Hope on the streets in Colombia

Print edition : January 03, 2020

In Bogota on November 21, during a nationwide strike called by students, unions and indigenous groups . Photo: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP

Thousands of people take to the streets of Bogota in protest against pension cuts and other austerity measures of the right-wing government of Ivan Duque.

On November 21, large crowds of people, perhaps a million, took to the streets of Bogota, Colombia’s capital, and then, over the course of the weeks that followed, they held festivals and marches in towns and cities across the country. They came for a paro nacional, a general strike, and that is what they got. A wide range of people, from students to union members and pensioners to indigenous leaders, stood in the streets. They chanted fiercely, eager for a Colombia that simply did not seem possible a few years ago.

As in many Latin American countries, the urgency for the streets came because their governments had once more promised to cut state spending. Rumours spread rapidly that the right-wing government of Ivan Duque Marquez had planned to cut pensions and slice a variety of social programmes. Duque’s assurance that none of these cuts was on the table had no impact on the crowds. They remained convinced that this government was going to deepen the austerity arrangements which had become part and parcel of Colombian government budgets. Last year, Duque’s government had increased sales tax and had frozen spending for education. In November 2018, students took to the streets frustrated that government expenditure on education would not be increased alongside inflation. At that time, Duque’s approval rating collapsed to 27 per cent. It has barely risen above that mark.

Despite his attempts to squelch the rumours, Duque’s government is identified with cuts to health care and education and cuts to pensions and the minimum wage. Latin America has been recently convulsed with protests against austerity. Governments in both Ecuador and Chile almost fell as a result of the “IMF riots”, whereas the government in Argentina lost an election conclusively on the planks of austerity and a loan from the International Monetary Fund. Cuts are despised as people find that their lives are challenged by the pressures of inflation and the retreat of consumer credit from banks. They have no choice but to go to the streets.

One protester, her face bandaged against tear gas, said that Duque was nothing but a Colombian Trump. Her view is not unusual. In Chile, protesters say that their President Sebastian Pinera is the Chilean Trump; in Ecuador, they say President Lenin Moreno is their Trump. Nothing is more powerfully abusive these days than to say that a leader is like Trump.

In 2016, the various forces in the Colombian civil war, which ran for decades and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, signed the historical Peace Accords. This treaty settled many of the long-standing claims by both sides: the state and the oligarchy, who have long considered the rebels as terrorists, and the Marxist guerillas (FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), who have fought for agrarian reform in this deeply unequal society. The state agreed to some modest, but important, changes, and the FARC agreed to come above ground and join the political process. A stalemate in the battle was the main spur for the agreement.

But the right wing, led by Duque’s mentor Alvaro Uribe, refused to accept the terms of the deal. They fought to defeat a referendum and have since then participated to undermine the deal in spirit and letter. Paramilitary groups affiliated to the right wing and the drug dealers have been gradually killing off left-wing activists. The right-wing institutions have refused to carry out any of the measures towards agrarian reform. It appears that the Peace Accords will die a slow death.

Part of the frustration on the streets is with the right wing, which has damned these accords to the trash heap. Young people in Colombia want to see an end to the conflict. Conversations in bars and homes make it clear that Colombians want a clean slate. The opportunity was presented by the accords, but the right wing, which controls the media, was able to twist the narrative: it argued that the guerillas must be tried for their crimes, a position that is at odds with the attitude of reconciliation of the accords. This revenge narrative has reinforced positions and set back the peace process. It is against the reversals and the false attitude in the media that many young people have taken to the streets. They do not want to see this war, which effectively began in 1948, continue for more generations. They are on the streets to pressure Duque to oppose the ruling-class consensus that has been driven by Uribe.

Political changes

Ever since the peace talks began about 10 years ago, protests have increased in Colombia. It is a fact that war was used by governments to crack down on protests (“Peace, Neoliberalism, and Political Shifts in Colombia”, Dossier no. 23, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, December 2019). The security services used the war to arrest anyone who dissented from the establishment. Fear of being arrested prevented any mature politics from taking root in Colombia. Leaders of trade unions and indigenous organisations who attempted to speak out found themselves victims of either state, paramilitary or drug-gang violence.

As FARC members came above ground, they joined civilian politics; their experience and dedication slowly began to make an impact on local elections. No longer able to say that anyone who dissents from the establishment line is a “terrorist”, the main political parties had to watch as radical new forces emerged. In recent elections, the Green Party and even FARC made important gains.

Old habits die hard. Assassinations continue and the police remain quick to use repression to settle political differences. When the protests began on November 21, Duque called upon the police to send the people home. Heavy-handed police attacks led to deaths and injuries. The security services raided left-leaning media houses and art collectives. But this repression backfired. People are less inclined now to give the government the benefit of the doubt. These attacks were characterised on the street as “censorship” and they brought artists and others into the squares to sing songs of freedom against the state. Duque had to retreat. This is not the Colombia he inherited.

A year ago, the United States pushed Colombia to make greater commitments in the U.S.’ war against the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. Duque’s Colombia was the U.S. front line, with U.S. advisers pushing the Colombian military to amass near the Venezuelan border. As U.S. sanctions tightened against Venezuela, thousands of refugees swarmed into Colombia. Duque made the requisite belligerent statements. It appeared as if Colombia would go to war on behalf of the U.S. against Venezuela.

But the U.S. attempt at regime change failed. Duque appears weakened by this failure. Large parts of the Colombian population did not favour a Colombian entry into Venezuela. In the 2017 presidential campaign, Duque was forced into a run-off against the left-leaning Colombia Humana slate of Gustavo Petro and Angela Maria Robledo. Throughout the early months of 2018, Petro, who remains popular, warned that Colombia’s drive against Venezuela was turning his country into a “protectorate” of the U.S.; in fact, since Plan Colombia in 2001, the U.S. has been crucial to the militarisation of Colombia and to its use as an instrument of U.S. power in South America. But now, Petro said, the slide into subordination had increased. Such politicisation of the Colombian manoeuvre against Venezuela weakened Duque when it failed, as Petro had predicted. Little wonder that on the streets protesters bring up the ridiculous alignment that Duque made with the U.S. against Venezuela.

The government of Duque has little legitimacy. Colombia’s streets remain full, the manifestations robust. At some point, the people will tire and go home. But that should not be seen as an end to the shifts in Colombia.

In September, two months before the strikes began, the artists Lucas Ospina and Powerpaola put up a mural for the 45th National Salon of Artists on the walls of the Centro Colombo Americano in Bogota. Their mural depicted Donald Trump as a puppet master whose puppet was Alvaro Uribe, the right wing’s leader and a former President, who in turn manipulated his puppet, Duque. The Centro was set up to improve ties between the U.S. and Colombia, so this mural certainly ruffled feathers. It was painted over with white paint. A controversy ensued.

In the lead-up to the strike, a group of artists, including Madres Falsos Positivos de Soacha y Bogota, took over the wall. At its centre was the hashtag #CampanaPorLaVerdad, campaign for the truth. As the protests mounted, the wall became a place of memory, where graffiti charted the course of the unrest (including writing the name of Dilan Cruz, the 18-year-old student who was killed by the police). In red paint on one side the mural says, La verdad no se borra con represion (the truth is not erased by repression). That is the eternal hope of the people on the streets of Colombia.

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