Latin America

Report from Bogotá: Colombia at Turning Point?

Anthony Boynton reports from Bogotá, Colombia:

Protests in Colombia. The banner says “We will never remain silent”

Tomorrow (Wednesday June 9, 2021) could be a turning point for the mass movement that erupted here at the end of April and which has thrown the government into a major crisis.

The strike committee has changed tactics and called for a “toma de Bogotá” (taking of Bogotá). For the first month of the strikes, demonstrations, and blockades, the committee led a movement that was decentralized. There were mass demonstrations in all of the major cities and in many, many smaller cities and towns. Road blockades sprang up like mushrooms on major national highways as well as within cities and towns.

Repression and Confusion
Throughout, the government has met the protests with a combination of repression and confusion. It abandoned the reactionary tax reform which had initially sparked the movement, its bid to privatize all health care failed miserably in the congress, it has made all sorts of promises: to create a new loan program for small farmers, to reform the police (new uniforms and all!). So far close to 100 people have been killed by the police, hundreds have “disappeared”, more than 2,000 have been arrested, and thousands have been injured.

The government’s confusion has extended to negotiations with the strike committee. Weeks were spent with on-again-off-again talks about procedural issues. Finally, a “preagreement” was reached. The government never signed it. After shopping it around the various ministries for comment, the government rejected it and demanded that all demonstrations and road blocks be stopped before substantive negotiations could begin. This was ostensibly the redline imposed by the Ministry of Defense, but was a condition in fact imposed by former President Alvaro Uribe Velez, the increasingly frustrated puppet master of the “Centro Democratico” (misnamed democratic center), the party of President Ivan Duque. Uribe has castigated Duque for being weak, and other leaders of the CD have called on Duque to resign because he has not been sufficiently repressive.

The government’s lead negotiator, the “High Commissioner for Peace” resigned immediately after the government issued its ultimatum. Four ministers have also resigned.

Immediately after the government issued its ultimatum, the strike committee changed tactics. It announced that it would use all of its influence to dismantle roadblocks throughout the country despite the fact that it did not control the roadblocks. Most of the roadblocks have been dismantled, but a couple of dozen remain, and some sprout up again after they have been dismantled.

The government, despite its demand that all roadblocks be dismantled and all demonstrations be stopped, resumed negotiations.

Nevertheless, the strike committee’s gesture of good will may not have been the reason for the resumption of talks.

International Pressure
International media from Al Jazeera to Fox news has shown videos of the murderous behavior of the Colombian police and military. I guess violence makes for good ratings, but it does not make for good diplomatic relations. Colombia has been publicly criticized by many other governments, by the European Union, and has received the most lukewarm public support possible from the excessively lukewarm Biden administration in the USA.

The bad international press has led to a total disaster behind the scenes in world insurance and capital markets. Foreign investment has been placed on hold and London reinsurers have either pulled out of Colombia or have drastically increased rates. On top of this, the failure of the tax reform has led to a major reduction in the country’s bond rating.

To make matters worse, the Inter-American Commission on Human Right, an autonomous branch of the Organization of American States, decided to send a delegation to Colombia to investigate human rights violations during the course of the strike. The government panicked and told them they were welcome to come…at the end of July! Bad press and diplomatic pressure resulted in a change of heart, and the government decided to let the delegation come sooner.

The IACHR delegation arrived two days ago (Sunday June 6) after accepting the Duque government’s condition that they spend the first half of their four day visit talking to various government officials. The delegation is scheduled to leave tomorrow night, after the “toma de Bogotá”.

War of Attrition
To the extent that the government has had a strategy, it has been a war of attrition. The government’s confusion has been combined with the calculation that delaying tactics combined with repression would simply exhaust the mass movement. Their calculation has been proven to be at least partly correct: the demonstrations last Wednesday (the mass demonstrations have been called every Wednesday and sometimes on Fridays, with a multitude of smaller demonstrations in between) were markedly smaller than those on previous Wednesday.

Taken together, this explains the strike committee’s decision to call a major national demonstration in the capital tomorrow.

The size of the demonstration tomorrow may well determine what happens in the next few weeks. A large demonstration could bring the government to the negotiating table with a willingness to make real concessions, but a small demonstration is likely to empower the ultra-right wing within Duque’s party and lead to an end to negotiations and increased repression.

I will write another update this weekend.

(In the meantime, the Colombian national soccer team played Argentina to a draw in their first head to head elimination match in the lead up to the next World Cup).

Covid 19
Another major factor in the situation that could determine tomorrow’s outcome is Covid 19.

The country’s hospitals and ICUs are overflowing. This is the worst moment of the pandemic here so far, despite a significant increase in the rate vaccinations. Colombia is approaching a health care crisis similar to those experienced already by Brazil and India.

When the national strike was announced in response to the government’s tax reform at the end of April, a lot of people on the left were hesitant or even opposed because of the increasingly desperate health care situation. Nevertheless, when the protests began, the left united behind them.

The Covid-19 crisis is clearly the cumulative result of the government’s slow and indecisive reaction to the pandemic combined with the predictable development of new and more contagious and/or deadly variants. The Duque government followed what might be called the European Union model rather than that Trump or Bolsanaro model. It relied on government restrictions on movement and socialization combined with masking and a cost-conscious vaccination program.

The policy seemed to work, more or less. It prevented the country’s hospitals from becoming overwhelmed for more than a year, but by the end of April that was beginning to change as new more contagious variants (including a Colombian variant) began to appear and become predominate here. While the older population of the country has been vaccinated, the hospitals have filled up with younger and younger Covid patients, and many of these younger patients have required ICU care or have died.

Miami hotels are full of upper class and upper middle class Colombian vaccine tourists.

Colombia’s frontline doctors and nurses are sick and exhausted. While many of them have supported the paro, their sentiments are divided because of fears that the massive crowds, some without masks, have added to the contagion.

The government and the right-wing media have increasingly used Covid 19 as a cudgel against the mass movement, falsely blaming it for the current spike in the pandemic.

This may have been part of the reason for last week’s low turnout at demonstrations, and it could affect the turnout tomorrow.

Protests in Colombia. The banner says “We will never remain silent”

Categories: Latin America

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