Colombia: The Fear of a Successful Strike
Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
18 May 2021
The Colombian strike has been going on for three weeks. The trade union bureaucracy surely thought it would be no more than a one-day affair but it exceeded their expectations and escaped their control. Formally, the National Strike Committee, made up of trade union bureaucrats and self proclaimed representatives of civil society is still the representative and public face of the strike but in the neighbourhoods it is only good for setting the date of national mobilisations and sometimes not even that as there are mobilisations every day and no one asks that committee for permission.
In all the mobilisations, and sometimes from platforms, voices are heard saying that the National Strike Committee doesn't represent them. There is a certain distrust of that committee and other supposedly left wing voices in Congress. First there was an attempt by Jorge Robledo of the MOIR and his new right wing allies such as Fajardo and Ángela Robledo to usurp the representation of the strike (which they had opposed) and negotiate with Duque. This attempt failed for many reasons, amongst them that Duque does not want to negotiate and knows that if he has to, the Robledos and Fajardo do not have the power to dismount the strike.
Not so with other politicians like Gustavo Petro, who aims to win next year's presidential elections taking advantage of the popular discontent, which has been expressed in this strike. This is why it is important to him to control and channel this discontent and bring it along legal and constitutional routes.
Initially when Duque announced the withdrawal of his Tax Reform, Petro and others agreed with calling off the strike and declaring a victory, leaving the other reforms to future negotiations. However, the strike had by then a dynamic of its own and no one paid any attention to the proposal to call off the strike and declare a victory. And just as well, as what was coming down the road was more than a simple reform but a severe blow to the poor and the brazen plundering of the public purse. Petro himself asked how Carrasquilla managed to increase the country's debt.
In 2020 the country increased its debt by 120 trillion pesos, we were further indebted to the tune of US $28 billion in just one year. What did Carrasquilla do with that money? It didn't go to the poor to ease their hunger, nor to the small and medium sized company to protect the greater part of employment in the country, nor to buy vaccines, tests, intensive care units, or finance health care staff.(1)So, nobody is any doubt as to the class of gangsters we are governed by. The CUT [main trade union confederation], Petro and others know this perfectly well, we even partly rely on their reports to gather information. They are not lacking in information nor the ability to analyse the situation. So their proposals as to what to do now are not mistakes, misunderstandings and less still ignorance of the reality of the situation.
Senator Iván Cepeda has stood out in the strike for his daily reports, in his social media networks, of the human rights violations in the context of the protests and he has been coherent in his reporting by putting his name to a report presented to the International Criminal Court.
The report contains evidence of crimes against the civilian population in terms of homicides, torture, serious privations of physical liberty, sexual violence and forced disappearances. It recounts at least 1,595 acts of human rights violations. Of these it furnished the identity of 315 people. It documented 24 murders and 50 victims of attempted homicide; 16 victims of sexual violence; 11 victims of forced disappearance; 129 victims of torture and 1,365 victims of arbitrary arrest.(2)But if Duque is a criminal, and there is no reason to doubt this, the question arises, why negotiate with a criminal guilty of crimes against humanity? Those types of criminals are overthrown and tried, nothing more.
Recently, Petro published his latest proposal titled From the barricade... to the multitude. As with everything Petro does it is well argued, but dangerous. It does not represent a danger to the bourgeoisie but to the risen people in the strike. Before looking at his proposal it is worth recalling that in recent days Petro boasted on Twitter that he was meeting with business leaders to seek a solution to the crisis and his new Director of Communications is María Antonio Pardo, a person more on the Colombian right than left and who had no hesitation in publicly claiming that one of Petro's assistants was connected to the ELN.(3) She explained her decision to work with Petro's team as part of the so called Historic Pact because the candidate needs an alliance between business leaders and the citizens.(4) And that is Petro’s proposal an alliance with business leaders against a reform that benefits business leaders. In reality Petro’s article should be titled From the barricade… to the ballot box, as it is a call for the strike to take legal state routes. However, it makes some valid points and it will almost certainly be around those points that he and others attempt to demobilise the strike.
Flower sellers throwing petals under the feet of marchers.
Petro states, not without reason, that the barricades in the neighbourhoods are defensive. This is true, but they are a defence against the same murderous state that he has denounced himself. The barricades won’t overthrow Duque, he says. This is also true, but they are part of the processing of overthrowing him.
They know that the working class youths will tend to stay in their neighbourhoods that they see as their territory in the areas they know and that there they will erect defensive barricades. They know they can hit them hard every time they want and that such activity will not, in the end, affect the power brokers and the owners of the economy. The barbarity may continue for months and Duque will remain unmoved whilst the death toll of the youth rises.(5)He tries to discourage the people with that description that talks of barricades as if they occurred in isolation rather than as part of a series of actions the length and breadth of the country. He asks to proceed to another type of action, not defensive but neither is it offensive.
