Anthony Boynton reports from Bogotá, Colombia, on the background to the mass protest movement that has broken out there. Also, at the end, we have received an update, dated May 15.
As of this moment, the national strike has continued for nine days since it began on April 28th . (See update.) It has opened the floodgates of pent-up social and political tension that had been stuffed into a bottle by the pandemic.
At the end of 2019, and the beginning of 2020, a massive protest movement of the students, unions, and indigenous people had pushed the government back and looked like it would win very important concessions. Then the pandemic hit, the streets emptied, and instead of improvements, things got worse economically, especially for the poorest third of society. Assassinations of local indigenous leaders and activists in rural areas continued during the pandemic.
When the unions and the students called the national strike on April 28th, they took the cork out of the bottle. The first day of protest was massive, and it occurred all over the country, even in small cities where nothing ever happens.
Two Million Protesters
Although it is difficult to estimate how many people participated, there were very large demonstrations in all of the major cities that included 10s of thousands of people in each. In the capital, Bogotá, estimates range from 100,000 up to several hundred thousand. My own guess is that about 2,000,000 people demonstrated nationwide out of a population of a little less than 50,000,000.
The catalyst for this massive outpouring of protest were two major legislative packages proposed by the government of President Ivan Duque: a regressive reform of the tax code, and an even more regressive reform of the healthcare system.
Initially, the strike committee focused on the tax reform, but from the beginning the movement went beyond the demands of the strike committee. The truck drivers and the taxi drivers have their own demands: no gasoline tax, reduce or eliminate highway tolls, end photo traffic tickets. The teachers union has its own demands: vaccinate all teachers and make schools safe for physical reopening, eliminate tuition in public schools, and more. The list is much longer.
The mass demonstrations were peaceful, and even joyous. People sang, played music, and danced. There was street theater everywhere. The symphony and philharmonic orchestras played as part of the demonstrations. Marches were well organized and mostly without incident.
However, every time there is a large protest in Colombia, the “encapuchados” show up. They are hooded and masked. They throw rocks and potato bombs, they commit acts of vandalism like wrecking Transmilenio stations (the mass transit system) and ripping ATM machines out of walls. Organizers of demonstrations try to stop them, often successfully, but they go somewhere else and continue their activities.
Who are they? Some of them are anarchists who think that this is a useful form of protest, some of them may be parts of the urban arms of the ELN and dissident FARC organizations, and some of them may simply be street gangs taking advantage of the situation to commit robberies. One thing that is certain is that they have been infiltrated by the police and army who encourage vandalism in order to justify repression of the mass movement.
The press focuses on the actions of the “encapuchados” thus aiding the right wing politicians who want to repress the movement. Former President and Senator Alvaro Uribe, the evil puppeteer behind President Duque’s policies, has publicly called for the military and police to use deadly force against the demonstrators. His tweet was removed by Twitter, and he had a meltdown on a CNN en español interview. Duque has called out the army, but it is not clear what, if anything, they have done or are doing.
In Cali, there was an armed incursion into a poor neighborhood that may have been carried out by the army, although the press says it was done by the local police. Videos online show buildings burning and a tank, but the police have their own tankettes so it is not clear who was responsible. In Bogotá helicopters have been buzzing working class neighborhoods, but Claudia Lopez, the mayor and a leader of the Green Party, says that they are police helicopters, not military helicopters.
The press and NGOs have reported somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty killed, and hundreds injured, but the real numbers are higher.
The hospitals were already full because of the current wave of Covid-19. Before the protests started, ICU occupancy rates throughout the country were above 90%. Now they have waiting lists. At least Colombia still has oxygen. I could tell you a lot of horrible Covid stories, but right now I will stick to the protests.
Since the protests started, emergency rooms have filled with young people with eye and head injuries.
Duque, who is a comic president who looks a little like Porky Pig and speaks Spanish a little like George W. Bush speaks English, has withdrawn the proposed tax changes for a rewrite but has not clearly backed down on most of their provisions. He has made some clear concessions: his Minister of Finance has resigned, he has said that income tax will not be extended to lower income brackets currently exempt, and the military has decided not to buy a bunch of new jets that had been in the budget.
