By James Patrick Jordan
The lack of coverage in the United States of the national strike in Colombia is unbelievable. What little coverage it does receive has been misleading, at best. Colombia is the U.S. government’s closest ally in Latin America. It is held out as a model of democracy, freedom, and economic development. One would think news about Colombia would be important to our own country’s interest. It’s more the opposite. Our political and business leaders want us ignorant about Colombia because it serves a purpose, several really.
One is that Colombia’s portrayal is in direct and intentional contrast to next door Venezuela, which is constantly portrayed as a country coming apart at the seams in a swirling cesspool of abuse, repression, and poverty. No one ever makes the point that Venezuela is striving to navigate through a devastating obstacle course of blockades, sanctions, and other forms of economic sabotage, coup plots, invasion threats, and foreign (mainly U.S. and Colombian) interference. Conversely, Colombia’s elites are rewarded with obscene profits, military partnerships, and open access to the halls of power.
The Empire (as in the dominance of North American and European corporations globally, protected and advanced by the U.S.-NATO militocracies) wants to overthrow the elected government in Venezuela and replace it with its own puppets, striking a decisive blow against socialism and popular movements in the hemisphere. Its goals for Colombia are the opposite. Colombia provides a base of operations in the heart of the Latin America. Any challenge to that status must be ignored and marginalized with the hope it will wither away, or, simply be crushed—or, a combination of both. Best if the rest of the world doesn’t even notice, doesn´t even know what’s going on.
I was in Colombia from late November 19 until the evening of December sixth. I was there
for the first day of a national strike that brought business as usual to a standstill. Along with Yasemin Zahra and John Ocampo, I was co-leading a labor delegation of the Alliance for Global Justice and USLAW (U.S. Labor Against the War). On the morning of November 21 (before our delegation began on November 24), my partner Raquel Mogollón and I went to the offices of the Fensuagro federation of agricultural workers unions to accompany them in the massive march initiating the strike. On that march, we retraced a route culminating at the Plaza de Bolívar that we had taken on April 9, 2013, when official sources estimated 1.2 million people marched and demonstrated in support of the peace process. And we retraced the route we took on April 23, 2012 when the ranks of 100,000 marchers swelled to as many as 350,000 at the founding of the Marcha Patriótica (Patriotic March) popular movement.
I can say from experience, then, that the major media reports in outlets from Reuters to NPR to the Washington Post to Time to the New York Times to CNN, even to Al Jazeera and The Nation, were all wildly off base with their crowd size estimates. They spoke of participation nationwide in terms of thousands and tens of thousands. Some even spoke of hundreds of thousands. But I was there in the march, I was at Plaza Bolívar, I found high ground to look out over the plaza and the surrounding streets, I walked the general area to see just how thoroughly each street was occupied. I saw aerial photos not only of the marches in Bogotá, but in Cali, in Medellín, in Riohacha, in Barranquilla, in Popayan. According to Ramiro Valenzuela of the Permanent Committee on Human Rights, the first day of the national strike was “…the largest mobilization we’ve seen in Colombia since the 1970s.” I would hear that same statement many times from many sources over the coming days. Throughout Colombia, millions of people took to the streets to reject the policies of President Ivan Duque, his mentor Álvaro Uribe (father of Colombia´s death squads) and their overlords in Washington DC. Any outlet that reports less of a turn out is either lying, unable to believe their own eyes, wearing blinders, or they just weren´t there.
Corporate media has also downplayed the demands and nature of the strike. They have correctly noted that it began in response to a series of reforms the Duque administration was seeking, including elimination of the right of workers to a pension, and a 75% cut in the minimum wage of young workers. At the same time, the proposed tax reform would provide large discounts and subsidies for big corporations.
However, many of the outlets have either barely or altogether failed to mention the demands for the state to comply with the 2016 peace accords. People are fed up with the perpetual violence against social movement leaders and peace process participants, and they are tired of the lack of accountability for the murderers. Every 30 hours, a social movement leader or former insurgent is killed. The strike is as much for a just and viable peace as it is for anything.
Even some of the negotiators on the strike committee have wanted to focus on specific reforms over and above the general political situation. But the attitude of the public is resoundingly clear. It is impossible to find oneself in any part of any march or protest or street takeover or any setting having any relation to the strike at all, and not see and hear the demands for peace.
The strike is also a call for the liberation of Colombia and all Latin America. Again, if you depend on the corporate media for your news, you’ll find the liberationist and internationalist character of the strike downplayed or just left out. However, we heard repeated references to the cry raised by the Marcha Patriótica for Colombia´s second independence. The premise is that Colombia fought for and won its first independence from Spain, but now struggles for its second independence from U.S. and NATO military domination, and from big corporations that want to privatize the nation’s resources.
Likewise, often unmentioned was the relationship of the uprising in Colombia to other parts of Latin America. If mentioned, the subject was alluded to fleetingly and out of context. In some cases, references were distorted into outright lies to fit the political constructs of reporters clearly incapable of independent thought. A November 26, 2019 report by John Otis on NPR’s Morning Edition is an example of how omission and distortion can essentially equal lying. The report does not even refer to the peace accords. When it makes a connection to the international uprisings, it mischaracterizes and misrepresents them.
