COLOMBIA 2021

Gabriela Pinilla, Still from Bairro Policarpa, 10 X 3 cm puppets in acrylic on paper and newspaper, 2013, Bogotá, Colombia.
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By OSVALDO COGGIOLA*

The Colombian mobilization is only in its initial stage. It staggers a regime key to maintaining imperial order in Latin America

At night, after the touch of fall, they knocked down doors to buttocks, pulled the suspects out of their beds and took them to a trip without return. It was still the search and extermination of the malefactors, asesinos, arsonists and rebels of Decree Number Four, but the military denied it to the parents of their victims, who overflowed the office of the commanders in search of news. “Seguro que fue un sueño”, the officers insisted. “Nothing has passed in Macondo, it is not passing nor will it ever pass. This is a happy town”. Thus consummated the extermination of union leaders.
Gabriel Garcia Marques, One Hundred Years of Solitude

In Colombia, in the last week, a people rose up, not only against the government (Iván Duque), the last avatar of a dynasty of narco-criminals, but against an entire political regime, whose “democratic” facade barely hides its police roots/ military, colluding with the murder of paramilitary groups, and supported by international financial capital and the IMF. The regime that, in recent decades, holds the Latin American and world record for murders of union leaders and activists.

............................Violence against trade unionists in Colombia (1971 – 2018)

Source: Human Rights Information System, Sinderh

According to information from 2013, since 1984, more than 2.800 union members had been murdered, almost 100 union members per year, with a percentage of impunity of 94,4%; there were also 3.400 death threats, 1.292 displacements, 529 arrests, 192 attacks on unions, 208 harassments, 216 forced disappearances, 83 cases of torture and 163 kidnappings of union members, according to data from the General Confederation of Labor (CGT); 64% of the murders of trade unionists worldwide were committed in Colombia. Between January 1973 and December 2018, 14.992 violations of the life, liberty and physical integrity of union members were registered, with 3.240 homicides that victimized more than 480 unions. In the year and a half that separates us from that statistic, things have only gotten worse. According to a recent survey, in 2020 there were more than 250 crimes committed by paramilitary groups and criminal gangs, operating in collusion with the State. Duque has also reactivated the spraying of coca leaf crops with glyphosate, interrupted in 2015 on the recommendation of the World Health Organization and after multiple protests by peasants. Duque insisted on the importance of the military in controlling popular protests, giving continuity to “Uribismo” – a term that identifies the group linked to former President Álvaro Uribe, the boss of the current presidential puppet.

In the last week, protests against the government's reactionary tax reform project, which brutally raised taxes paid by workers, have so far left a balance of 24 dead and more than 800 injured, 89 missing, in addition to at least six rapes. , according to information from the Colombian Public Defender's Office. Many of the injured were victims of firearms. The UN Human Rights Office has accused Colombian security agencies of “excessive use of force” following what happened in Cali on the night of May 3, when police opened fire on demonstrators. Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano blamed "criminal" armed groups for the violence at the protests. Faced with the protests, President Iván Duque asked Congress to remove the tax reform bill from the voting agenda so that it could be revised and become “the fruit of consensus, in order to avoid financial uncertainty”. “The reform is not a whim, it is a necessity”, insisted, however, Duque.

How did it come to this? As of April 28, a major national strike against the reform has paralyzed the Colombian capital and the rest of the country. More than 130 pickets and mobilizations were recorded across Colombia. In Bogotá, traffic was paralyzed from the beginning with pickets at the entrances to the city, secured by workers, students and transporters who joined the strike. The cuts were made crossing trucks, with stones on the roads and with burning tires. The city was the epicenter of a great mobilization that brought together the country's trade union centrals, confederations of retirees, public and private students, indigenous people and peasants. There were clashes with the death squad esmad, responsible for more than a dozen murders last year, following the popular uprising in the capital over the murder of a young worker by the local police. Medellín closed the subway. In Bucaramanga, Tunja, Cartagena and other cities, there were several mobilizations and a pot show from 6 pm onwards.

With the tax reform, the government tried to face a situation of fiscal bankruptcy. Colombia had a fiscal deficit of 7,8% in 2020, its worst performance in half a century. With the reform, the government intended to raise 6.300 million dollars between 2022 and 2031, at the expense of the pockets of the workers and the people; 87% of the collection would come from wages and only 13% from capitalist profits, in a context where poverty already affects 42,5% of the population. In 2019, there were 17,4 million poor; currently, there are 21 million, amid a health collapse caused by the coronavirus. Hospitals are on the brink of collapse and healthcare workers are exhausted. Colombia has more than 2,8 million infections and almost 74.000 deaths: it is the fourth country with the most infections and the fifth with the most deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The reform project established the increase of taxes on income and on basic products, in order to increase tax collection and prevent the Colombian debt from generating the loss of more points in the risk assessments of international agencies, in addition to creating a basic income and an environmental conservation fund. The government defended the need to raise the equivalent of 2% of GDP and “sustain the social programs implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic”. Not to mention that historic Colombian corruption would swallow up the crumbs destined for the project's “carrots” (environment, “basic income” – emergency aid), the lion's share of the new collection would be destined to remunerate the great financial capital – usurer, especially internationally, which was confirmed, inter alia, by information from the large Colombian media: “Economists from different perspectives agree that Colombia needs a tax reform that allows it to collect more to keep their accounts up to date and also to preserve Colombia's reputation for stability with international creditors” (emphasis added). In other words, looting the people to remunerate the usurious debt with banks and investment funds, especially international ones. The people went to the street.