Rather than appeasing the protests, the concessions have shown the weakness of Duque’s position and encouraged the movement to press forward. There now seems to be contention in the movement, as Gustavo Petro, the most visible and important political leader of the left, and the left’s most likely candidate in next year’s presidential elections, has criticized the strike committee for not suspending the strike in response to Duque’s concessions.
Two days ago, the second national day of protest focused on defeating Duque’s healthcare system. The current system in Colombia is a mishmash of private and public health care held together by bubble gum and string. It was the first great achievement of Alvaro Uribe and is in many ways the model of Obamacare. Now, Duque wants to completely privatize health care in ways that will open the door wider to multinational companies, limit covered procedures and drugs, and make healthcare more expensive. And he has made this proposal in the middle of the pandemic!
It is impossible to predict where things are going to go from here. The truck drivers have effectively blockaded the country’s highways, and shortages are beginning to appear everywhere. In some small towns where people normally cook with propane, they are cooking with wood. Supermarket shelves in Cali are empty, and there has been panic buying at supermarkets and stores in Bogotá despite the fact that there have still been no major shortages here.
Yesterday, the Senate invited the strike committee to present its case to them, and now there is speculation that Duque will meet with the committee. The committee presented seven primary demands to the Senate:
- Withdrawal of the health care reform combined with a mass vaccination program
- Guaranteed basic income of one minimum monthly salary
- Defend national agricultural, industrial and artisanal production
- Defend sovereignty and food security
- Eliminate tuitions and hybrid virtual/in-person classes
- End gender discrimination and support sexual and ethnic diversity
- No privatizations and end crop eradication with glyphosate
Up until now Duque has talked about finding consensus, but has only met with the leaders of the major capitalist political parties, the military, and the Supreme Court, but now he says he is willing to meet the strike committee.
The massive revival of the protest movement was unexpected, even by its leaders. Its revival is a good thing, and marks a major step forward in the rebirth of the Colombian left after decades of being dominated by the debilitating guerrilla wars.
Government repression is a constant factor in this country, but it had been mostly absent from the cities for a long time. It’s return is a bad thing, but it has not returned on the level demanded by Alvaro Uribe. City governments are mostly in the hands of opponents of the central government, especially in the hands of the Green Party which has been trying to mediate the conflict.
In Bogotá, Claudia Lopez tried to remain firmly in the middle, but has inched closer to supporting the protests. During Wednesday’s protests, Lopez set up monitors along the 22 lines of march to monitor police behavior, and she encouraged all citizens to film the police with their cell phones. Last Monday, Jorge Iván Ospina, the Green Party mayor of Cali declared a “civic day” and joined the protestors.
The strike and protests are not just occurring at the height of the most recent Covid-19 wave, they are occurring just as a new presidential election race has begun. Elections will be in May 2022.
The Colombian election system has undergone several major changes in the last few decades. First, the Constitution of 1991 introduced a proportional representation system that led to the dissolution of the old two party system and the creation of a multiparty system. The old Liberal and conservative Parties still exist, but they have spun off three other major capitalist parties: the Partido de la U, Cambio Radical, and the Centro Democratico.
Most importantly, a new party on the left, the Polo Democratico Alternativo, and a new center left party, the Green Party, emerged in the process. Both have suffered major internal crises, faction fights, splits, and reorganizations.
Currently, descendants of the three major elements that had formed the Polo (M-19, the Communist Party, and MOIR) again have separate organizations and coalitions but exist in a kind of fluid situation of temporary coalitions that sometimes include the Green Party.
In the run-up to the last presidential election in 2018, the Polo and two factions of the Greens formed Coalición Colombia while Colombia Humana (descendant of M-19 led by Gustavo Petro), El Movimiento Alternativo Indígena y Social, and Fuerza Ciudadana formed Inclusión social para la paz. Each held primary elections to choose presidential candidates leaving Sergio Fajardo of the Greens as the candidate of “Coalición Colombia” and Gustavo Petro as the candidate of Inclusión social para la paz.
