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Colombia’s New Awakening

With its recent general strike and continued mobilizations, Colombia has joined the global wave of unrest. If the movement can resist right-wing president Iván Duque’s attempts at co-optation, it could lay the groundwork for the transformation of a society long characterized by inequality and militarized brutality.

People of indigenous communities, students, and members of different labor unions march on December 4, 2019 in Bogotá, Colombia. (Guillermo Legaria /Getty Images)

On November 21, hundreds of thousands of Colombians poured into the streets all over the country. A diverse coalition including labor unions, indigenous organizations, the student movement, and LGBT activist groups had called for a paro nacional, a general strike, in the country.

The outpouring of citizens defied all expectations. The streets of the main cities like Bogotá, Medellín, and Bucaramanga, but also of smaller cities like the Amazon towns of Puerto Asís, were carpeted with strikers.

The strike was planned months in advance in response to the number of labor, tax, and pension reforms referred to as Iván Duque’s “paquetazo,” or “the package,” which promised to deepen the country’s inequality, the second-highest in Latin America. However, as the strike approached, organizers’ demands broadened to include full implementation of the country’s peace agreements, environmental protection, and denouncing the assassination of social justice leaders and of gender violence. The streets on November 21 revealed the melee of demands: those with fins on their heads protesting the legalization of shark hunting were particularly visible, as were the broken dolls mourning the army’s assassination of eight minors killed in a bomb attack against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissidents in Caquetá.

As the day wore on, the peaceful marches gave way to confrontations with the Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD), Colombia’s riot police. Downtown Bogotá, as well as many peripheral neighborhoods, turned into a battlefield, as the ESMAD shot tear gas against protesters behind improvised barricades.

Their violence that day and since, recorded on video by protesters’ cell phones, has sparked demands to dissolve this police body due to their systematic human rights violations, only accentuated by the death of the eighteen-year-old student, Dilan Cruz, injured by an illegal projectile launched by one of these police officers to disperse the protests.

Within a few hours, sharp clangs of pots hit by wooden spoons were heard in protests throughout the country, inspired by similar clanging on the streets of Chile a few weeks earlier. And similarly, too, instead of falling into the pattern of violent face-offs with the police, hundreds of thousands of Colombians returned to the streets, this time in street parties which beat to the rhythm of cacerolas all over the major cities in Colombia. In the weeks since the original “#21N” strike, the cacerolazos still punctuate every night. No matter who you ask in Bogotá, nobody can remember anything like it.

The government’s response has been mostly defined by incoherency. Right-wing president Iván Duque, currently holding an impressive 69 percent disapproval rating, the highest of any Colombian president, fluctuates between threatening protesters with an unprecedented curfew in Bogotá and other main cities like Cali, and calling for a “national conversation” with strike leaders.

On the one hand, he signed a decree during the peak of the protests that created a financial holding company with Colombia’s financial assets, which protesters fear would decrease state accountability over national assets and provoke mass layoffs, which were denounced in the strike agenda. On the other, Duque has backtracked or denied many of the statements regarding the labor, tax, and pension reforms which sparked the original strike. Similarly, the “national conversation” began not with the strike leaders, but with the leaders of Colombian industries, businessmen, and merchants on November 23. Many protesters wondered if the president deeply misunderstood the magnitude of the uprising.

Peace and Popular Politics: the Paro Context

Understanding the deeper context of what led to these marches, and what makes them different from any other in Colombian history, is crucial. Many of the analyses of the protests focus on the impact of the peace agreements signed on November 23, 2016 between the Santos government and the FARC. Indeed, the agreements were the subject of mass political mobilizations that same year and have become a point of constant indignation as they are systematically violated by the previous and current government.

The assassination of social justice leaders and FARC ex-combatants, the return of glyphosate fumigations to forcefully eradicate coca, the return of incentives for extrajudicial killings by the army, and the constant threat to the transitional justice system have disgusted those who supported the peace agreements and those in the territories which were reaping the benefits of peace.

However, the peace agreement violations alone do not explain these new mobilizations. Commentators who make this argument fail to note that the peace accords were themselves rejected in the plebiscite, which was interpreted not merely as a disagreement over the points of the accords per se, but a deeper rejection of the technocratic political class, which failed to connect with frustrated and neglected Colombians throughout the country. The protests are a popular rejection of the current right-wing government, but a similar popular rejection was also expressed throughout the country before against the progressive agenda of the peace agreements.

Another element in the current mobilization was the 2017 presidential campaign, in which a left-wing movement, Colombia Humana, and its charismatic candidates Gustavo Petro and Ángela María Robledo reached the runoffs for the first time in Colombian history. At the time, Petro ran a broad platform and emotive campaign,  strongly stigmatized by the right-wing opposition, and achieved the strategic objective of populist politics, according to political theorist Ernesto Laclau: identifying an internal social frontier dividing the people from elites, drawing  “chains of equivalence” connecting a broad range of frustrated demands which are united in the figure of a leader — in this case, onto whom each section of the populist coalition can project its own hopes.

Colombia Humana and Petro continue to be important actors in the political opposition to the current government. But contrary to what Duque and supporters of former right-wing president Álvaro Uribe say, they are not the leaders of this strike. Instead, their most important legacy was in uniting diverse demands in one popular movement. In particular, what followed from the last presidential campaign was a deepening of societal politicization, seen in the fact that for the first time in years, the electoral agenda revolved around topics beyond the pro-war diatribes that have historically characterized Colombian politics.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize the decades of political organizing, both in the more traditional forms of labor unions, leftist parties, student movements, and peasant and indigenous resistance, and the newer forms of feminism, environmental activism, as well as the more recent opposition generated around the issue of corruption. These groups are overlooked by politicians and the media alike when they emphasize the “spontaneity” of the protests. These existing organizational networks continue to be the pulse which keeps the paro beating. But to continue, they must meaningfully incorporate the new protesters.