According to Otis,
“The latest country shaken by anti-government demonstrations is Colombia…. The marches come amid a wave of often violent demonstrations around South America. In Bolivia, they helped force out President Evo Morales after fraud-marred elections. In Chile, they prompted the government to consider writing a whole new constitution. The marches in Colombia have been mostly peaceful, but an outbreak of looting and vandalism has led to a security crackdown and allegations of police brutality.”
First, the man either was not paying attention or he is purposely distorting the internationalist and specifically Latin American nature of the protests. His mention of Bolivia could not be more disingenuous. Yes, the marchers in Colombia are keenly aware of Bolivia. And they have chosen sides. They are marching in solidarity not with the people who brought the coup against the elected government, but with the throngs that are out in the streets even today, who are being assaulted, arrested, and killed by the U.S. supported coup government. A prominent feature of the Colombia marches were people flying the plurinational flag of the popular government of Evo Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). The flag was even being sold on the streets by vendors throughout the city. The plulrinational flag of Bolivia has been transformed into a symbol for all the uprisings throughout Latin America. Incredibly, Otis and NPR would have us believe the opposite, that that is the flag being protested.
Another ridiculous allegation is the myth the protests in Colombia are organized and fomented by Russia, by Venezuela, by Cuba, by protesters in Chile and Ecuador, by the Sao Paolo Forum, by anyone but Colombians. I cannot even begin to express how absurd this is. This uprising is 100% Colombian. The Strike Committee is made up of Colombian unions and social leaders, the marches are led by students and young workers and a broad cross section of the Colombian populace. Those unable to see this are a class of people completely out of touch with their own nation.
Since the national strike began, various polls have shown public support at 55%, 69%, over 70%. President Duque’s disapproval rating is at 70% and disapproval of his handling of the strike is at 75%. Since, the strike began, Colombia’s Migration chief, Christian Kruger has resigned, the Inspector General, Fernando Carrillo has urged the president to negotiate in good faith with the strike committee, and both the outgoing and incoming Miss Colombia declared their support for the strike. I’m fairly certain Kruger, Carrillo, and the two Miss Colombias are not taking their cues from Nicolas Maduro or the Sao Paolo Forum.
Corporate media reports on the strike have frequently referred to vandalism and violence on the part of protesters. NPR’s Otis characterized the uprisings throughout Latin America as “a wave of often violent demonstrations”. He found protesters culpable for the repression that occurred in Colombia claiming, “an outbreak of looting and vandalism has led to a security crackdown and allegations of police brutality”. That statement is false on two counts. The police were undertaking repressive measures well before any acts of vandalism and violence, beginning with raids of popular movement offices even before the strike had begun. As for the “allegations of police brutality”, brutality on the part of the police has been filmed, testified to, and studiously reconstructed. At least four persons have died because of their participation in the strike, students have been kidnapped off the streets and beaten and tortured, journalists have been arrested en masse, and police have raped, tortured, and threatened protesters with murder.
We were also there to witness directly or hear reports about the brutal repression against some of the protesters. The initial march and protests on November 21st were overwhelmingly peaceful and nonviolent, as have been the subsequent days of actions. When protesters took over streets, they did so nonviolently, and the marches and demonstrations were family friendly.
As the first day of protests on November 21 began to wane and the night descended, we received reports of vandalism and clashes with the police. Consequently, reports sighting paid agents and provocateurs inciting violence began to come in as well. One woman interviewed on local news talked about how unknown persons from outside her neighborhood came into the area distributing knives and bricks and pipes, trying unsuccessfully to instigate violence. She noted that as soon as the unknown persons disappeared, the ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squad, or riot police) entered shooting volleys of tear gas and bean bag bullets. It was noted by many march leaders that the only incidents of violence took place after ESMAD showed up at what had, until then, been peaceful demonstrations.
Raquel had stayed at the Plaza Bolívar earlier when I had returned to the hotel. She told me,
“I was able to get a place with other journalists on the stairs of the Supreme Court building overlooking the Plaza. Even with the large numbers and everyone crowded together, the protests were peaceful till the very end. Later, though, while the crowd was already beginning to disperse, I saw that some protesters had put themselves between police and provocateurs who were throwing rocks at the authorities. Most their faces were hidden, and I couldn’t tell if they were protesters or agents, but they didn’t seem to mind throwing rocks at other protesters. Soon after, the police started attacking the crowd with tear gas.”
On another occasion she filmed police themselves picking up bricks to throw at protesters.
Raquel and I went out later the 21st looking for supper, even though we knew few places would be open. As we walked down the street, we saw and heard police advancing all around us, firing volleys of bean bag bullets and tear gas. We were forced to walk quickly, even run, in order to avoid their advance. They were sweeping downtown, firing on and corralling anyone they encountered. What we saw on all sides were people like us, engaging in no acts of vandalism at all, being herded together doing our bests to get away and not be assaulted. We converged in an area between Carrera 3 and Carrera 10, circumventing the Parque de la Independencia.
