By Julian Ochoa:
Since April 28th the world has witnessed the Colombian National Strike in real-time, we have seen first-hand the traditional approach the Colombian government has always taken on its population, the only difference this time is that many of its crimes against the population have been recorded and shared in social networks for everyone to see. By orders of President Ivan Duque and his Defence Minister Diego Molano Aponte, The Anti-riot squad (ESMAD) and the regular police forces have injured 384 people, forcefully disappeared at least 1139 people, in addition, 50 have been killed and there have been 18 registered sexual assaults against women by police forces. In early April of 2021, the Colombian Government proposed a new tax, health, and pension reform that would affect dramatically the working and middle classes of the country. These proposed changes were presented at the worse time in Colombian economic and social history. The Covid 19 pandemic has taken a high toll in Colombia, being the third country with the highest infection rate per capita after Brazil and India.
Before the pandemic Ivan Duque had tried to pass similar tax reform, a national strike was called, it was the biggest since the 1970s, the bill was dropped, and soon after the pandemic took the spotlight. It has been more than a year since the last strike, and Colombia is in a worse economic situation than before. The country-wide lockdowns, the Venezuelan refugee crisis mixed with an increasing unemployment rate, political corruption, the ongoing internal conflict, drug trafficking, and street crime, all added to the new tax and health reform bills proposed by the Government, has angered the majority of Colombians. (2)
The tax reform bill was designed to increase tax on every single food item, electricity, gas, water, and other household items. The proposed plan was that, after the collection of this money, it was to be used to develop infrastructure that would attract foreign investors. According to government official’s food prices would triple in cost, arguing that people on the minimum wage would be able to handle the increase, however, the minimum wage is only $245 U.S. dollars per month. With the current situation, out of a population of 50
million people, 21 million lives in poverty, and 7.4 million people live in extreme poverty. The tax reform bill was successfully removed in early May due to political pressure from the ongoing national strike. (3)
The health reform bill was proposed to provide, extra funding to the private health sector which has been embroiled in corruption scandals, money mismanagement, and poor customer service. Colombia had universal welfare since 1946, but former conservative president Alvaro Uribe privatized the health system in the early 2000s. At present, the private health sector is near collapse due to poor management and the COVID 19 pandemic. The health reform bill was meant to boost the private sector with extra money, ignoring public hospitals and services. The Colombian people are angry at this bill proposal as most Covid infected
can’t afford to visit these private facilities, many infected with Covid19 have not been able to get any attention or care. This bill was rejected by Congress on the 19th of May as protests have shown the Conservative government that people are not happy with this bill and want a health reform that would benefit all Colombians, not just a few. (4)
What this National strike has also shown is the continual systematic discrimination towards minorities and the working class. Thousands of indigenous people have marched across the country joining the national strikes to fight for their security, land rights, environmental protection from fracking, and the use of Glyphosate on crops. During these strikes indigenous groups have supported the protests in different key spots across the country, in response to their involvement the government has taken extreme measures against indigenous protestors, many have been beaten, arrested, and mistreated by the armed forces, and racially discriminated by the government and the media. These violent acts against indigenous people have raised a national conversation about the systemic discrimination towards the indigenous people of Colombia.
Other minorities such as the Afro Colombians, the LGTB groups, Worker Unions, farmers, and left-wing political parties have organized their communities to participate in this nationwide strike. The government has responded by deploying more than forty thousand troops, the anti-riot squad, and the police. Videos have captured public and private militias beating and arresting people without cause. Paramilitary groups have also participated side by side with law enforcement in brutally punishing protesters; in cities like Cali and Pereira
paramilitaries have taken the law into their hands, they have been recorded shooting at crowds and even killing people and forcibly disappearing protesters.