The general strike on April 28th and 29th was extended through April 30th and May 1st. It thus became a general strike and a popular rebellion with demonstrations, pots and street fights against repressive forces. The scope of the force measures, convened by the National Unemployment Commission, which brings together the trade union centrals (CUT, CGT and CTC), provoked a first reaction from the president. On Friday the 30th, the government announced a change in the project: the popular masses, already thrown into combat, insisted on the total withdrawal of the project. On May 1, the rebellion spread across the country and gained new momentum. In addition to the demonstrations in the capital Bogotá, which went to the Plaza de Bolívar, close to the headquarters of the Executive Branch, and to President Duque's house, huge demonstrations took place in Barranquilla, Medellín, Cali and Neiva. In the afternoon, peasant organizations announced their adherence to the protest.

Even the right-wing media called for the withdrawal of the reform, which only ignited the spark of popular rebellion. In previous days, the government and the media tried to deactivate the mobilization, saying that it did not meet the needs of the fight against Covid-19. Participating teachers responded that combating attendance was what was needed to reduce infections and that was one of the objectives of the national educational strike. Finally, on Sunday, May 2, the government was forced to withdraw the reform project entirely. Even when Duque announced the suspension of the project, the popular outcry continued, with the slogan “the strike continues” – in reference to the name of the movement that led the protests: National Strike. Duque is a figurehead for big business and his now former finance minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, who resigned under pressure from the demonstrations, is famous for his neoliberal orthodoxy in favor of big business. Both embody the “economic model” that the protests are targeting, which makes the country one of the most unequal in Latin America and the world. The popular movement argues that the Colombian economy is “rooted in political clientelism” which has exempted the large agricultural and mining oligopolies, among other sectors, from taxes.

But tax reform was just the spark. The protesters' anger is manifested, centrally, against the "security forces" of a regime with police characteristics established over more than half a century, which under the pretext of fighting the guerrillas (today almost completely integrated into the political regime: Juan Manuel Santos , Timimochenko, leader of the FARC, signed a peace agreement in 2016, mediated by the Cuban government) used it to expropriate and displace millions of peasants, leaving them in misery and favoring land concentration. In September 2020, anticipating the current outrage, and also during protests, the murder of 13 people under police repression in Bogotá sparked debate on the need for “police reform”, including the dismantling of a squad in charge of repressing demonstrations. The Colombian police is part of the Ministry of Defense and is structured – in its training and objectives – for the context of armed conflict against a concrete enemy: the “Marxist forces”.

The popular rebellion was answered with the militarization of the streets. Senators from the ruling party (the “Centro Democrático”) proposed that a state of internal commotion, a state of siege, be established. The opposition “Progressive Front” did not mobilize forces on the 28th, and only broke its silence to repudiate the “looting” during the mobilizations. Carrasquilla's replacement seeks to generate a "consensus around tax reform" with right-wing and center sectors and form an "advisory council." Despite the withdrawal of the reform and the minister's resignation, the strike continues to be transformed into a political strike under the slogan "Fora Duque". In a joint statement, the trade union centrals called for the demilitarization of cities, massive vaccination and the end of school attendance. The Minga indigenous movement, along with other social organizations, started to defend the “resignation of President Duque”. Truck caravans cut access and demonstrations to squares and parks, seeking the support of the population. The response to the repression in Cali was hundreds of thousands in the streets, the city was named “national capital of the Resistance”.

In Popayán, capital of Cauca (department with the highest number of displaced peasants and paramilitary violence), demonstrators set fire to police establishments. Esmad entered the Industrial University of Santander, repressing students. Two weeks ago, Duque had created a military justice “with financial, administrative and operational independence” that would not be under the command of the militarized Ministry of Defense. However, the initiative was poorly received, because members of the police will continue to be judged by the military, like the PM in Brazil, which has its own judicial forum. Uribe claimed through his Twitter account the “right of soldiers and police to use their weapons to defend their integrity”. The executing force of the massacres is the security and espionage service – Esmad (Escuadrón Movil Anti Disturbios), whose dissolution is demanded by the demonstrators. The Colombian mobilization is only in its initial stage. It staggers a key regime for maintaining imperial order in Latin America, in the only country in South America with Atlantic and Pacific coasts, with five US military bases, and also in the Caribbean. A new political stage can begin on our continent. The fight against the most reactionary regime in the region, that of the genocidal Bolsonaro, gains a decisive ally where the captain and his military court least expected it.

*Osvaldo Coggiola He is a professor at the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of History and Revolution (Shaman).

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