Over 2 weeks into a popular uprising that has spread to every corner of the country, Colombia remains in open revolt. Tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition have so far failed to deter the masses. They have drawn the conclusion that the only way out of their endless misery is mass struggle against the current right-wing government and the rotten system it represents.
The rebellion kicked off on the 28th of April with a general strike called by the National Strike Committee (a group made up of the major trade union federations and other organizations) as a response to right-wing president Ivan Duque’s proposed tax reform bill. The euphemistically named “Sustainable Solidarity Law” would have seen sections of the middle class and salaried workers pushed into a higher tax bracket. VAT was also to be expanded to cover a wider range of previously exempt goods and services. While dressed up as benefiting the most impoverished sections of society, it quickly became clear what it really meant: an attempt to force the costs of the pandemic on to the masses.
Yet the day has passed when such frontal attacks on workers and the poor can be implemented without grave consequences. The response of the Colombian masses powerfully demonstrates the type of resistance the ruling class can expect in this period of deep capitalist crisis.
Although initially one day of action was planned, the general strike set in motion a movement of a scale and intensity that went far beyond the expectations of the union leadership. Indeed, time and time again the bureaucracy and opposition parties have found themselves lagging behind the masses. On the 1st of May calls for more scaled down mobilizations were not heeded and the protests continued to spread and gather momentum.
Militant demonstrations have erupted in 250 towns and cities. Much of the country remains paralysed due to blockades. Drawing into its ranks all sections of the exploited and oppressed, the movement is a panorama of the diversity of struggles in Colombia. Workers, students, women, peasants, indigenous people, afro-Colombians, LBTQ activists, environmentalists all united against a common enemy. The Colombian elite’s arsenal of divide and rule tactics — from racism to red-baiting — have proved ineffective in derailing the insurgency.
On the 2nd of May the movement scored its first victory when Duque withdrew the loathed bill. The following day it’s architect, finance minister Alberto Carrasquilla, resigned in disgrace. Any hope that these concessions would lead people off the streets quickly evaporated. The movement radicalised further and an array of other demands have been taken up, all of which reflect an understanding that the bill was only the tip of the iceberg. These include the halting of privatization of healthcare and pensions, free college education, ending state repression and for Duque to resign.
Pandemic Inflames Fury of the Masses
What is taking place in Colombia is a reemergence, on a higher level, of the mass movement which took place in November 2019, and was part of the wave of anti-neoliberal revolts that shook Latin America and swept throughout the world. As elsewhere, the spread of Covid-19 interrupted developments, but this could only ever be a temporary arrangement. The discontent that burst on to the streets in 2019 has continued to smoulder in the context of a pandemic that has wreaked havoc throughout the entire region.
With three million recorded cases of COVID and close to 80,000 deaths, Colombia has suffered one of the worst health crises in the world. Strict lockdowns have had a devastating economic impact on a country where 62% of the workforce are employed in the informal sector. Unemployment has more than doubled, 500,000 businesses have closed down, and in the last year the economy has contracted by 7%. The ensuing social catastrophe forced another 3.6 million people into poverty, bringing the total number up to 21 million — 42% of the population. Malnutrition and even starvation, neither of which are new to South America’s most unequal country, skyrocketed.
The pandemic has not only exacerbated the inequalities within nations but also deepened the divide between rich and poor countries. Although the former have not escaped a pummelling, the latter do not have the same resources to ameliorate the worst effects of the crisis. Colombia’s debt soared by $20 billion in the last year, but Duque’s right-wing government wanted to assure investors that there was no cause for concern. As one Bloomberg article put it:
“Unlike the many countries that continue to borrow and spend to spur growth amid the pandemic, Colombia has now prioritized keeping bond vigilantes at bay and convincing ratings companies it’s one of Latin America’s rare investment-grade credits.”
That is, the ruling class of Colombia, tied by a thousand threads to U.S. imperialism, did not dare insult the interests of the multinationals, banks and financiers. Instead, they threw their lot into emptying what little was left in the pockets of the working class and poor.