Similar temporary coalitions were formed among the right and center capitalist parties. In the end, there were six candidates in the first round of the 2018 presidential election. Ivan Duque, the acolyte of Alvaro Uribe and candidate of something called the Grand Alliance for Colombia, came in first, and Gustavo Petro heading the “List of Decency” came in second. Duque, with 54% of the vote, won the second round against Petro who had 42% of the vote.
Similarly dizzying realignments are now underway in the run-up to next year’s elections.
The second major change in Colombia’s electoral system occurred with the 2015 Constitutional amendment which established that a president can only serve one term in office. This means that Ivan Duque cannot be a candidate in the upcoming election, so the field is wide open for a major dust-up among the five major bourgeois parties.
Uribismo, the child of Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia, seems to be on the ropes, but whether or not Colombia’s complex and divided left can take advantage of this opportunity remains to be seen.
Underlying the current political and social crisis is the pandemic and its economic consequences. Duque’s reforms aimed to shore up government finances which have been undermined by his own 2019 tax reform which cut taxes for major corporations and the rich combined with a disastrous drop in tax revenue due to the Covid-19 induced recession.
According to DANE, the country’s statistical agency, the percentage of people officially classified as poor rose from 34.7% in 2018 to 42.5% in 2020 while the percentage of those classified as middle class fell from 30.5% to 25.4%.
Duque would like to please the country’s banks and the world bond market by maintaining the country’s bond rating, Petro on the other hand has tweeted that poor countries have the right to stop paying the foreign debt, especially owing to the pandemic.
If Duque in fact withdraws his tax reform, it will merely postpone the inevitable economic consequences of rising foreign debt which now stands at 56% of annual GDP.
Where is all of this going? While no precise predictions are possible, it is a certainty that the crisis is going to deepen during the next year. Any deal the strike committee makes with Duque will at best be a stopgap measure and almost certainly will not be able to meet all seven of the committee’s programmatic points.
Update, May 12:
Anthony Boynton writes:
Today marks the 15th consecutive day of the national work stoppage and protests here in Colombia. The government has responded with a combination of concessions and repression. First it withdrew its regressive tax reform proposal and promised not to extend income taxes to currently exempt lower income brackets. Yesterday it promised to eliminate tuition at public universities and technical schools for students from strata 1, 2, and 3 (The are six socioeconomic strata in Colombia.)
Protest leaders have rejected these concessions so far because the government has not demonstrated its sincerity by ending police and paramilitary repression of demonstrators. Cali and Pereira have been centers of violence and repression directed especially against unarmed student and indigenous demonstrators and poor neighborhoods in Cali. Most of the armed violence has been committed by people dressed as civilians but accompanied by uniformed police. Videos of these attacks have flooded the internet.
Yesterday, student leader Lucas Villa died from gunshot wounds inflicted by a drive-by shooter while he was demonstrating peacefully in Pereira. Others wounded in the same attack remain hospitalized.
Each Wednesday has been the week’s highpoint for major mobilizations, and today is no different. As of this writing at 5:30 in the afternoon, there appear to have been no major attacks or violence anywhere in the country. Since most public transportation has been shut down, many demonstrators are now making their ways home. In Bogotá the mayor has promised that she will try to reopen public transport in the evening.
Beyond an end to the repression, protest leaders do not trust the government’s promises because of its failure to make good on the agreement that led to the end of the mass demonstrations in 2019. The government also promised to end tuition at public universities, but evaded its promise by shifting the burden of paying for those universities to the municipal and departmental governments.
The country’s major highways remain blocked, although protestors are allowing some traffic to pass through their road blocks. Some of the blockades have in fact been imposed by the police, especially around Cali where the police have prevented a large caravan of indigenous people from leaving the city. The “minga”, the indigenous mobilization, came to Cali to peacefully support the demonstrators against attacks by the police and ultra-right. They decided to leave and return to Cauca to continue supporting the national strike but were unable to leave the city because of the police blockades.
Categories: Latin America