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Colombia: The Struggle Continues

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh (in Bogotá)

13 May 2021


Colombia's wave of protests continues unabated.  On May 12th, there were massive demonstrations throughout the country, showing once again that this shows no immediate signs of waning.

Between the last national mobilisation and this one there were numerous smaller protests around Bogotá and quite 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 was the number of cars, motorbikes, commercial vehicles sounding their horn in support, a Coca Cola supply lorry even joined in.

On the 12th this was clear, by the size of the demonstrations and the in the city centre it was good natured.  However, 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 areas such Las Americas people stood their ground and applied lessons learnt from Chile, with the Front Line, primera linea, youths with homemade shields to protect themselves from the stun grenades and other missiles launched by the police.

There has been no let up in state violence.  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 circulated on the internet of him getting on buses and explaining to people the reasons behind the strike.  This is a common practice here.  There were other videos of him dancing and even saying hello to the cops.  His good nature and his embracing of police officers, didn't stop them shooting him dead.  Medical missions in Cali, giving 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 that good an 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 14 people were shot dead and numerous police stations in Bogotá were burned to the ground, even in some middle class areas.  This time round the state murders are spread out 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 rebellion is that is very spontaneous, and organised at a local level.  It is also one of its weaknesses, as it has not national or even regional unified leadership.  The Comando Nacional del Paro (National Strike Command) is the public face, on something it does not control.  Comments by youths are quite clear, this body represents no one.  It's most useful purpose to date 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 years' 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, when they fired a bean bag to his head at a short distance, to take part in a dialogue.  She refused.  Like many, she knows what showcasing looks like.  When her brother was murdered, Claudia López turned up at a vigil and tried to use their grief to her own political advantage, when as mayoress 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 lead to more demands, which are basically the full and complete binning of the tax reform, the health reform, the 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 atmosphere is one where people want to give him the kicking of his life, not give him a breathing space.  Colombia's elite and the reformist left are fearful of the outcome.  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 and the Gustavo Petros 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 and buy off leaderships.  They don't want people to see an alternative to that tired old formula.

Those reading this might wonder what can be done from a far.  There are a number of things, one is a blockade of Colombian coal, workers in Europe where most of it goes, should refuse to unload it.  It is one of the major exports, as are cut flowers.  Some might be surprised to learn that the Colombian coffee they buy is actually roasted, grounded and packed in the US, Germany and Italy.  It arrives in bulk as green coffee beans.  It shouldn't be off loaded either.   Organise boycotts are the ports, leave the produce to rot, nearly all of it is the property of a handful of multinationals such as Nestlé.

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