Colombian Workers, Students and Indigenous Groups Begin General Strike

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Trade union centers, social movements, students, peasants, and indigenous people, among others, have called for a national strike on November 21. This is a part of a larger national mobilization against what the organizers have called the “Paquetazo de Duque.”

The call against President Ivan Duque’s “paquetazo”—a term applied to a packet of austerity measures—has been joined by more and more sectors as the strike approaches. The trade unions and social movements initially called for the strike against austerity at the beginning of October, but it has since attracted wider layers of the population and is beginning to include deeper critiques of the Duque and his administration. It will be Colombia’s first general strike in three years. 

This reflects the enormous discontent that has accumulated in Colombia over the last few years. President Duque has only a 27% approval rating in a recent poll, and nearly three-quarters of the Colombian population feels that things in Colombia are going poorly. The strike will include mobilizations in Bogotá, as well as in Colombia’s other major cities. 

This general strike comes after escalating mobilizations in the country; in October, students around the country organized protests to demand educational reforms — particularly for funding in public higher education — but, after facing brutal repression, the movement quickly expanded its demands to include police reform.

Why the Strike? 

The mobilization is motivated in large part by President Duque’s austerity package. Although this slate of austerity measures has not yet passed, the policies would make life much worse for Colombians. One of the proposed measures, for example, would allow young people to be paid less than the minimum wage, a resolution that was proposed by the national association of financial institutions (ANIF). The package also includes significant pension cuts

Though opposition to this new round of austerity measures is the immediate cause of the strike, the mobilization expresses a more generalized dissatisfaction with Colombia’s government and the living conditions of millions of young and working class Colombians around the country. The strike is taking a stance against privatizations, corruption, increased unemployment, funding cuts to education and social services, and tax increases for the working class. It aims to fight for a living wage and for the fulfillment of contract agreements with state workers. Lastly, the strike is for the right to protest and against the criminalization of those who fight. At least 40 unions have pledged to join the mobilization, as have student groups, indigenous groups, and peace activists. 

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The mobilization has also taken up calls against increasing violence in Colombia, including the murders of indigenous people, the assassination of social leaders, the renewed call for war against FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) dissidents, and, more recently, the massacre of at least 8 minors in an army bombing in Caquetá. Since Duque became President in August 2018, 135 indigenous people have been killed. Somos Defensores, a human rights group, reported 591 attacks on human rights activists between January and June this year—an increase from last year. 

The Government is Scared

The government is fearful of this new round of mobilizations against the government, so much so that it has ordered the closing of the borders for November 21 and is preparing for the militarization of Colombia’s major cities. On Monday, the Minister of the Interior, Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez, said the government may “adopt special measures to maintain public order in their jurisdictions, such as restricting the carrying of weapons or curfew.” The term “special measures” is nothing more than a euphemism for the unbridled power of mayors and governors to repress marches. The government has also announced the establishment of curfews and bans on the sale of alcohol.

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For their part, the pro-government media has tried to discourage mobilizations by emphasizing that Duque’s package does not yet exist—it is still only a proposal. Groups of retirees from the military forces have demonstrated to support the repression of the mobilizations, especially in Medellín. The National Army has also been called to barracks, and, on Tuesday, the police searched the homes of 27 people thought to be connected to the protests. In the lead up to the day of the strike, the pro-government media has also tried to preemptively portray the mobilizations as violent, alleging that protesters are calling for violence on the day of the strike.

Class Struggle Around the World 

Since the inauguration of Duque’s government, mobilizations, sit-ins, and artistic expressions have gained strength. While protesters certainly fear repression and infiltration by the National Police, they still plan to fill the streets. The government has already shown its own fear with the preemptive measures it is taking in the days before the strike is set to start. They are worried that the wave of demonstrations in Puerto Rico, Ecuador, and Chile could sweep into Colombia. As with elsewhere in Latin America, the popular discontent in Colombia with capitalist austerity is clear.

The national strike in Colombia will take place in the context of these other intense instances of class struggle in Latin America and globally. Honduras, Haiti, and especially Ecuador and Chile have all seen heightened struggle. Additionally, there is the convulsive situation in Bolivia where indigenous and working people are arming themselves to resist the coup d’état. Various media outlets in Bogotá have highlighted the impact of this trend on Colombia, particularly noting the influence of Chile’s month of explosive demonstrations against President Sebastián Piñera and years of neoliberal austerity.

The magazine La Semana — which is neither progressive nor leftist — has reflected on this influence. “After seeing on television how the crowds have taken to the streets in several countries to express their indignation, it is Colombia’s turn. Distant protests have been approaching. After the “Yellow Vests” in France and the libertarians in Hong Kong, the social outburst reached Latin America…But the social mobilization that has most impressed — because of its massive, aggressive and sustained character — was that of Chile, until that moment considered a model country.”

 

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Tatum Regan

Tatum is an educator from New York City.