Currently, Colombia is experiencing one of the most important days of social protest in recent years; thousands of people have come out to demonstrate their discontent with the neoliberal and life-impairing policies of the Iván Duque government. For its part, the State has responded with disproportionality, repression and violence. On May 5, 24 people were reported dead, 381 people were injured, of which 31 had eye injuries and 24 were wounded by firearms, 15 people were victims of gender-based violence, 379 people disappeared and 1180 people were detained. Below, we present an analysis of the protest and outline some tasks for the current situation.
The Sustainable Solidarity Law and the political context in which it is produced
Last April, the three central trade unions of the country (CUT, CGT, CTC) and some social organizations made a general call for a national strike and mobilization for April 28, calling mainly for opposition to the third tax reform introduced by the government of the pro-Uribe and ultra-right-wing leader, Iván Duque, in the Congress of the Republic. The reform, according to its co-author, the now former Minister of Finance Alberto Carrasquilla, sought to raise 35 trillion pesos to compensate for the alleged budgetary crisis of the State, maintaining the neoliberal economic adjustment line of the current government, now within the framework of the reduction of the GDP, the increase in public debt, the increase in unemployment, and the deepening of inequality and poverty triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Likewise, the tax reform, euphemistically called Sustainable Solidarity Law, was presented to Congress in the context of a weak and increasingly unpopular government which, in spite of having a majority in the legislative branch, receives rejection of the reform by most political parties, left and right, including the governing party itself, for convenience, the far-right Democratic Center (Centro Democrático). Most of the different sectors rejected the reform, since it sought to collect resources for the State through regressive indirect taxes on products related to family consumption, the increase in income tax rates and the broadening of the base of people who pay it, and the elimination of tax benefits such as subsidies to public services. The main effect of the above would be the deepening of inequality and hunger in the country, financially asphyxiating the middle class and the working and popular classes. Hence, the reform was also opposed by a number of businessmen, who do not believe it is viable to take resources from working families in the midst of a health and economic crisis.
Now, the day of mobilization and strike was called in a context of popular discontent with the government in power, previously expressed in November 2019 through the National Strike of November 21 and subsequent days, as well as through the demonstrations against police brutality in September 2020 against the murder of the lawyer Javier Ordóñez in a CAI in Bogotá, the rape of women by the police and, in general, the abuses on the part of this repressive body. In addition, this comes in the midst of a context of smaller struggles of women workers against layoffs and working conditions during the pandemic (e.g. health, mining, delivery services, construction, etc.), and of demonstrations and blockades of informal and unemployed women workers who, due to the mobility restrictions imposed to contain COVID-19, have no guarantee of income to cover rent and food expenses. Finally, the call for a strike takes place in an authoritarian political environment, in which political participation is limited by violence, persecution, and assassinations of multiple political-social actors who advocate in defense of the territory, the Peace Agreement, and the environment, such as human rights defenders, peasants, black, and indigenous leaders, trade unionists, environmentalists, and civil and community leaders. At the same time, the ex-combatants of the FARC guerrilla have been exterminated in the face of a State complicit by action or omission.
28A Strike and Days of Mobilization
On April 28, thousands of people demonstrated in the streets of the country’s main cities, as well as in less populated municipalities and rural areas, in response to the call made by the central unions. The massive mobilization in cities such as Bogotá, Cali, Medellín, Pereira, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Cúcuta, Manizales, Villavicencio, Neiva, Tunja, Cartagena, Popayán, Pasto, among others, was led by thousands of people who demonstrated in the streets and blocked inter-municipal highways and urban roads. The day was marked by expressions of discontent such as pots and pans banging at night, clashes with the police, looting, and the demolition of the statue of the Spanish conqueror, Sebastián de Belalcázar, in Cali by the Misak indigenous people. In addition to the large number of people, the mobilization was well received throughout Colombia, with the participation of people in Turbo, Pitalito, Cáqueza, Guayabetal, Chipaque, Duitama and Sogamoso being significant; rural areas of Cundinamarca such as Samacá, Marinilla, Betania and Hispania, close to Bogotá, municipalities close to Cali such as Palmira, and municipalities close to Ocaña in the Catatumbo region; and sparsely populated departments such as Casanare, Vaupés, Amazonas and Arauca, which also joined the movement.
