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Bogota, Colombia; November 21, 2019: The National Strike in Colombia. This was the scene from the podium in Bolivar Square in downtown Bogota. Rain did not appear to dampen enthusiasm for protest
A struggle over neoliberal peace is underway in Colombia. Dissent over an array of issues has converged into the largest uprising in the country’s history. For over a week, people have been protesting the social and environmental policies of the Iván Duque administration, with respect to public education funding, social security privatization, legalization of fracking, and failure to implement the historic peace accord between the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was then Latin America’s longest standing guerrilla army. Duque is the protégé of former hardline President Álvaro Uribe, who insisted upon armed annihilation of guerrillas and political opponents rather than resolving conflict through peace dialogs. The Duque government has doubled down Uribe’s approach to peace through militarized “security” rather than implementing peace agreements on justice and land reforms. Indeed, over 700 social and community leaders across the country have been assassinated since the peace agreement was signed in 2016. As Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar has noted, “Theorists have argued that politics is war by other means. In Colombia today, militarist peace is war by other means.”
On Thursday, November 21st, 2019, over a million Colombians joined marches all across the country in a national strike that shut down roads and workplaces in Bogotá and Cali, among other cities. Anti-government protests have continued every day since, including neighborhood “cacerolazos,” in which people bang pots and pans. Cacerolazos have occurred in public parks, outside the president’s home, from home balconies (especially during the government’s first imposed curfew in four decades on the night of Friday the 22nd), and even within the Colombian Congress. This is a form of protest first used in Latin America in 1971 by middle- and upper-class women in Chile in response to food shortages they blamed on the left-wing administration of Salvador Allende. Now, Colombians of all classes—including some who voted for Duque—have appropriated the cacerolazo to protest the current right-wing government.
National media have highlighted cases of vandalism and robbery during the protests. These incidents included a terror campaign in which false reports of thieves breaking into houses circulated on social media, provoking residents to mobilize outside their housing complexes, armed with brooms and bats to defend themselves against assailants who never arrived. Such media reports often serve to obscure the social issues at the heart of a protest, delegitimize dissent, and justify increasing militarization. However, national strike organizers re-affirm the peaceful nature of the protests and continue undeterred. Sorrow and rage intensified when the Colombian Police’s Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD) shot 18-year old protester Dilan Cruz in downtown Bogotá on November 23rd. Cruz died days later and has become a martyr of the movement. Moreover, on November 25th, strikers joined global protests on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The national strike is thus fusing demands across society for gender, racial, and climate justice.
In response to the protests, President Duque convened the beginning of a “Grand National Conversation” with strike organizers, business leaders, and regional government officials on Tuesday the 26th. The government has thus far refused the strikers’ proposal for direct dialog between protesters and the state, which would be independent from corporate lobbyists. The meeting confirmed Duque’s refusal to discuss systemic changes needed to resolve Colombia’s social conflict, and activists called for another mass protest the next day, Wednesday the 27th. In Bogotá, protesters once again converged in the Plaza de Bolívar square and then convened a street protest party in the Parque de los Hippies, located along one of Bogotá’s primary thoroughfares. Since the uprising’s first day, strikers have blocked the street adjacent to this park each night. When vehicles approach, protestors part just enough to allow them to pass, with many bus riders pounding their fists and hooting in support of the strike as they proceed. As in all Latin American mobilizations, protestors belt out the chant “¡El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido!” (United, the people will never be defeated!), while breaks in the music during Wednesday’s protest party were filled with chants of “Resistance! Resistance!”
The national strike is the outcome of increasing levels of indignation and protest in the country over the course of 2019. In July, protesters took to the streets to denounce the killings of environmental and indigenous leaders. Such attacks have continued unabated since the 2016 peace agreement, with another massacre taking place in Cauca last month, when indigenous leaders, including internationally-renowned Nasa leader Cristina Bautista, were assassinated. This came after internationally-recognized black community leader and environmental defender Francia Márquez survived an assassination attempt in Cauca department in May. In August, the Colombian Air Force carried out a bombing campaign supposedly against a dissident FARC guerrilla unit but ultimately killed eight children; Duque celebrated it as an “impeccable operation,” which was reminiscent of the “false positives” scandal that erupted in 2008, when the Colombian army was denounced for killing civilians and falsely presenting them as guerrillas killed in combat. During this series of events, indignation against the government swelled and then merged with monthly mobilizations by students and workers that have been taking place since Duque assumed the presidency this year.
As in many parts of the world, occupying public places is central to Colombia’s uprising. Given shifts in global capital, theorists such as geographer David Harvey argue that the preeminent site of political struggle today has shifted from the factory to urban space. The national strike in Colombia is indicative of this phenomenon, where students, workers, and indigenous communities are occupying squares and blocking highways. Journalism on the current wave of uprisings around the world, such as those in Chile and Lebanon, indicates the protests’ anti-neoliberal nature. This is true for Colombia as well, with respect to resistance to increasing privatization and extractivism. However, the Colombian uprising is also tied to its particular context of competing peace processes.
Ultimately, the national strike is a struggle between divergent projects of “peace.” Given the term’s typically vague yet supposedly universal and positive connotation, peace is a contested concept susceptible to manipulation. Colombian elites continue to push a neoliberal peace of capitalist accumulation assured by hierarchical, top-down “security” imposed by state military forces that crush dissent. This national strike demonstrates that many Colombians reject that vision. Protestors insist upon a bottom-up egalitarian peace of social justice rooted in struggle. Will this mobilization lead to a Colombian revolution, as other Latin American countries—such as Mexico, Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela—have forged in the past century? This is surely the closest Colombian society has come to forging such a transformation in decades, but only time will tell. To evoke the late political philosophers and activists James and Grace Lee Boggs, the next step for today’s protests around the world is shifting from rebellion to revolution, that is, moving from oppositional uprising to affirmative political transformation. Indeed, such alternatives are already in process given Colombia’s robust human rights movement that includes feminists, youth conscientious objectors to war, as well as indigenous, black, and peasant peace communities, all of whom defend territories from state violence. As Colombians continue to take to the streets with pots and pans, the struggle over public space remains central to this movement that integrates demands for environmental, racial, gender, and social justice.
Christopher Courtheyn earned his PhD in Geography from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at the Universidad del Rosario, Bogotá. He can be reached at email@example.com
Boggs, James and Grace Lee. 2008. Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Escobar, Arturo. 2017. “Diseños para el pluriverso.” II Congreso Internacional de Educación para el Desarrollo en perspectiva Latinoamericana, October 24th. Bogotá: Corporación Universitaria Minuto de Dios.
Harvey, David. 2012. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. New York: Verso.