Colombia’s wave of protests continues unabated. On May 12th, there were massive demonstrations throughout the country, indicating that the movement shows no immediate signs of waning.
Between the last national mobilisation and this one there were numerous smaller protests around Bogotá and some big ones in other cities. It is clear from these demonstrations how popular the revolt is. Walking back from the north of the city, I encountered just such a demonstration a few days ago, one of many throughout the city that day. What struck me was the number of cars, motorbikes, and commercial vehicles sounding their horns in support. A Coca Cola supply lorry even joined in.
At 6.40 PM, after sunset the Police attacked what can only be described as revellers — the protest was over and they were just enjoying themselves. Elsewhere in the city, in working class neighborhoods, such as Las Americas, people stood their ground against the repression, applying lessons learnt from Chilean front-line youth, who crafted homemade shields to protect themselves from stun grenades and other missiles launched by the police.
Since the uprisings began, state violence has not eased. The indigenous organisation CRIC (Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca) joined in the protests in Cali and were shot at by armed paramilitaries, some of whom were quite brazen about it. In Pereira, Lucas Vila, a young student, was shot dead. Videos of him from the days preceeding his murder circulated on the internet showing how he spoke with members of the community on buses and public transportation explaining the reasons for the strike. This is a common practice here. There were other videos of him dancing and even greeting cops. His good nature didn’t stop the police shooting him dead. Medical missions in Cali, which provide first aid to injured protestors, were shot at with live rounds also.
This violence follows on from the call by former president and the man pulling the strings of Duque, to militarise the situation and called on people to “defend” themselves. However, the threats of violence and use of live rounds has not deterred protestors so far. If anything the sense of injustice amongst the youth has grown. People have never had a favorable opinion of the police, but this seems like a turning point in that relationship. In 2019, in Bogotá the police tortured Javier Ordóñez to death. In the ensuing protests, a further fourteen people were shot dead and numerous police stations in Bogotá were burned to the ground, even in some middle class areas. Now, these state murders are happening around the country, with a heavy concentration in working class areas of Cali. It is clear to most that this is the new normal. Colombia has long been governed by murderous elites and the danger of them responding with the full force of the state’s official and unofficial murder squads is never far from the surface.
One of the great strengths of the current rebellion is that it is very spontaneous and organised at a local level. However, that is also one of its weaknesses, as it does not have a national or even regional unified leadership. The Comando Nacional del Paro (National Strike Command) is the public face of something it does not control. Comments by youth are quite clear — this body represents no one. It’s most useful purpose has been to set the dates for the major national demonstrations. However, this lack of real leadership saw right wing figures like Sergio Fajardo and his new turncoat allies such as Jorge Robledo and Angela Robledo (running as a liberal feminist for next year’s presidential elections) try to usurp the leadership and negotiate an end to the protests. Even more left-wing politicians such as the former mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro, had initially called for the strike to end, following Duque’s withdrawal of the tax reform. But no one was buying it and he has let his proposal die the ignominious death it deserves.
Duque is desperately trying to find a solution short of stepping down. He even invited the sister of Dilan Cruz, murdered by cops in Bogotá in 2019, to take part in a dialogue. She refused. Like many, she knows what grandstanding looks like. When her brother was murdered, Claudia López, mayor of Bogotá, turned up at a vigil and tried to use their grief to her own political advantage, even though as mayor of the city, she has ultimate control of the police.
The calls for dialogue and an end to the protests and the attempts to portray the temporary withdrawal of the tax measure as a definitive victory have only led to more demands. These include the full and complete end of the tax reform, the health reform, and the pension reform. As one placard held aloft in the protests said “It is not just the tax reform. It is everything.” There is a long history of Colombian governments “negotiating” deals and then when the protests have died down, not implementing them. Just in the last few decades they have done hundreds of such agreements with regional movements that were never or only partially implemented.
Duque is on the ropes and the people know it. Colombia’s elite and the reformist left are fearful of the outcome. In Colombia, there is no history of mass movements forcing presidents to resign. It is not something the average Colombian thought they could do, unlike in other Latin American countries that have some experience of this. The last thing the elite want is people to feel that this can be done, as it would set a precedent for the future. One of the most oppressive regimes in Latin America has always been able to forcefully deal with revolt through violence and buy off the leadership. They don’t want people to see an alternative to that tired old formula.
Those reading this might wonder what can be done from afar. There are a number of things including a blockade of Colombian coal and coffee beans. Workers in Europe and the U.S., where most of these exports are shipped, should refuse to unload them.