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The Rebellion in Colombia Requires a Real General Strike to Overthrow Duque

At the lowest point in the economic crisis affecting the great majority of the oppressed masses, workers, peasants, indigenous people, and youth and amid the third wave of Covid-19 that is killing 500 people each day, Colombian president Iván Duque decided to intensify his attacks on the masses with his tax reform. But the response was a forceful mass protest that eventually led him to back down and withdraw the plan after five days of protests in almost every city in the country.

Milton D'León

May 8, 2021
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Colombia is now the site of the biggest protests on the continent, and a victory there will be a victory for the workers and masses of Latin America. Duque wants a truce; he forced Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla to resign and is preparing new measures. But he can be defeated– the demand for Duque’s resignation is now reverberating throughout the streets of the country.

 Although Duque ordered the militarization of the country’s cities to repress the protests, on May 4 a group of members of Congress from the pro-Uribe Democratic Center party, which brought Duque to power in 2018, asked him to declare a state of “internal unrest” in order to “address the situation.” This is what was formerly known as a “state of siege,” in which Duque would wield powers that could include suspending the terms of regional leaders, restricting demonstrations and taking control of radio and television stations, as well as the power to issue legally binding executive orders.

It is estimated that on April 28, the first day of the call for a national strike and marches throughout the country, about 500,000 people took to the streets. This included 50,000 in the capital and other tens of thousands in Medellín and Cali, in addition to the masses that came out in the rest of the cities and regions in the countryside, from north to south and east to west. At least that day there were protests in more than 600 districts, those with the largest populations, out of Colombia’s 1,100 districts. But the people have expressed their discontent and indignation in all 32 departments (provinces). Wherever protests have started, they have only continued to spread. According to a recent poll, 73 percent of Colombians agree with the strike.

Cali, one of the main economic and industrial centers of Colombia after Bogotá and Medellín, in Valle del Cauca, is now at the heart of the social explosion. The situation there is absolutely dramatic. The department of Valle del Cauca is among the five with the highest rates of extreme poverty. These extreme conditions, along with the worsening of the coronavirus pandemic, have led to the outbreak in Cali, the third largest city in the country. The protests have continued in more than 19 points in the city and the indigenous protests of Cauca have converged there.

There have been multiple reports police infiltration to stoke violence and justify the intervention of the Armed Forces. This is a very common political practice in Colombia, and was widespread in the Bogotá protests of 2019. The security forces “used live ammunition and beat and arrested protesters in the context of a tense and volatile situation,” says a UN report on Cali. But the same events have occurred throughout the country. Duque has granted exceptional powers to the Armed Forces, which have acted as if they are fighting in war zones to “clean” the territory, and the highest authority in these areas is the military. He has done so by issuing a declaration of “Military Assistance,” a constitutional instrument that can be used only in the event of a disaster. It is the equivalent of imposing the total control of the Armed Forces in the country’s main cities. This has been condemned and rejected by the mayors of Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín, who were not even consulted and are now subject to military control.

This is the current situation in different Colombian cities. The protests and roadblocks by the truckers’ union in some areas of the country have continued for the seventh consecutive day and are not even close to ending, as reported live by Manuel Rosental from one of the roadblocks between Dos Quebradas and Pereira, which lead to Manizales and Medellín. Minga indigenous marches have spread throughout different cities and have also been part of the roadblocks. As part of the protests, the indigenous movement has demolished colonial statues, like that of Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar. The movement is announcing from all the demonstration sites that the protests will continue indefinitely. There are two daily waves of protests, which have taken place continuously: those that are carried out until the evening, and those that continue throughout the night in the most oppressed sectors, which have been subject to the fiercest repression. The latter are referred to as the “hunger marches.”

There is a general feeling that things cannot go back to normal, and the most advanced sectors are targeting the regime as a whole, which they believe is rotten at its core, and not just the government of pro-Duque and pro-Uribe forces.