The main demand of the demonstrations was the withdrawal of the tax reform bill from Congress; however, there was also notable discontent with the government in power, disagreement with the handling of the pandemic, and complaints regarding the situation of hunger and poverty of the majority of the population. It should be noted that both local and national authorities tried to contain the protest, declaring curfews in cities (for example in Cali and Medellin), militarizing certain cities, and with attempts to ban the protest due to the possibility of COVID-19 contagion, despite the organizers’ calls to adopt biosafety measures. Additionally, it is worth noting the efforts of national authorities to demobilize protesters by criminalizing the protest, branding those who participate in it as vandals and persecuting students and young people in order to falsely incriminate them. The hegemonic media contributed to the stigmatization by reproducing official narratives, focusing their coverage on the impacts of the mobilization on the health situation, and partially ignoring abuses by the police and military forces such as intentional dispersal of gatherings of protesters, arbitrary arrests, or the death of a young man in Neiva as a result of police action.
After the day of protests on April 28 ended, the strike and mobilization efforts continued in the following days despite the repressive response of the State and the stubbornness of the Iván Duque government. On April 29, cities in the Cauca Valley such as Cali and Palmira, among others, witnessed large popular demonstrations of discontent with the government, as well as more moderate demonstrations in the southwest of the country and the bigger cities. The reaction of the population of Valle del Cauca to the curfew was met with great repression, with police massacres taking place during this and the following nights, with some young people killed as a result, and reports of abuses of all kinds, from beatings, assaults and arbitrary arrests, to indiscriminate shooting with firearms, torture, attacks on medical and human rights teams, and sexual abuses.
On April 30, mobilizations, blockades, pots and pans, and expressions of nonconformity were reactivated throughout Colombia, mainly by young protesters. Similarly, a transcendental event was the blockade of the port of Buenaventura, the country’s most important port, which has witnessed major mobilizations in recent years, including the civil strike at the beginning of this year. On May 1st, International Workers’ Day, the protest gained strength, with mobilizations, sit-ins and strikes in all major cities (Bogotá, Cali, Pasto, Popayán, Cúcuta, Pereira, Manizales, Bucaramanga, Barranquilla, and Manizales). In addition, there were agitated protests and blockades near the president’s residence in the north of Bogota. Finally, the day ended with brutal repression like the previous nights; becoming a terrorist strategy to control popular discontent.
On May 2, the huge movement continued and the city of Cali received the Minga indígena del Cauca, who declared Minga outward and joined the mobilization. That same day, as a result of the pressure exerted by the people, the Duque government announced the withdrawal of the tax reform bill in Congress. Nevertheless, the social sectors participating in the strike: women workers, students, certain social organizations and ordinary people have declared that they are still on strike because of the health reform in process, as well as state repression, and in opposition to the government and Uribism. Finally, to close this account of some important events in this wave of protests in Colombia, on May 3, cab and truck drivers carried out a partial strike in Bogotá, Medellín, and Barranquilla, blocking roads and highways; students gradually went on strike in the departments and faculties of their universities, public or private, and, to a lesser extent, in some public schools; and mobilization continued in cities such as Neiva, Bucaramanga, Bogotá, Cúcuta, Valledupar, Barranquilla, Barrancabermeja, Villavicencio, and several municipalities in the Cauca Valley. Likewise, that same day the Minister of Finance presented his resignation to the President, who requested “military assistance” to contain the protests, at the same time the critical situation of the country gained considerable international visibility.
Despite the withdrawal of the Tax Reform, the National Strike continues
After the popular victory with the withdrawal of the neo-liberal tax reform, which is partial to the extent that the government of Iván Duque withdraws it conditioned to the formulation of a new one based on the “consensus” between the government, political parties, social sectors and the supposed “civil society”, several social sectors, still dissatisfied, declared themselves in strike and indefinite mobilization. The discontent, which the withdrawal of the reform could not contain, continued to manifest itself in the streets, mainly in the face of the State terrorism that hit, through abuses by the police and military forces, the unarmed and angry population. With the eyes of international actors on the human rights situation, the government did not cease the repression, but, on the contrary, escalated it, constantly justifying itself with what in its authoritarian criteria is called “disproportionate” protest. The actions of the public forces, once more legitimate in the public debate, have been losing the trust that used to be blindly placed in them. Likewise, discontent was manifested in the form of widespread rejection of the government and its neoliberal reform proposals, such as the projected health reform, which would have the effect of further privatizing the already precarious and exclusive Colombian health system.