Of course Colombia is not an isolated case. The pandemic has pushed the entire region into economic, social and political turmoil. In the last year, explosive protests from Guatemala to Paraguay revealed the rage that exists beneath the surface. Electoral successes for the left in Bolivia and Peru also show how more and more are searching for an alternative. Facing the same intolerable conditions as the Colombian masses, the workers, youth and oppressed throughout Latin America may well take up the same militant methods of struggle. All the inflammable material is there for a continent-wide social explosion and, as the title of a recent CNN article warned, “Colombia’s bloody protests could be a warning to the region.”
“The Government is More Dangerous than the Virus”
Not even a raging pandemic could keep the masses off the streets. Colombia is enduring its darkest moment, currently recording some 15,000 cases and 400 deaths per day. That the movement has developed in spite of this situation gives an insight into the desperate conditions many face. The hope of a future without endless misery has been extinguished and there is a pervasive sentiment that there is nothing to lose.
Certain placards give an insight into this mood: “The government is more dangerous than the virus, ”“We’re sick of surviving, we want to live,” “I’d rather die in struggle than live in misery.”
And, died in struggle many have. While official state figures are lower, human rights organizations report at least 40 deaths at the hands of state forces, over a thousand injured and hundreds of cases of protestors who have been ‘disappeared.’ Police have sexually assaulted women — a vile but common method of deterring the most radical elements from taking to the streets.
Similar to the Carabineros in Chile, the Colombian riot police, ESMAD, have come to be recognized for their particularly brutal methods. The radical demand that they be disbanded has now become widespread. Shooting protesters point blank, driving vehicles into demonstrations, and consciously terrorizing working class neighborhoods are amongst the many forms of repression they’ve unleashed on the masses.
All of this is not a display of strength but of weakness, betraying a fear of a popular uprising that strikes at the heart of Colombian capitalism. To exert its control, the ruling class has only brute force to rely upon. But, every baton blow, every bullet fired and every gasp of tear gas drives home the realization that the state is not a neutral force but a tool of class domination. Far from breaking up the movement, these experiences have forced protestors to draw the most radical conclusions about what needs to be done.
Cali — the Epicentre of Struggle
It’s in Cali, Colombia’s third largest city, that the struggle has reached its most advanced stage. Working class barrios have been under control of neighborhood committees with elements of self-organization. In some, meals are collectively prepared for protestors and basic medical care provided. Unsurprisingly, it’s also where the state has come down hardest. The vast majority of recorded deaths have happened here and, as one video circulated on social media shows, police helicopters shot into crowds.
To defend themselves the youth have repurposed scrap metal into shields to face down tear gas and bullets. Defense also came in the form of La Minga, a caravan of indigenous people who heroically made the journey to Cali to join the struggle and offer protection to other protestors. The inspiring unity between these sectors further alarmed the elite. Right-wing paramilitaries posing as scared ordinary citizens opened fire on the indigenous protesters, all under the watchful eye of the police.
The resistance in Cali has been so great that the president made two emergency visits and ordered an increased deployment of troops to dismantle the blockades that cordon off much of the city. Notwithstanding his low popularity ratings, Duque and his party, Centro Democratico (led by arch reactionary former president Alvaro Uribe) have doubled down in their demonisation of the movement as thugs and vandals to justify the bloodshed.
U.S. Imperialism and the Colombian Ruling Class
The movement also puts Biden in a corner, who since taking office has attempted to distance himself from Trump’s more obviously belligerent foreign policy. Rebranding U.S. imperialism in a rhetoric of democracy and human rights he faces pressure to condemn the Duque government. On the other hand, the U.S. has important economic and geopolitical interests in Colombia that Biden wants to protect against an ascendent Chinese imperialism which has recently stepped up its influence in the region. “I’m the guy who put together Plan Colombia” boasted Biden in last year’s presidential race.
As an intensification of “the war on drugs” Plan Colombia was a counter-insurgency campaign against FARC and other left-wing guerrilla groups who were engaged in a decades long civil war with the Colombian state. The U.S. supplied successive right-wing governments with money, weapons and training to step up a military and ideological offensive against not just guerrilla groups, but the entire left and working class movement. In fact, this also led to the creation of ESMAD, which today terrorizes protesters with US-made rifles and tear gas.