In the neighbourhood barricade the shop keeper, the police officer and the youth end up fighting each other, all of them poor. In the active mobilisation towards the centres of power, there is a conflict between the multitude and the powers that be. An alternative is built. The people of Colombia Humana [Petro’s party] must engage in dialogue with the working class youth and discuss how to allow for the social mobilisation to cross over to large multitudes.(6)Perhaps Petro has not directly taken part in marches due to security fears, which is perfectly understandable, but has not seen any reports on the large marches? Of course he has, he has commented on them himself. So what are these mass mobilisations, the large multitudes he speaks of? He made it clear in an interview that the "more peace, greater chances of change, more violence, greater chances that the next president will be whoever Uribe says."(7) For Petro "the more people can go out into the streets in pacific multitudes, the quicker we will see a solution... and we will not only get the government to listen but to dialogue and reach an agreement"(8) i.e. the mobilisation is just a mechanism to pressure Duque and the elite to agree to something. But in the streets, Duque, you son of a bitch, resign! can be heard. If he resigns he can't agree to anything and Petro is against him resigning. He says that if that happens he will be replaced by Martha Lucía Ramírez. This is true. But it is only a problem if we limit ourselves to Duque and not his government and the entire Congress as such.
The working class youths should celebrate assemblies at their places of resistance, nominate delegates and with them conform coordinating bodies in their cities. Avoid the dislocation of the local negotiating committees as Uribe has proposed to divide and weaken them and on the contrary, nominate delegates to form part of the strike committee and lead a national leadership.(9)It is a good point, but it does not require dismantling barricades. Petro in his article lays the blame on the youths for the riots when we all know the majority of them were peaceful marches attacked by the ESMAD [specialised riot squad]. His marches of the multitudes, can also be attacked. But he wants a negotiation, on specific points, that includes the youth.
An expanded strike committee is the tool for the negotiation of an agenda of the multitudes. From this pact a broader coverage in higher education may emerge, a change in the health scheme in the poor neighbourhoods, the restructuring of the police may also emerge so that a patrol officer may rise through the ranks to be a general, it may achieve a change in policy on drug consumption so as this passes from the remit of the Ministry of Defence to the Ministry of Health. And something fundamental to the working class youth; a guaranteed employment policy by state may be achieved.(10)Yes, they should choose their own representatives but not to form part of the National Strike Committee, that many say over and again does not represent them, but rather set up their own committee that thinks in the short and long term and whose success is not measured by seats in Congress. These committees should have their own national structure. The strike won the withdrawal of the tax reform, the previous two tax reforms went through Congress and Petro and his people could not stop them. In a political oversight debate, Senator Iván Cepeda was forced to scold General Artehortua to pay attention to him and beg him not to disrespect Congress. Artehortua paid no heed to him and continued to treat Congress as a sort of luxury Café where to meet and chat to his friends. The strike however, forced the police commander in Cali, Juan Carlos Rodríguez to resign.
Petro asks the youth to give up their struggle and wait for his election as president and appeals to their fear of a Coup d'Etat or the declaration of a state of internal unrest to frighten them more. He ends his missive with demands, none of which include Duque's resignation, the trial of high ranking police officers or the dismantling of the ESMAD, but rather lukewarm proposals on employment, but nothing of substance or import.
I ask the youths to consider these proposals and I also ask the business leaders to approach this new reality with an open mind and I ask Duque to be willing to reach an agreement.(11)But no one in the streets is talking about reaching an agreement but forcing Duque to resign. They have achieved more in a short period than Petro and his people in the entire legislature. When Petro was mayor, he did not, nor did he aim to achieve deep rooted changes. All of his changes were short term and he managed praiseworthy projects of his government such as Healthy Territories as electoral swag and when Peñalosa became mayor he simply did not renew those projects. Change comes from youths in the streets and not from people thinking about how to manage the state as a personal treasure trove for electoral purposes.
This strike may be defeated in many ways, one of which is that Duque crushes it through the use of force, something we can't discount. The other way is it will be worn down or it will be surrendered through negotiations with the CUT, Petro and others who see in this just an electoral advantage. Do not worry Petro, it is almost certain you will be the next president of Colombia, meanwhile, don't stand in the way of the struggle, which far outdoes your own efforts in this legislature. As the Cuban revolutionary José Martí said, "If you don't struggle, at least have the decency to respect those who do." This is chance for the youths to make history not to facilitate Petro's desire to go down in history as yet another president who gave hope and ended up letting down everyone, except the business leaders.
The bourgeoisie fears the success of this strike, there are no examples of the people forcing a mandatory to resign and they don't want the people to feel they have this power. Neither do the left reformists want them to see the possibility of overthrowing a president as real. Everything in Colombia is negotiated, agreed to, for everything to remain the same, even though there is an apparent change and in the midst of these appearances someone makes money, generally those who usurp the voice of others.
(1) Gustavo Petro (16/05/2021) De la barricada a la multitud https://prensabolivariana.org/2021/05/16/de-la-barricada-a-la-multitud/
(2) Iván Cepeda (13/05/2021) Denuncian ante la Corte Penal Internacional y ante Naciones Unidas crímenes https://www.ivancepedacastro.com/denuncian-ante-la-corte-penal-internacional-y-ante-naciones-unidas-crimenes-de-lesa-humanidad-durante-manifestaciones-en-colombia/
(3) Gustavo Petro Op. Cit.
(4) Infobae (18/05/2021) María Antonio Pardo, nueva directora de comunicaciones de Gustavo Petro https://www.infobae.com/america/colombia/2021/05/18/maria-antonia-pardo-nueva-directora-de-comunicaciones-de-gustavo-petro/
(5) Gustavo Petro, Op. Cit.
(9) Gustavo Petro Op. Cit.