By LUPE AGRADO and CJ LAPOINTE
Thousands of Colombians took to the streets on Nov. 21 in a nationwide general strike. While the mobilization centered on a fight against austerity including opposition to President Duque’s proposal to eliminate pensions, there was also a spirit of international solidarity, with flags and signs connecting their fight with struggles in Chile and Bolivia.
Prior to the mobilizations, tensions grew as Colombians reeled from the murder of eight children following a military bombing in the Caquetá region. However the resignation of Defense Minister Guillermo Botero was not enough for workers and students, who now call for the resignation of President Duque.
Days before the strike there was a frenzy of internet posts and memes from right-wingers in Colombia warning of the dangerous “terrorists” who are now “destroying” Chile. Included among the “terrorists” were “Cubanos, Chavistas, and Communists.”Vice President Marta Lucia Ramirez indulged those fears by claiming many protesters are “calling for violence.” In the early hours of the protests, videos surfaced showing Afro-Colombian youth vandalizing small shops. These videos seemed to confirm the worst fears of the Colombian middle-class and elite.
The videos circulating of Afro-Colombian youth looting are a reminder of the deep racial divisions still embedded in capitalist society. The attempt to dehumanize and blame violence on an oppressed minority in Colombia is reminiscent of how African Americans in the U.S. are violently portrayed by the media during coverage of urban uprisings. In both cases the ruling elite are trying to drive a wedge in the working class to divide workers along racial lines.
It should come as no surprise that there is now concrete video evidence that the main source of violence has come from the government through the police. There are numerous videos now posted on social media of police escorting truckloads of provocateurs who are sent in to neighborhoods, busting up small shops, looting, and destroying property. Another video shows police instructing people in plain clothes to smash windows of an apartment complex. Yet another video shows police in their neon-yellow jackets breaking windows to make it look like “rioters.” There are also videos that show more direct violence against protestors. Tear gas and water cannons have been unleashed on protesters. One jarring video shows a police officer kicking a woman directly in her face.
The attempt to discredit peaceful protests against austerity through a massively organized state campaign of violence is nothing new in Colombia. The U.S. plays a serious role in strengthening the Colombian government. Colombian National Police have ties with U.S. agencies, including ICE and Homeland security.
Colombia’s government has historically relied on military aid from the U.S. and has historically allowed the brutalization of socialist, social justice movements, indigenous groups, Afro-Colombians, and trade unionists. The killing of trade unionists by a paramilitary group sponsored by Panamco, a Coca-Cola bottling company in Colombia, was an extreme example that sparked an international solidarity movement against “Killer Coke.”
The political divisions in Colombia are complicated—like anywhere else in the world. Melissa Estrada, a lawyer from the Valle del Cauca in Colombia explains, “There are those on the left, those on the right, those that are politically in the middle who are uninformed and are opposed to the left while strangely still wanting all of the benefits the left is fighting for like work, pensions, and subsidies.”
She continues, “There are those that support the strike and those who reject it. The ones who reject the strike believe that thinking differently and defending human rights is reprehensible because Colombians discriminate against each other based on social classes. While violence from the right is acceptable in our society, to demand what is just is to be on the left and considered wrong. In a society like this a national strike, united or not, becomes a test of self-awareness in which we can recognize ourselves as equal.”
The echo of pots and pans banging together in a “cacerolazo” protest rang through the night in Bogota on Nov. 22 and 23, breaking the silence of the curfew. As the crisis in Colombia deepens for the Duque government, there is potential for the protest movement to turn into a mass uprising like in Chile or Ecuador. This new wave of revolt across Latin America is an important lesson for workers and students in the U.S., where deep discontent over austerity, living conditions, and the rise of the right wing has yet to express itself with the same level of sustained militancy and organization in the streets.