The government of Iván Duque and his Democratic Center party is ordering some of the worst repression against social activism that Colombia has seen in years. This is the same person that accuses Venezuela’s Maduro government of being a “dictatorship” while harboring Juan Guaidó and other ‘golpistas’ (coup leaders). Duque is the political godson of Álvaro Uribe, the former president and ex-senator who resigned from the Senate to evade the Supreme Court, where he faces 28 charges including those related to his links with paramilitary groups, the Colombian militia that kill social activists.
The general strike that has been taking place since 28 April targets tax reform and the privatization of health care, and also defends labor rights and other issues. This strike was organized by an overwhelming majority of social organizations, trade union federations, indigenous and community organizations, and feminist and youth movements. It has been supported by several political and parliamentary organizations from the democratic camp and the left, such as the Green Alliance (AV) and its Mayor of Bogota Claudia Lopez, the Humane Colombia (CH) party and its Senator Gustavo Petro, the Commons Party (ex-FARC), Patriotic Union (UP), Indigenous and Social Alternative Movement (MAIS), the Dignity party, Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA), and community, regional and local social organizations.
After the protests of 21 November 2019 and those of 2020, this general strike sees a new tsunami of demonstrations, stoppages, blockades, and protests in more than 500 cities across the country. This strike expresses the feeling that the government has tried to stampede a whole herd of measures into place by taking advantage of social distancing and the pandemic’s advance, which has already caused 75,000 deaths in a country of 50 million inhabitants.
Even with this tragic health situation, millions of activists, summoned by popular organizations or acting in a spontaneous, self-organized fashion, have come out to protest. Faced with the consequences of these reforms, they assessed that it was worth running the risk of infection in the streets to join the demonstrations called with health and safety precautions in place.
The fuse for these demonstrations was the tax reform bill that was sent to Congress, a bill that would further penalize the working and middle classes. The strike had already been called a few weeks earlier to try to stop the vote on the health care reform (Bill 010), and changes to labor legislation that would allow more space for hour by hour labor contracts (similar to the intermittent work created by labor reform in Brazil). The protest would also oppose the almost daily assassinations of peasant, indigenous and popular community leaders which have been occurring for years, and include at least 300 demobilized ex-FARC combatants who gave up their weapons as part of an agreement with the previous government.
The mobilizations which have continued since 28 April include calls for access to vaccination and full labor rights for the thousands of health workers who risk their lives trying to save patients from the coronavirus, who work excessive hours and without full protective equipment. These workers joined the protests on 28 April from hospital balconies waving white handkerchiefs.
SOS Colombia: No more killings and repression!
Faced with the unquestionable strength of the strike, Duque has been obliged to announce the withdrawal of the tax reform bill, which was a triumph for the movement. The protests also led to the resignation of the Finance Minister. In return, the government has ordered a brutally repressive counter-offensive via the gangs of riot police known as ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron), which only widened the repression already occurring since 28 April. Videos show the brutality of the security forces who shoot at groups of demonstrators with machine guns.
Trade union federations held a press conference on 2 May to denounce what the mainstream media has not revealed: by that time there had already been at least 27 homicides, 1,089 cases of violent aggression, 124 people wounded and injured, over 726 abusive arrests, at least six cases of rape and sexual violence by police officers, 12 young people who have lost eyes as a result of gunshots or aggression, and several denunciations of interference in the work of the People’s Defenders, the body that monitors human rights abuses.
The repression was so brutal that it provoked statements from bodies linked to the UN Human Rights Committee, which traditionally do not interfere in the internal affairs of countries with right-wing governments. For example, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Marta Hurtado, expressed “profound shock at the events there and stress our solidarity with those who have lost their lives, as well as the injured and their families.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia representative, Juliette de Rivero, warned via Twitter that since April 28 the human rights situation in Cali was being “monitored with concern”, along with that in Cauca, Medellin, Bello, Pasto, Neiva, Barranquilla, Villavicencio and Bogota. “We are in contact with the Public Ministry. We emphasize that a large part of the demonstrations were peaceful,” she stressed.
For a new General Strike and embassy demonstrations
Despite the savage repression meted out by the ESMAD riot cops and ordered by the right-wing government, national and regional organizations have called a new general strike for 5 May under the slogan “¡A parar para avanzar!” (Stop to move forward!). In addition to denouncing the repression and fighting for justice, there is the government agenda has not yet been defeated, such as its plans to privatize health care, attack labor rights, and the possibility of it resubmitting the tax reform bill.
The trade union and popular organizations in Colombia have called for the mobilizations to continue. But democratic and class solidarity with the Colombian people is indispensable. On 7 May there is a global day of protests at Colombian embassies in several countries, in defense of human rights and against the repression perpetrated by the government. In Brazil, there is already a protest scheduled by the trade union centrals for 6 May at 10 am at the Colombian consulate in São Paulo.
We need to repeat what occurred on 28 April, when the strike was supported in over 40 countries by solidarity protests with Colombian flags. It is very important for all workers of the continent to closely follow the political situation in Colombia and show solidarity in some way in their countries and their social networks. The struggle in Colombia and Latin America demonstrates the gigantic strength of the exploited classes and oppressed sectors, and shows that the neoliberal plans that seek to drive down the living standards of the majority of the population to save capitalism can be defeated in the streets with unity and democracy.
‘Todo apoio aos colombianos e colombianas!’ (Full support to the men and women of Colombia!) May their example strengthen the struggles of the continent and resistance to the Bolsonaro government, for vaccines and against the administrative reform that the government and National Congress are trying to impose amid the pandemic, just as the Duque government attempted to do with its package of reforms.
This article is an English translation of “Solidariedade à luta do povo colombiano: basta de repressão e mortes!”, [https://esquerdaonline.com.br/2021/05/05/solidariedade-a-luta-do-povo-colombiano-basta-de-repressao-e-mortes/], Esquerda Online (EOL), 05/05/2021.
Translation: Bobby Sparks