A weakened FARC entered peace negotiations with the Santos government in 2012 and a historic peace treaty was signed in 2016 that led to the demobilization and disarming of the former guerrillas. Contrary to the oft-cited words of Benjamin Franklin the agreement was most certainly a ‘bad peace.’ Since 2016, over 600 social movement leaders and ex-guerrillas have been massacred — a grizzly reminder that the system is incapable of solving its own problems.
All of this is the latest chapter in the blood soaked history of Colombian capitalism, praised by the ruling class around the world as Latin America’s most stable democracy. With the backing of U.S. imperialism, the levels of violence carried out by the Colombian state (and the right-wing paramilitary forces with whom it regularly colludes) exceeds that of some of history’s most despotic regimes. Those on the streets today understand that achieving a genuine peace is completely tied up with the struggle against Duque and Uribismo. Alvaro Uribe’s historical connections to the right-wing paramilitaries are well known, epitomizing the deep links between politicians, big business and the drug cartels.
The Left, the CNP and the Way Forward
This protracted and bloody assault on the working class and its organizations has certainly taken its toll. Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist with over 3,000 murdered in the last three decades. Now, union density stands at a mere 4%. Likewise, the working class and oppressed lack any real political representation. While looking at Colombia today one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, the masses do not possess infinite reserves of energy. At a certain point a political strategy is needed to bring things to a conclusion.
Many may hope that this will come in the form of Gustavo Petro, former member of guerrilla group M-19. Petro came second to Duque in the 2018 presidential race when he ran a bold campaign that gave expression to the bubbling discontent of workers’ and youth and broke an electoral deadlock for the left. That a former guerrilla — who faces a constant barrage of right-wing propaganda — is now favourite to win next year’s election reflects a profound radicalisation and shift to the left in society. Nevertheless, the consciousness of the most advanced layers in the current movement has leaped over Petro’s mild social demoratic programme and his lack of confidence in the masses to wage a revolutionary struggle against capitalism.
In the same way, the National Strike Committee (CNP) led by the union bureaucracy, falls short of the leadership that the present moment demands. On Monday the 10th of May it met with Duque but failed to reach any agreement. Mass mobilizations continued apace. Yet the fact that the committee even came to the table with the president while the country remains militarized and the blood of protestors stains the streets provoked anger amongst many.
It highlights the chasm between the official leadership and the most militant sections of the movement that are actually driving the situation forward. The CNP have not properly coordinated action, have not put forward a strategy that draws on the strength of the masses, which, if mobilized to even half their potential, could take down Duque within minutes.
The embryonic forms of self-organization seen in Cali and elsewhere give an insight into the type of organization that is really needed. Popular committees should be established in neighborhoods, workplaces, universities, in peasant and indigenous communities to plan and coordinate local actions, including the organization of self-defense. These must then be connected through regional and national assemblies. In this way the real engine of the movement can take the initiative, democratically discussing the best way forward and collectively agreeing a program and strategy that can point a way out of the crisis.
For us, that means the extension of the strike to all sectors of the economy to bring production to a complete and indefinite halt and fight for a programme including the following demands:
- Down with repression! Investigation and punishment of those responsible! Disband ESMAD!
- No to the counter-reforms and other neoliberal measures! No to the privatization of health! Vaccines and public health guaranteed for all! Emergency aid for all who need it! Let the capitalists and super-rich pay for the crisis!
- Down with Iván Duque and the political and economic system that supports him!
- For a government of the workers and the oppressed masses
Colombia Resiste — International Solidarity
Solidarity from the international movement of the working class is absolutely crucial. Feeble words of condemnation from capitalist governments mean nothing. Biden and others are loyal defenders of an economic system at the root of all the suffering that the Colombian masses presently endure. But the heroism and ingenuity of protestors, particularly the youth, are a source of inspiration for the working class and oppressed throughout Latin America and beyond.
That is why International Socialist Alternative has committed to building a campaign of international solidarity in support of the mass revolt in Colombia and all those facing down vicious repression. Socialists, trade-unionists, anti-racist and feminist activists from across the world, stand in solidarity with the heroic uprising of the Colombian masses. We are struggling against the same global economic system that breeds only misery, violence and ecological destruction.
Precisely for this reason we organize internationally — a world party that connects the struggles of the working class and oppressed across every continent, united in a common movement to break with capitalism and imperialism.