At one point we came up on an apartment building and saw and heard one lone young man outside on his porch, banging a pan. Soon, throughout the apartment towers, lights came on, people came out on the porch, beating their pots and pans. We were witnessing the beginning of the first night of the cacerolazos, when people wherever they were, on the streets, in their own homes, would start beating on pots and pans to express their protest in a way impossible to adequately repress since it was decentralized, even taking place in people’s very homes. As we watched the cacerolazo unfold, others came out on the streets around us, beating on their pots and pans. One young man next to us was overwhelmed with emotion, shouting out, “I love this country! I love these people! These are my people! I love Colombia!”
But the brutality did not let up. On the afternoon of November 23rd, I had retired from the day’s events to rest on the balcony of my room at Hotel Inter Bogotá, overlooking the nearby intersection of Carrera 3 and Avenida 19. Throughout our time in Colombia, we would see sizeable spontaneous protests usually made up of young people and students, and these would often take over the streets where they occurred. These protests took place in between the larger mobilizations called by the strike committee. As I took my break, I saw one such crowd rounding the corner of the street and occupying it. The march was orderly and peaceful. But soon I saw around 15 police motorcycles drive in, each one with an officer on back carrying a tear gas launcher. I could hear to the west and south of me, hidden by buildings, the loud booms of police weaponry being used against the demonstrators. The tear gas billowed up so profusely it reached my sixth-floor balcony and drove me inside. Later when I asked witnesses about the attack, they told of officers chasing into the crowd and firing point blank at protesters with bean bag bullets and tear gas cannisters. Just two blocks from where I sat, one high school student, Dilan Cruz, only 18 years old, and a known member of the student movement, was shot directly in the head. I heard a report later, as yet unconfirmed, that the volley that hit him also included shrapnel. On November 25, we accompanied a march that stopped by the hospital where Dilan was fighting for his life. Thousands of people paid tribute to this brave young man and wished, prayed, and hoped for his recovery. We would learn later that night that he had died from his wounds. Dilan is one of at least four persons who died at the hands of the ESMAD riot police while participating in the protests.
Following these days of initial protests, the strike continued. Most days it took the form of spontaneous, locally based marches and rallies, but some days were focus days with calls to action put out by the entire strike committee. When our delegation officially began, Raquel moved on to the city of Cali, where repression by ESMAD had been particularly fierce, resulting in multiple injuries, arrests, and even deaths. Over the coming weeks, we did not witness crowds as large as we saw on the 21st, but they were still massive, with tens and hundreds of thousands of participants.
At one point, I spoke with a man identified as Fernando, who works for the international office of Colombia Humana, the center-left coalition that was the main opposition to Duque’s presidential campaign. I wanted to know if smaller numbers of subsequent protests meant the strike was dying down, and what would be the next steps. He told me,
“I hope it is not dying down. We need to stay out in the streets and keep marching while we have this momentum. We are still having large numbers of protesters, even if they are smaller. It was the strategy of Duque, the mayor [outgoing mayor Enrique Peñaloso], and ESMAD to repress and intimidate people so that they would be afraid to march anymore. On the 21st, the march was a peaceful event, one that families could participate in without fear of violence. But the actions of ESMAD changed that and scared many people. What is amazing is that so many people are still turning out, and that these subsequent marches have been peaceful, without incident.”
I spoke to Natali Segovia, who is on the board of the Alliance for Global Justice and a member of the International Committee of the National Lawyers Guild. She was in Bogotá on December 8, 2019, two days after I had left. She reported that the mobilization on that day was so large and widespread that throughout the city roads were blocked and traffic was at a standstill. Despite the repression, the strike continues.
One of the demands that has emerged is for the dismantling of ESMAD. ESMAD was created through the initiative of the U.S. government as part of Plan Colombia, and U.S. taxes continue to fund them. As citizens and residents of the U.S. we have a responsibility to add our voices to this demand and call on our own Congress to end all funding for ESMAD and to call for it to be dismantled. It should be a particular source of shame and anger to know that the U.S. Congress has approved $448 million in aid to Colombia for next year, the highest award in nine years, $30 million over last year’s aid allotment.
What is especially angering is that the U.S. government, in our names and with our tax dollars, has become utterly complicit in the current disregard and brutal treatment of the masses of Colombians who are taking to the street struggling for their second independence. This aid has been approved to Colombia even as the strike continues, even as the police continue their abuses, and even as the government of Colombia completely disregards the demands of millions of their citizens. Just this last December 19, ESMAD attacked peaceful protesters and threatened journalists covering the demonstration. On that same day, the Colombian Congress passed the hated tax reform package that has been a central object of the strike.
From what I witnessed while I was in Colombia, I think the government and ESMAD and their corporate masters are not going to be able to put out the popular fire that is sweeping the country, that is sweeping the region.
Sadly, many of us in North America don’t even know the fire is burning. It’s doubly sad because we need some of that fire up here.
I keep thinking about that one guy on his porch, beating on his pan while the police were herding us. Sometimes that’s all it takes to keep the fans of resistance alive: one person, a pan, and something to beat it with. And people who are fed up and ready and willing to join in.
Featured image: A crowd gathers during Colombia’s National Strike in Cali outside City Hall