Colombia, a month of national strike

Gabriela Pinilla, Young Manuel Quintín Lame, Oil on copper, 18 X 20 centimeters, 2015, Bogotá, Colombia
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By LAURA CARLSEN*

For the Colombian government, its people are the enemy

The national strike in Colombia is already a month old, its mobilization reaching historic proportions for the nation and for Latin America. Protests against the government never cease. This phase of resistance began as a protest cry against a tax reform that would increase taxes on basic products and services, raising the cost of living in a country where unemployment, poverty and inequality are at unprecedented levels. Now it has become a struggle between extermination and emancipation.

Even after the government of Iván Duque withdrew from its proposal to tax the “basic family basket”, the demonstrations quickly spread to include popular demands related to a series of grievances, including the lack of education, employment and health care; the constant violence, whether governmental, paramilitary, criminal, patriarchal or racist; sabotage of the peace process; ongoing executions of human rights defenders and social leaders; military occupation of indigenous territories; and, more recently, repression of demonstrators. Millions put their lives at risk by participating in the protests, especially young people, because, as a group in the city of Cali told journalist Angélica Peñuela, “hunger has brought us this far, we have nothing left to lose”.

Jhoe Sauca, of the Kokonuco People's Traditional Authority and the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council, explains that the tax reform was unacceptable and became an aggravating factor that finally provoked the mobilization of millions. “We can't take it anymore,” he said. "With the pandemic we have been starving, and our businesses have failed, while the government supports banks and large companies". According to him, the peoples of Colombia have been fighting for 50 years under the principle of unity, and the reform "has tipped the balance in favor of the message that we have transmitted to Colombian society – that we have to fight for our rights."

And he added that “within this framework, we can raise the organizational capacity at the level of an indigenous movement, but also at the level of society in general”. He highlighted that in 2017 the minga Social Defense of Life, Territory, Democracy, Justice and Peace. While mobilizing their territories, Minga [collective work in Quechua] brought large contingents to protests, especially in Cali.

In the same discussion, Vilma Almendra Quiguanás, from the Nasa-Misak people and member of the Towns on the Road, underlined the historic nature of the unity that was achieved. “Many people from the rural area are in the movement. According to data from Indepaz, of the 1.123 municipalities in the country, 800 mobilized. We are 15 million in an unprecedented movement”. She sees the protests as the culmination of 529 years of colonization and resistance, millennia of patriarchy, and the false promises and expectations that came with the Peace Accord.

“Almost five years after the signing of the Peace Accord, well, yes, development in 'harsh areas' has been secured. But what is development? It is mining concession, oil concession, expansion of agricultural frontiers, monoculture, water concession – death projects that are expropriating, killing and criminalizing peasant and popular movements. They deceived us by saying that there would be peace. There is neither peace nor money”, explained Vilma.

For the Colombian government, its people are the enemy. The Institute for Development and Peace (Indepaz) has recorded 71 deaths since the start of the strike on May 31, almost all at the hands of security forces and allied militias. About 65% of the deaths occurred in Cali, “the center of the resistance”. On Sunday, May 30, the president ordered “the maximum deployment of military assistance to the police” in Cali and Popayán. Talks with the Strike Committee are going nowhere as the government insists that blockades be dismantled as a precondition, without committing to any demilitarization measures. The failure of the dialogue is not the problem – the negotiations have not even formally started – but the lack of political will on the part of the government.

The extreme right is increasingly publicizing its preference for war as a strategy to justify authoritarian control and the extermination of the opposition and a large part of the population. Fernando Londoño, a former minister, put this in the form of a challenge to President Duque: “… if you are not able to use the legitimate force of the State to unblock the port of Buenaventura for better or for worse, you have no choice but to to be resigned”. This is not mere political discourse; the extreme right forces of Álvaro Uribe, the former president who is the power behind the throne, are specialists in doing things “for evil”. In these days, perverse practices have returned to the forefront, such as forging evidence to execute or criminalize individuals by labeling them terrorists, the reactivation of paramilitaries that in fact never demobilized, and selective massacres. Evidence abounds on the internet of paramilitaries and undercover agents shooting at demonstrators in cold blood. The use of paramilitary groups and covert operations by security forces to suppress protests is a violation of the Constitution.

Manuel Rozental, a Colombian doctor and member of the Towns on the Road, warns: “If this process of popular uprising allows the Colombian State to massively exterminate the people, it will exterminate. The question is whether those who say 'business is business' will become complicit even as they cry out that they are sorry”.

The international response to the human rights crisis in Colombia will be a determining factor.

“As long as Joe Biden and the US government do not speak out in favor of suspending military aid to the genocidal government of Colombia, they will not only be accomplices, but much more than that”, stressed Rozental. “There is not a police bullet, a gas released, a policy of repression that was not financed, promoted and supported by the United States”.

It is important to highlight that Biden was the main architect and promoter of Plan Colombia and continues to extol it as a great success of US policy in Latin America.

Rozental emphasizes that the structural causes of the conflict predate the current confrontation between the popular uprising and the authorities. More than that, he explains, capitalism has reached a stage where the people themselves are an obstacle to the state and a large part of the business community. “Our history, like the history of capitalism, can be summarized by saying that here there was exploitation on their part, so what is useful for them is exploited, then what is left of people in the territory is excluded. They end up engaging in extermination because when greed is sacred, stealing and killing is law.” He explains that there is an overpopulation in Colombia that makes it imperative to capture scarce resources.

That the people are considered a nuisance is evident in the actions of the government. State authorities feel uncomfortable with young people, who are repressed with bullets for protesting against the lack of opportunities in a country that ranks among the most unequal in the world, with an official unemployment rate of over 15%. They feel uncomfortable with the human rights defenders demanded by the people. Indepaz records that this year alone they killed 67 human rights defenders who signed the Peace Agreement, making Colombia the country that most murdered such activists in the world. They are uncomfortable with indigenous peoples trying to protect the natural resources that sustain them and the planet, as well as protecting themselves from dispossession by large companies and the political elite. They are uncomfortable with women's demands for their rights, which have been harshly attacked by the conservative government and the brutal reassertion of patriarchy. The idea of ​​peace also seems to bother them – 25 former FARC fighters who signed the Peace Accord have been killed or disappeared this year, sending a clear message that peace is not on the government's agenda. There have actually been 41 massacres this year alone, with 158 victims.

The Colombian people are risking everything in their fight against the neoliberal system of death in their country; he represents the struggle of all of Latin America. It is a general responsibility not to leave them alone. A wall in the media is blocking information about what happens in this historic mobilization, while the government narrative tries to divert attention to blockades and vandalism, and away from human life and the legitimate demands of the people.

Due to lack of mobility, few journalists have been able to report from many areas for the international press and police attacks on those who try. Also, commercial media tend to echo official versions. Yet massive solidarity campaigns are being promoted on social media by the left, feminists, youth and other sectors in all parts of the world. This campaign has to be bigger, however, and more intense in order to give adequate support and protection to the demonstrations at this crucial time.

*Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS).

Translation: Carlos Alberto Pavam for the portal Major Card.

Originally published in Counter Punch.

 

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