Duque’s government, like the entire Colombian bourgeoisie, has only one plan: more poverty for the workers and the people. They have created conditions of growing unemployment and poverty among the country’s workers, increasingly ruined the middle classes and deprived the youth of any hope for the future. They have continued to attack farm workers and small peasant producers and have condemned the exploited masses to ruin and poverty. They have done all of this to secure the profits of local and foreign capitalists. They showed complete disregard for the people’s suffering throughout the pandemic, which led to disproportionate rates of illness, poverty, and death among the impoverished classes. They have carried out hundreds of massacres and murdered more than 1,000 social activists under the state of siege and the control of the Armed Forces. They wanted more, and they got it by increasing poverty, while the rich have kept their businesses and increased their wealth by capitalizing on the pandemic.

The country’s organized workers, impoverished sectors, ruined middle classes, peasants, native peoples, and youth must join forces against the Colombian bourgeoisie’s criminal plans. Carrasquilla’s resignation and the mere withdrawal of the reform plan are not enough. The minister has already been replaced by José Manuel Restrepo, who had been serving until now as Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, so he has been instrumental in imposing austerity. Duque himself has explained his objective: “It is imperative to quickly reach a democratic consensus regarding the reform of the Colombian tax system.” It is not enough for one or several ministers to resign or for the plan to be withdrawn. What must be defeated is a comprehensive plan by the Colombian bourgeoisie against the workers and the people.

Another Explosion of Discontent

The protesters in Colombia are demanding profound social and economic change, and these demands are what have set the movement in motion. The deepening of the crisis in Colombia was inevitable after the economy was hit by the pandemic, and the forces of repression have attempted to contain the movement by murdering protesters. The national strike and the mass demonstrations throughout the country have laid bare the extreme discontent and indignation of the workers, peasants, native people, youth, and oppressed. Colombia is experiencing a profound health, economic, and social crisis as a result of the pandemic, which has once again resulted in an explosion of social discontent.

The government took on more debt throughout this period, supposedly to cope with the economic crisis in the midst of the pandemic, but the main goal was to save the capitalists’ large profits. The Sustainable Solidarity Law, which is the name given to the tax reform, was aimed at collecting about $6.3 billion to put the state’s finances “in order.”

The key point is where they planned to get that money. The finance minister himself, who just resigned, had explained that 73 percent would come from individuals and the rest supposedly from corporations. In other words, the majority of the population would pay for it, a majority that is made up of the working masses. Among the controversial points was an income tax on people who earn a salary of a little more than $633, in a country where the minimum wage is $234. Among other measures, the plan also included an increase in the value-added tax on basic consumer goods, which is already 19 percent in Colombia. This would have hit the middle classes, workers, and impoverished sectors the hardest.

But the demands that are being made in Colombia are no longer related to the tax reform. The demonstrations have continued, even though Duque has withdrawn the plan, because of the people’s accumulated discontent, which had already been expressed by the massive and historic protests in late 2019, led by a sector of young people who had lost all fear of state terrorism. That discontent has only increased with the pandemic and the intensification of the social and economic crisis. They have not been stopped by the bloody repression, the 30 killings, or the wounding and detention of hundreds of protesters. They have shown a fierce determination to continue the fight.

The reason for this is that Colombia has been subject to the worst neoliberal policies for decades, comparable only to those applied in Chile. This neoliberal agenda was imposed against the backdrop of the “war” on drug trafficking. The rancid Colombian bourgeoisie took advantage of the bloody war against the insurgency, not only to polarize the country but also to impose state terrorism both in the city and in the countryside, where union and social movement leaders, young people voicing their demands, or peasants fighting to protect their land were identified as potential members or sympathizers of the insurgent groups. They used this strategy to launch their greatest attacks and subjugate the working class, peasants, youth, and impoverished masses of the cities.

