looked slightly brighter, until road blockades, as well as episodes of looting and vandalism, led to widespread panic and the imposing of a curfew in Bogotá for the first time since the civic strike of 1977. In the city centre, hundreds of masked youths – mostly men – battled the ESMAD and police into the night. Near the Universidad Nacional, the site of fierce street fighting on 21 November, people came out and marched on the Parkway to defy the curfew. Crowds of mostly young people gathered in parks to stage cacerolazos. ESMAD attacked them. On 23 November, they shot Dylan Cruz, an 18-year-old schoolboy, in the back of the head with a tear-gas cannister. He fell into a coma.

The popular outpouring in cities across the country is a departure from business as usual. Further protests, especially urban cacerolazos, took place on 23-24 November, and are likely to continue into the holiday season. Yesterday, President Duque met with business and union leaders to begin his national dialogue. Just before midnight, the hospital in Bogotá where Dylan Cruz was being cared for announced that he had died from his injuries. Cacerolazos were immediate and widespread, with more planned for today.