Since the protests began there is no sign of the strike going away, there are many reasons for this national strike to continue, as there is mass discontent with the current president and his supporters, the Uribista political movement that has ruled the country since 2000 when Alvaro Uribe became president. Alvaro Uribe is known as the president that brought “peace” to Colombia by granting amnesty to the right-wing paramilitary group The United Self Defence Forces of Colombian better known as the AUC, this organization was created in the late 80s by Uribe, drug traffickers, and Colombian landowners to counter the left-wing guerrillas that have been fighting the Colombian state for the last 50 years. Once Uribe reached the Colombian presidency, Uribe decimated The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) the left-wing guerrilla group that has been fighting the Colombian government for the last 50 years. In an all-out war in the early 2000s, Uribe coined FARC a terrorist organization and reduced FARC’s numbers, but he never managed to bring peace through violence, whereas his predecessor Manuel Santos stroke a peace deal with FARC
granting them amnesty and political status.
The peace deal has not been fully implemented under Duques administration, nevertheless, Since the peace deal occurred, the conservatives have lost credibility as they have always won elections based on their strong hand against FARC, now that FARC is no longer active as before and there are no terrorists to fight. With
the current national strike, the government has taken the opportunity to coin protesters as bandits and terrorists as an excuse to deploy its troops to clamp down on the so-called terrorists which are in truth civilians seeking better living conditions.
Presidential elections will occur in a year’s time, Duque is taking this strike as an opportunity to show the conservative voters and his American ally that he can keep the communists at bay, as there are fears that the Venezuelan and Cuban socialism might infiltrate the country. The political opposition, the center-left candidates are being blamed for instigating the strikes for political gain. It is uncertain if a progressive government will ever be elected in Colombia, but at least this national strike has shown that the Colombian population is tired of living under a self-serving regime. If the Colombian people continue this national strike,
they might bring this government to its knees causing a ripple effect in Latin America, as Colombia is the number one U.S. strategic ally in the region.
So far the Biden Administration has shown support to the Duque government, however, more than 50 U.S. congressmen are petitioning to cancel the support the U.S. gives to the Colombian Government to keep fighting the war on drugs which for all intent and purposes has been lost as drug production has not decreased, but in fact, drug production in Colombia is at an all-time high. With 7 U.S. Military bases in Colombia, socialist Venezuela on its border, and unstable democracies across the South American continent, Colombia plays a key role in the U.S. strategy of hegemony in the region. No matter what happens in the next Colombian elections, Colombia relies on the U.S. for funding and military support, even if Gustavo Petro who is the likely presidential candidate to win the next general election, will have to work with the U.S. to maintain peace and security in the country, otherwise, the repercussions would be catastrophic for Colombia.
(1) Temblores ONG (2021), https://www.temblores.org, 2021
(2) The Jacobin Magazine, (2021), Colombians don`t just want a new government – they want an end to
neoliberalism, https://jacobinmag.com/2021/05/colombia-protests-strike-2021-duque-uribismoneoliberalism-police , (2021).
(3) La Republica, (2021)Hacienda: Mas de 21 millones de personas viven en la pobreza y 7,4 millones de
personas en pobreza extrema, https://www.larepublica.co/economia/mas-de-21-millones-de-personas-vivenen-la-pobreza-y-74-millones-en-pobreza-extrema-3161813, (2021)
(4) Associated Press, (2021) Pressured by Protests, Colombian Law Makers Nix Health Reform,
• Associated Press, (2021), Pressured by Protests Colombian Law Makers Nix Health
Reform, https://apnews.com/article/colombia-health-coronavirus-pandemic-taxreform-business-fe4d1e6af2aaa23e194889d6ba388788 (2021).
• La Republica, (2021)Hacienda: Mas de 21 millones de personas viven en la pobreza y
7,4 millones de personas en pobreza extrema,
• Temblores ONG, https://www.temblores.org, (2021).
• The Jacobin Magazine, (2021), Colombians don`t just want a new government – they
want an end to neoliberalism, https://jacobinmag.com/2021/05/colombia-protestsstrike-2021-duque-uribismo-neoliberalism-police , (2021)