All this was carried out with the direct aid of the U.S., which has long exercised imperial control over Colombia, as best exemplified by its intervention under Plan Colombia. Hence, one of the results of this new situation of rebellion in Colombia is the weakening of what has been one of the biggest and most abject allies of U.S. imperialism in the region, not only now under Duque’s administration, but for the past several decades. This alliance has resulted in the establishment of numerous U.S. military bases on Colombian territory, the practical subordination of Colombian Armed Forces to the directives of the Southern Command, and the use of Colombia as a base of operations for launching Trump’s interventionist campaign against Venezuela in 2019. The people’s rebellion in Chile is a blow to all right-wing forces allied to imperialism in the region. The new situation that is beginning to emerge in Colombia may be a major problem for the plans of U.S. imperialism, and especially for Joe Biden.

Pandemic: Greater Ruin and Poverty

Since the pandemic began, all Duque has done is take advantage of the situation to advance his reactionary agenda. While he imposed a lockdown, he continued to attack mass working-class and impoverished sectors that were deprived of their livelihoods. And leaders of social movements continued to be killed throughout the country.

The current unemployment rate is greater than 17 percent, although there are cities where it is higher than 20 percent, in a country where precarious and informal jobs are the norm, and access to health is a privilege.

The monetary poverty index is 42.5 percent, which means that 21.2 million Colombians do not have a high enough income to meet their basic needs. In total, almost 3.6 million Colombians fell below the poverty line last year, and the Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, increased from 0.52 to 0.54, the highest figure ever recorded since the indicator began to be calculated in 2012.

In addition to all this, there have been widespread protests against the delay in the vaccination campaign, which has reached only less than 10 percent of the population, far behind other countries in the region like Argentina, Chile, and Peru.

The People’s Outrage Is Greater Than Their Fear of Infection

On launching his latest attack, Duque misjudged the correlation of forces. He thought it was time to hit harder, believing that he could take advantage of the population’s fear of infection. But the people’s outrage at the attacks was stronger than their fear of infection by the virus. And now they have not stopped either by the bloody repression, the 30 killings (according to the Colombian NGO Temblores), the more than 80 disappearances, or the hundreds of beatings and detentions.

Between the historical protests of 2019 and the recent situation, which is now seen as a true rebellion owing to the strength and extent of the protests, the national strikes and demonstrations have not ceased in Colombia. The recent events have led to a phase of continuous struggles against the neoliberal measures of Duque’s government and all its repressive policies. Repression is the central policy of the Colombian regime. It has historically exercised policies of state terrorism, committing massacres like those denounced by Indepaz (Colombian Institute of Studies for Development and Peace) in a recent report, which indicates that 35 have been committed in so far in 2021, with 132 victims.

Some of these protests have had a significant impact, like those carried out during the weeks of unrest and revolt in September 2020 that resulted in 13 deaths at the hands of Duque’s forces of repression, and continued until October of that year. It was true rebellion of the youth.

This is where the young people of Colombia took their first steps and gained their first experiences. They had finally lost their fear of the repressive state and the impunity of the armed groups that support the powerful elites who have used terror to subjugate the people for decades, as shown by the protests during the national strike on November 21, 2019. This was happening in a country with a militarized police force and a police-like military, where the police was a branch of the military in the war against the insurgency that imposed terror in the cities, and still plays this role today.

The Policy of the Historical Pact of Gustavo Petro and the Coalition of Hope

The role played by center-left leader Gustavo Petro and the Coalition of Hope has been truly contemptible. A few days ago, after various sectors protested the new tax reform plan and Duque decided to withdraw the initial proposal, the Coalition of Hope sent a letter to the president with several suggestions for a new plan. “In the midst of this serious state of affairs, and with a constructive spirit, the undersigned, on behalf of the Coalition of Hope, would like to express our most respectful opinion,” they say at the beginning of their letter dated May 3, the sixth day of protests. That says it all.

Petro is a senator for the party Colombia Humana and presidential candidate representing the Historical Bloc. Although he began by proposing that Duque repeal the tax reform that was approved in 2019, after withdrawing the current proposal, he has said that this would allow the presentation of a new proposal. And although he has expressed support for the protests, from afar, he has been completely absent from them.

