Jun 7, 2021
For more than a month, days of demonstrations and strikes have followed one another in Colombia. Demonstrators organize roadblocks in various parts of the country, and the day’s protests continue into the evening and night with clashes against the repressive forces of the Colombian state.
This social explosion was ignited when, on April 28, major unions, indigenous organizations and student groups called for a mass protest and strike against the government’s plan to raise taxes. Even though the government was forced to withdraw its tax plan, even though the finance minister who proposed it resigned, the protests and strikes have continued.
Like many countries in Latin America, Colombia is heavily indebted to banks in the rich countries, especially the United States. When the credit rating agencies threatened to downgrade Colombia’s debt, the country’s right-wing government attempted to impose a “tax reform” that would have increased the price of many basic goods by almost 20%. This is what touched off the protests. But the anger of the population goes much deeper.
Already before the pandemic, Colombia was one of the most unequal countries in the world, and the government’s response to the virus has made the situation worse. Many people survive without regular jobs, buying and selling food or other goods on the street, and working odd jobs. During the pandemic, much of this work became impossible or was halted by police. By one estimate, the poverty rate rose from about a third in 2019 to almost half of the 50 million Colombians today.
But even for those with jobs, wages are extremely low. One nurse caring for COVID patients who participated in the protests, for example, reported that her wages are only the equivalent of $13 per shift—well below the official minimum wage.
Colombia’s police and military forces, like many in Latin America, were armed and trained by the U.S. They carried out all kinds of brutal tactics during that country’s long-running war with guerilla groups in the countryside. The government signed a peace treaty with the largest of these groups in 2016, promising to reintegrate its fighters into society with social programs and jobs, but little of that has materialized. Instead, more than 200 have been murdered.
Working class activists, indigenous protestors, and anyone else who organizes openly against the desperate situation of the population also face the murderous brutality of this state apparatus. The Colombian NGO Indepaz has recorded more than a thousand militants assassinated since 2016.
And the government has unleashed this force against the strikes and protests as well. Nearly 60 people have already been killed, with thousands more wounded and hundreds missing.
But instead of tamping down resistance, police violence has further enraged people, encouraging the movement to continue and deepen. In late May, protestors and strikers blocked the roads and almost completely shut down the major city of Cali and the surrounding region. And when President Ivan Duque called for the “maximum deployment” of the country’s security forces there, a new day of protests and a national strike was called for June 2.
At the same time, Duque’s government has been negotiating with the leaders of the organizations that called for the original mobilizations. But it seems that this social explosion has gone far beyond anything directly controlled by the organizations represented in those negotiations.
Protestors, including many young people who feel that the country offers them no future at all, say it’s better to risk COVID and the police and army in the streets than accept a life of hunger. It remains to be seen how much further their revolt can go.
The problems facing the Colombian population are driven by a ruling class and state apparatus tied to the U.S. from top to bottom. In standing up to their own oppressors, the Colombian strikers and protestors are ultimately facing the same enemies workers face in this country. We have every reason to stand in solidarity with them.