However, although the mostly spontaneous popular movement is effective, there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the fulfillment of the new demands. Parallel to the advance of the sectoral organization around the national situation, the vanguardism in the left presents efforts to instrumentalize the discontent in its favor, and the political parties, besides channeling the movement towards electoral issues, position themselves, together with the businessmen, in their priority shift to negotiate the points of the new tax reform with the government. These political actors do not take into account the needs and feelings of the popular movement because it is not indispensable to them in their eagerness to take control of the State or to position their own slogans in the national agenda. It is imperative, then, to read the reasons behind the nonconformism and, with it, to listen to the voices, feelings, and needs of those who express it, supporting them in their struggle against repression, against the adjustments of capital, and against the deep inequality that affects them.
The budgetary adjustment is the result of the capitalist crisis and this, in its urgency to overcome it, hits the middle class and, mainly, the working and popular classes in order to survive. Although the tax reform that Carrasquilla and Duque proposed in Congress seemed completely disconnected from reality by ignoring the reality of poverty and precariousness of the population on which they were trying to tax by raising the price of food, and ignoring the backlash for capital behind the impoverishment of the middle and consumer classes, it responds precisely to a reality of subjugation of the middle and consumer classes, it responds precisely to a reality of submission of the State to the dominant economic interests, freeing them from any tax burden, facilitating the exploitation of workers through labor flexibilization, and opening the way to profit through the precariousness of all areas of people’s lives. The government’s almost non-existent social spending, which it claims it needs money to maintain, obeys its policy of containing misery through subsidies and, instead of facilitating access to health, education and food for the population, it makes it completely dependent on the capitalist or private companies that seek to monopolize these services. The rejection of the tax reform represents a rejection of the deepening of inequality which, in this case, is expressed in more hunger for the working and popular classes, and less responsibility for the rich. In the face of this we say: Let the capitalists pay for the crisis!
In this atmosphere of discontent, the task ahead is to strengthen the mobilization and the struggles that arise, that are activated or reactivated at this important juncture. Our challenge continues to be the creation of a strong population, capable of counteracting the advances of capital and building a socialist, anti-patriarchal, anti-colonial, free and just society. It is time to strengthen the grassroots processes, to organize the nonconformist sectors, to support the mobilization and to encourage it so that important victories will emerge from it, whether in the form of concessions made by public pressure and direct action, or in the form of the organization of the population and the power of struggle. The protesters still demand the withdrawal of the health care reform, a halt to state violence and the militarization of the territories, a basic income to face the economic crisis, and a life in dignity and peace. In this sense, we, from the Libertarian Group Via Libre, call for the continuation of the mobilization and strike, against Uribism and repression, but also against capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism.
The struggle continues!
Stand up for those who are fighting!
Via Libre, Grupo Libertaria , May 8, 2021
About Vía Libre:
Grupo Libertario Vía Libre is a revolutionary political group with a Libertarian Communist tendency that operates in Bogotá, Colombia. The organization was born in June 2010 with the goal of infusing an Anarchist-Communist perspective into the class struggle and the struggles of other oppressed social sectors regionally and globally.
In that sense, Vía Libre is heavily influenced by the international tradition of social and organizational anarchism, and the rich and diverse history of working class and popular struggles in Colombia, Latin America, and the world.
Therefore, we promote social practices such as horizontality, class struggle, direct action and grassroots organizing among the oppressed in order to promote social self-management and build working class and popular power moving toward to the Social Revolution, with an anti-capitalist and anti-statist perspective, and thereby toward a free and egalitarian society.
Vía Libre organizes in different social spheres such as the student movement, alternative media, and the educational movement through Popular Education programs, with a perspective oriented around social insertion and grassroots work, aiming to stimulate the growth and development of these sectors and their convergence and unification in the working class and popular struggle.