Petro is the political leader with the most support for the next presidential elections, to be held in late May 2022, and according to the polls, if the elections were carried out now, he would win. To achieve this, he is promoting the “Historical Pact,” which groups together the political parties Polo Democrático, Mais, and Unión Patriótica, among other movements, including senators like Roy Barreras and Armando Benedetti, from the same traditional parties (Partido de la U) that Petro has criticized in the past. Petro has thus sought to show moderation and has at times been silent in response to the extent and intensity of the protests — that is when he’s not declaring that “it’s time for a hug” in the midst of the brutal repression — to avoid “tarnishing” his candidacy.

On May 3, at a press conference, he addressed Duque with the following words: “What I want to say to Duque is that this is the most critical moment. He can overcome it from his seat with grace, with his head held high, being honest with society. He shouldn’t fall into the trap they’re setting for him.” And he added, “Don’t fall into that historical trap, or your name will be tarnished for centuries to come. Keep your head and we can save many human lives and promote peace simply by doing things right, simply by speaking to each other, simply by ignoring the siren of violence that is vandalism.” In other words, he is seeking to establish a dialogue when the masses on the streets are not only demanding Duque’s resignation but also want to remove the entire corrupt Colombian bourgeoisie from power.

It can be defeated. The protesters are demanding Duque’s resignation and threatening a general strike. They’ve had enough of the union bureaucracy’s pacts and truces.

The national strike and protests carried out on May 5 had been called by the National Strike Committee (CNP) in a joint conference of the labor federations CUT, CGT, CTC, and Fecode, under increasing pressure from the ongoing protests throughout the country.

In Cali, the city where the protests have been the strongest, protesters are already demanding a strike for an indefinite period: “We recognize that we have won the first battle with the government’s decision to withdraw the Tax Reform plan, but we will NOT have won the fight until Duque’s entire project is withdrawn, which includes a Labor Reform, Health Reform and Pension Reform, and until justice is done for the people who have been killed, injured and detained in the intense protests,” says a statement issued by Cali organizers. They have taken the position that now is not the time for a truce.

Unfortunately, the trade union bureaucracy in the National Strike Committee has made it a habit to refer to the protests as a “strike.” So far their entire policy, after the intense protests, has been to make truces and agreements, as we saw with the long process of “dialogue” with the government after November 21, 2019, which gave Duque time to recover and put a temporary stop to the protests. They have thus worked to contain the protests.

The defeat of the government thanks to the resolute actions of the working class and the oppressed would be an enormous victory that would substantially change the correlation of forces and make it possible to strive for more. But this is not the aim of the union leaderships, which claim to be leading the protests, although it is certainly the objective of the masses on the streets.

The unions have not called to actually stop production and block airports, seaports and roads. They have only made calls to demonstrate, with no organization other than that of the protest actions called for a given day. It is the masses on the streets, the outraged population, that is blocking traffic in the cities on the main avenues, as well as the highways in areas of the countryside. The union federations do not have a policy of organizing workers in their workplaces, at each production site, to advance toward a true, forceful general strike.

Protests on the streets and on the main highways are not enough. The workers, peasants, indigenous people, and oppressed need to join forces to defeat the plans of Duque’s government and big business and ensure that it is not the workers and the oppressed majorities who end up paying for the crisis. There should be no truce with the bloody regime of the oligarchy.

To do this, the working class must be at the center of the struggle. The strategic path to victory requires the Colombian working class to join the peasantry, indigenous peoples, and impoverished urban sectors in the struggle with their own methods, avoiding any deviation. There is a limit to the ongoing protests. To defeat the repressive government and make it possible to meet the demands of the people, including those made by the most advanced sectors in Cali (cancellation of the government’s entire plan, trial and punishment of those responsible for the repression, etc.), it is necessary to call a general strike with the participation of the entire working class and oppressed masses, stopping production and services, to defeat the plans of the government and large corporations.