The Risks and Possibilities

While the Colombian uprising shares a widespread feeling of discontent with other Latin American uprisings like Chile’s, protesters in Colombia have not yet managed to focus their demands toward concrete objectives. In Chile, in contrast, neoliberal policies are the direct target, with a new constitution emerging as the key demand.

This touches on a political difficulty of the Colombian left: while the authoritarian right has recently made “castrochavismo” or “narco-terrorism” a central part of their rhetorical repertoire, progressive movements have struggled to channel the existing social frustrations into a unified political project.

Similarly, the wide diversity of protests and demands seen in the strikes is both potential and weakness. The space of the streets and the shared experience of the nightly cacerolazos create bonds between people with diverse political views and demands, but with a shared feeling of frustration and of resistance. Through protesting, people learn to name their enemy, and bonds between previously disconnected groups form to create a shared identity. For many of us living in a society marked by its segregation and isolation, the experience of occupying public space has transformed our relationship to our cities and with each other.

But we have also seen how the praxis of populism for years was incarnated in the right-wing caudillo figure of former president Álvaro Uribe, a man linked to paramilitary death squads as well with a neoliberal and extractivist agenda, and the political force behind the current president, Duque. This political project represents a reactionary way of politics that is on the rise, used to elect right-wing presidents in Brazil and the United States, and justify a coup d’état in Bolivia.

We have also seen how moments of popular eruption in Colombia have been dissipated and co-opted by government promises to set up negotiation tables and form agreements, as in the case of this year’s indigenous strike, in which the Nasa tribe blocked the Pan-American highway to protest their leaders’ assassinations. The same was true in this year’s student strikes, when hundreds of thousands of students of public and private universities and schools marched together to demand better education. In both cases, ongoing committees were set up to oversee the implementation of the agreements reached between the government and the protesters. But without the pressure of people on the streets, movements have been unable to ensure these agreements are enforced.

Some Considerations for the Left

While this political moment continues unfolding, activists should wrestle with some strategic considerations. First, as the leaders of the paro continue to be called to the presidential palace for negotiations if they call off the protests, how can they avoid the co-optation or dissipation that have been so efficient at demobilizing other recent mobilizations in Colombia?

The political moment in Colombia is stuck between a rising politicization of its citizens and the difficulties of building a coherent and effective political project. Activists must reject the depoliticization that the political center — now an important political sector represented in the likes of the former presidential candidate Sergio Fajardo — has been promoting. By publicly equating protester’s vandalism with police brutality, or rejecting “social polarization,” the center is disavowing the existence of social conflict and contributing to the neutralization of the demands of Colombians who have been historically excluded from the education system, pensions, and health coverage. Thus, centrism in Colombia actively confuses the pacification of society that was promised in the peace accords with the pacification of politics as a whole, emphasizing consensus and building false equivalence by stating, for example, that the authoritarian right represented by Uribe is equivalent to the social-democratic stance represented by Colombia Humana.

Depoliticization is a favor to far-right extremists, a way for them to avoid opposition to their actions. Duque has presented himself as a member of what Tariq Ali has called the “extreme center,” saying that for him, the world was not divided between left and right. More recently, calls from mainstream media and the government for “a restoration of peace,” manipulating the language of the peace agreements to neutralize the social uprising. More worrying still, Duque has called for a “great national conversation” in which, according to one paro organizer we interviewed, he has called isolated sectors to the presidential palace, taken away their phones, and informed them that the agenda for that meeting is nonnegotiable before sending them on their way. Although nothing is publicly known about what has gone on in these “conversations” with other sectors, the paro leadership has refused to participate.

The Left must reject this co-optation. Colombian society is indeed polarized: the country’s income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is even higher than Chile’s. The paro has given the Left an opportunity to reframe the existing social and economic polarization, and is the first step for building a coalition of the dispossessed who can advance a popular political agenda.

How can the current left empower and channel the new activists mobilized by the strike to make their networks more sustainable and powerful? The experience of the 2017 Colombia Humana and Petro presidential campaign showed the power of the populist praxis, but also its limitations when these practices are not grounded in a grassroots political organization. Petro has since made mistakes by choosing candidates for local elections without democratically consulting his own political movement, and particularly alienating its women, further weakening the political bases which are necessary to make any leftist movement sustainable.

How can these moments of popular uprising become not an end in themselves, but first steps in promoting a critique of Colombia’s stable but exclusionary representative democracy, and of the authoritarianism that has characterized uribismo in particular? The paro committee, the strike’s leadership, has been steadily growing as new groups and sectors join the original core group. The original demands now include the demands of these new groups, including on issues like gender inequality, the protection of species and the environment, and the dissolution of the ESMAD riot police.

The past weekend has also seen the creation of “neighborhood assemblies.” Although the paro committee made a call for forming these spaces to inform the population about the state of the paro, these assemblies also have autonomy to make their own decisions and hold their own events. One of the challenges we face in participating in our own local neighborhood paro committee is in balancing the conversation around the national agenda points, on the one hand, and making these issues salient for the daily lives of our newly politicized communities on the other.

A recent poll shows that 72 percent of those consulted feel the government is “going down the wrong path.” Yet 60 percent also want to “return to normality” instead of the continuation of the paro. The 40 percent who want the mobilizations to go on are those who see the relationship between that “wrong path” and the paro’s capacity to change its direction. The next few weeks will be definitive in determining if the paro will wane or turn into a sustained movement. The cacerolazos may not continue every night, but the new bonds and networks formed in the heat of the march and the neighborhood assemblies may lay the groundwork for more concrete demands and a more engaged political citizenry.