Unlike the general strike of 2019 – Colombia’s largest since 1977 – the latest industrial action has received international media coverage, prompting responses from the ‘international community’: US representatives Jim McGovern, Gregory Meeks, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar condemned police violence, including the use of live ammunition; McGovern and Meeks called for the suspension of military aid to Colombia; Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL) condemned the violence and called for dialogue; the UN high commissioner for human rights noted that members of her team had been threatened, beaten and fired on; a UN special rapporteur said journalists were under fire; the EU called for those responsible for the violence to be brought to justice. The outcry is unlikely to make much difference, since the dynamics of conflict and contention are mostly endogenous.
The murderous repression, mainly but not exclusively carried out by police, has escalated nightly in a vain effort to contain overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations. They began on 28 April, when five million people (nearly a tenth of the population) marched in six hundred cities, towns and villages. They continued and even multiplied over the May Day weekend, with decentralised protests nightly in the barrios, as well as mass marches in city and town centres. Then, at night, the police were unleashed.
Both the strike and the state-led violence will probably continue. Between 28 April and 6 May, according to the human rights NGO Temblores, at least 37 Colombian citizens were murdered by police and 98 were shot at, among a total of 1728 cases of police violence and 934 arbitrary detentions. A further 379 people have been disappeared, according to the official agency tasked with finding them.
On Sunday evening, President Iván Duque’s far-right administration withdrew the regressive tax reforms that had triggered the strike. The finance minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, resigned on Monday, but Duque continues to push pension and health care reform, as well as a repackaged tax reform he hopes to pass in July. All in the name of cutting the budget deficit.
With public university students (including those I teach at the Universidad Nacional in Medellín) and young people in the lead, Colombia’s vibrant, diverse and terrorised social movements have all come out at once, which does not imply programmatic unity. The geographic scope of the mobilisation has been as impressive as its sectoral breadth, and the demands are widely divergent. The minga indígena began in the southwest, in Cauca, and spread throughout the country (minga is a word of Quechua origin, meaning a collective effort for the common good); other groups include Afro-Colombian fishermen and women on the Pacific coast, especially in the port of Buenaventura; truckers, bus drivers and taxi drivers; rural workers and smallholders; feminist and LGBTQ+ organisations; retired peoples’ associations; union and non-union healthcare workers.
The strike comes at the height of the pandemic, with five hundred Covid deaths per day at the end of April, and healthcare systems collapsing in Medellín and Bogotá, which have far more medical infrastructure and professionals, as well as active cases, than anywhere else. Both cities have undergone repeated lockdowns. The National Vaccination Plan exists mainly on paper, with a nationwide lack of doses and fewer than 1.8 million people fully immunised (3.5 million have received a first dose). Oxygen supplies hang by a thread. More than three thousand people died from Covid in the week before the strike. According to government statistics, of the more than 75,000 people who have so far died from the virus, almost two-thirds are poor, and one-third are middle class.
Most of the police murders have taken place in Cali, with 22 dead between 28 April and 3 May. The police were filmed using automatic weapons with a range of 500 metres, as well as shooting at demonstrators from tanks, helicopters and motorcycles, and firing on houses in which people had taken shelter. On Monday and Tuesday nights, they murdered an as yet undetermined number of young men in Siloé, a historically combative, organised working-class neighborhood on the western hillside; on Tuesday, the area mysteriously lost its electricity and internet, leading to an information blackout that was convenient for the government. The police took the opportunity to detain, threaten, strangle and beat up a human rights lawyer.
On Thursday, protesters captured a truck loaded with plainclothes police; the police officially claimed the vehicle as theirs. With roads closed and drivers on strike, food and fuel shortages worsened. Looting broke out. Public transport is not working; nor are traffic lights. A taxi ride that normally costs ten thousand pesos now costs fifty thousand. Gangs search for easy targets to rob, so people are afraid to leave their homes and neighbourhoods. Protesters have set up checkpoints throughout the city, but do not co-ordinate with each other, or respond to the regional representative of the National Strike Committee. Trash and debris are everywhere. The city looks like a war zone, and indeed it is.
Cali is exceptional, though hardly anomalous: the police have also fired on and killed civilians in Medellín, Palmira, Bucaramanga, Ibagué, Pereira, Popayán, Cuidad Bolívar and Facatativá, Santa Marta and Barranquilla. Soldiers, too, have contributed to the massacre: they fired on demonstrators on the highway between Cali and Palmira. Army helicopters attacked protesters in Buga on Wednesday. On Tuesday night, in Bosa, the army commandeered a religious school, landed helicopters there, and used heavy artillery against citizens. On Wednesday night, from the back of a motorcycle, an unidentified gunman fired eight shots at Lucas Villa, a physical education student at the Technological University of Pereira. Now he is brain dead, but hanging on to life.
The shadow of next year’s elections, which the left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro is favoured to win, hangs over the mobilisation. So does the eclipse and delegitimation of uribismo as a viable political force, founded as it was on the use of state and para-state terror to vanquish the threat of Communist subversion. The defence minister, Diego Molano, has claimed that ‘illegal armed groups and the ELN’ are ‘behind the protesters’ acts of violence’. The attorney general, Francisco Barbosa, echoed Molano, while Duque himself has blamed ‘low-intensity urban terrorism’. (Never mind that the limited evidence concerning those committing acts of vandalism mostly points, as usual, to police infiltrators and police co-operation with organised crime.)
Like the practices of state and para-state terror it authorises, the Cold War script is invariable, but Colombia’s social and political landscape has changed in recent years. A majority of citizens, especially the young, are unwilling to put up with authoritarian constitutionalism any longer. Duque’s poll numbers were already tanking among all demographics and political tendencies, including half of those aged 56 and over, and half of those who identify as right-wing. The rejection is greatest among the middle class, but the wealthy are unsatisfied too. Until the strike began, Duque had most support among what the polling agency Invamer calls the ‘lower class’, but fully 60 per cent of them, too, rejected him. Although polls in late April showed Duque had the backing of 33 per cent of the overall population, it isn’t clear that he has their undying loyalty, as Trump did, or Bolsonaro does. Duque’s razor-thin margins of legitimacy could erode quickly; perhaps they already have.
The protesters want regressive health and pension reforms to be repealed. They are also calling for both Molano and Duque to resign. Though unlikely, the former is possible, while the latter – even less likely – would leave Vice-President Marta Lucía Ramírez in charge. It is difficult to see how that would improve the situation. It is also unclear how much sway the National Strike Committee has over young street fighters and the rank-and-file of social movements. Dialogue between the Duque government and National Strike Committee leaders is supposed to begin on Monday, but it is difficult to see progress being made before Duque stops the slaughter.
The next major concentration of protest marches is set for 19 May. Let’s hope the North Atlantic media and political elites give it half the attention it deserves. Overflowing into moments of insurrection, for the past several years, pitched battles for self-government, substantive democracy and citizenship in South America – especially Chile and Colombia, but also Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay – are of world-historical significance. A century after the Mexican Revolution, nowhere else do we see such tenacious efforts to enshrine popular social, economic and political rights.