It is necessary to hit the capitalists where it hurts, by stopping the entire economy. The support for this course of action is increasing. For example, a truckers’ strike was organized in practically the entire country. To move toward a true national strike, this should be replicated in factories, at companies, and in every workplace, in addition to the protests on the streets and highways.

There is an increasingly evident need to organize strike committees elected by the workers at each workplace and by region. These committees should be centralized with the aim of building a true national strike committee or command, to take forceful actions based on local committees and with representatives elected by the rank and file. All these struggles and mass actions cannot continue to be in the hands of the union bureaucracy or other sectors that are not seeking the definitive defeat of the government, which is what they have shown the entire time. In some cases, they merely seek to better pave the way for their candidate of choice in the next presidential elections. It is necessary to create real working-class institutions, establishing strike committees and centralizing them by departments and regions.

In several cities, progress has been made in terms of organization, with the establishment of people’s assemblies and departmental committees to coordinate protests actions. The workers’ and people’s alliance has been forged on the streets. It needs to be organized, and this will only be achieved if the working class shows its strength. Coordination with these types of territorial organizations for the organization of a general strike is essential for the working class. It is increasingly urgent to coordinate and centralize the forces that have been put in motion at the national level with representatives of workers and the people elected by the rank and file, to issue resolutions and vote on a set of demands and an emergency plan of the working class to defeat Duque.

The ongoing repression is brutal, with dozens of protesters killed and hundreds wounded, in addition to the disappearances and thousands of detentions. In this situation, workers, peasants, students, indigenous people, and the oppressed masses all have the right to defend themselves. To do this, it is essential to set up self-defense committees under the control of organizations of workers, peasant, indigenous people, and the masses, in the struggle for the development of organizations for the self-determination of the sectors participating in the struggle. The aim is to defend the right to demonstrate, which is under attack by the repression, and to protect all protesters.

As revolutionaries, we aim to bring down this capitalist state, which is merely an instrument used to protect the interests of the exploiters, by expropriating the expropriators and establishing a government of the workers and the exploited. However, there are sectors that believe that this deplorable, anti-democratic, and oligarchic regime that has existed for decades in Colombia can be changed through the people’s vote. In response, we say that if they want to have that experience, they should fight to establish a Free and Sovereign Constituent Assembly, with the dissolution of all ruling-class institutions, starting with that of the presidency and other branches of the state. If we want a Constituent Assembly in which the people can really make their own decisions, then the Assembly should have legislative and executive powers. Down with the office of the president of the Republic, which is a point of convergence for the forces of militarism, conservatism, and the entire hated Colombian regime! Down with the Senate and the entire Congress, which is rotten to the core and where the most brutal laws against the people are voted! Dissolution of the Supreme Court of Justice, which is nothing more than a structure at the service of the ruling class! Down with everything that supports this rotten anti-democratic regime! The Constituent Assembly should discuss the big fundamental and structural problems faced by the people of this country, as well as the termination of all the military and economic pacts that tie the country to imperialism.

It is clear that a Constituent Assembly of this kind can be established only by the militant organization of the workers and masses. It would not be one of those farces occasionally mounted by the ruling classes to have constitutions drawn up to increase their power while maintaining absolute control over the country.

But on this path and in the struggle to establish organizations of self-determination, the masses could be convinced in the context of their experience that it is necessary to advance towards a government of the workers and the oppressed. Only the revolutionary development of class struggle, with the labor movement at the forefront of an alliance with all exploited sectors, can provide a progressive solution to the general crisis in Colombia.

In the course of this fight for a general strike and for the establishment of organizations of the working class, from a perspective of class independence, it will be possible for workers and the youth to build their own powerful organization, a revolutionary party of the workers and the exploited, that will fight to provide a definitive solution to the most urgent problems created by capitalism.

First published in Spanish on May 4 in La Izquierda Diario.

Translation by Marisela Trevin

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