‘Duque out!’ A youth-led rebellion in Colombia

16 May 2021
Robert NaraiTom Sullivan

Millions of people across Colombia have joined strikes and demonstrations against the far-right government of Iván Duque. Beginning in response to the president’s paquetazo—an austerity package that includes a value-added tax that would raise the cost of living for millions of poor and working-class Colombians—the youth-led rebellion has moved beyond initial opposition to the tax bill into calls for the resignation of Duque.

On 28 April, hundreds of thousands of students and workers defied a court order banning street demonstrations on the pretext of COVID-19 risks and heeded the call for a nationwide general strike by the country’s major trade unions, organised through the National Strike Committee (CNP). Demonstrators and striking workers marched under the slogan, “For life, peace, democracy and against Duque’s new paquetazo”.

Despite the CNP refusing to call ongoing actions, students, young workers and indigenous groups continued to mobilise throughout the country’s major cities of Bogotá, Medellín and Cali on 29 and 30 April. The demonstrations were met with fierce repression from the police and the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD, a military police created in the late 1990s under the pretext of fighting the “war on drugs”). Security forces used tear gas, stun grenades, batons, rubber bullets and live ammunition against demonstrators. Video footage shows the ESMAD hunting down and shooting protesters with assault rifles in working-class districts of Bogotá. In Cali, the centre of both resistance and repression, plainclothes officers on motorcycles opened fire on crowds in drive-by shootings. In response, the indigenous movement known as Minga organised self-defence groups to protect working-class districts that were under siege from police and paramilitary gangs.

On May Day—the historic day of the workers’ movement—the CNP still refused to call for street demonstrations. But the youth-led mobilisations continued, hundreds of thousands of people marching across the country in the largest May Day demonstrations seen in decades. By 2 May, in an attempt to tame the movement, Duque was forced to withdraw the value-added tax bill; his finance minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, resigned. Demonstrations continued in the following days under the slogan, “Duque out!”

“This has been one of the most important processes of struggle in Colombia’s history”, David Reyes, an economics student at the Universidad de Antioquía and a member of Impulso Socialista, says via email from Medellín. “There has not been an uprising of this scale and magnitude since 1977, when a nationwide general strike won the eight-hour day. But the withdrawal of the tax reform bill and resignation of the finance minister have not been enough—the people want more.”

“This is because”, he continues, “as the struggle has progressed, people on the streets have broken with the narrow horizons with which the CNP has tried to contain the mass movement. And as people have continued to mobilise, they have done so not only against specific austerity measures, but also against the government and all the institutions of the regime, denouncing the repression, the deepening of the health crisis and the social inequality that worsens as a result of the economic crisis”.

The rebellion is taking place amidst the country’s worst economic crisis in its recorded history and its deadliest wave of COVID-19 infections. Last year, 3.5 million Colombians fell under the official poverty threshold—a per capita monthly income of US$87—and 42.5 percent of the population now lives below the poverty line. Meanwhile, the country has recorded more than 75,000 COVID-19 deaths, with the death toll often reaching 500 per day. But the rebellion is also taking place in opposition to the model of capital accumulation (and accompanying state repression) that Duque and his predecessors have upheld.

“This form of accumulation has been aimed at increasing the rate of profit of financial and industrial capital alongside expanding the control and ownership over land by the landowners”, says Reyes. “In order to maintain this model, the Colombian ruling class has built a regime of state and paramilitary terror. These terroristic forms of violence have been intimately connected to the illicit drug trade and extractive industries—and it is the Colombian ruling class which has been the largest benefactor.”

From the early 1960s onwards, the Colombian “narco-state” waged a decades-long civil war against guerrilla groups, which claimed the lives of more than 265,000 Colombians and displaced some 6 million more. Meanwhile, the civil war was used as a smokescreen for the systematic murder of indigenous leaders, environmentalists, human rights activists, trade union and student leaders, even entire political parties such as the Unión Patriotica (two of its presidential candidates, dozens of its elected officials and 5,000 of its members were murdered by security forces and right-wing paramilitaries throughout the 1980s).

Between 2000 and 2010, under the government of Alvaro Uribe, thousands of workers and small farmers across the country were victims of deliberate “false positive” killings in which civilians murdered by the military were made to look like guerrilla fighters in order to inflate body counts. (The ESMAD was created during this period and is responsible for many of these killings.) The peace accord signed between the last of the guerrilla groups—the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC)—and the government of Juan Manuel Santos in 2016 has done little to curb the violence: the power vacuum in the countryside has simply led to right-wing paramilitary gangs seizing territory from small farmers and massacring countless locals in the process.

Since Duque came to power in 2018, however, a series of youth-led struggles has emerged: student-led demonstrations against corruption and state terror over three consecutive months in 2018; a nationwide strike of teachers, students, farmers and pensioners in defence of public education and pensions in April 2019; student- and teacher-led “March for Life” demonstrations in response to an escalation in assassinations of activists and opposition politicians by paramilitaries and police in July 2019; a series of nationwide general strikes in response to the cover-up of a military-led bombing campaign that killed at least eight children in the department of Caquetá (and in opposition to Duque’s previous paquetazo); and the riots and mass demonstrations that erupted during the first wave of COVID-19 in September 2020 against police violence (youth demonstrators burned down 22 police stations and defaced 49 others in Bogotá alone).

“The current rebellion should be understood as continuing these processes of struggle that were opened up by the student movement in 2018, consolidated throughout 2019, and then intensified in September 2020”, explains Reyes. “All these struggles have laid the basis for the combativity that has emerged since 28 April. But what we are seeing now is a new, more radical moment that will mark the history of class struggle in our country.”

Under pressure from the rebellion in the streets—and in an attempt to put itself in control of the movement—the CNP launched nationwide general strikes on 5 and 12 May. During both strikes, industrially powerful workers, such as truck drivers, imposed nationwide blockades of major highways that caused supply shortages in many parts of the country. According to the president of Defencarga, one of Colombia’s largest business associations, there are currently 42,000 trucks sitting idle, with some of its affiliates operating at less than 30 percent.

Since the withdrawal of the tax reform bill, public sector workers have also begun to play a prominent role in street demonstrations and strikes. University and high school teachers have mobilised in opposition to the government’s demand for a return to in-person teaching (despite the second wave of the COVID-19 health crisis). Healthcare workers, in response to the collapse of the healthcare system, have mobilised in opposition to a health “reform” bill that will further privatisations in the sector and raise the cost of basic health care and medicines. The CNP has been forced to make calls for the ESMAD to be dismantled.

In response, the Duque government has continued to use the police, the ESMAD and right-wing paramilitary gangs to carry out violence against demonstrators. Since 28 April, there have been as many as 548 reports of missing persons filed. And while the government ombudsman claims that 168 of them remain missing, the Unit for the Search of Missing Persons gives the number as 379. According to the NGO Temblores, 39 demonstrators have been killed by the police, and 1,055 have been subjected to arbitrary arrests. But when the number of disappeared persons is taken into account, the real number of deaths is likely much higher.

Duque has also relied on different wings of the political class to stifle the rebellion. Gustavo Petro, leader of the political movement Colombia Humana, has repeatedly called for demobilisations and demanded that activist organisations accept a seat at the negotiating table with Duque. Petro, a former guerrilla fighter, is widely expected to win the 2022 presidential election as the “progressive” candidate. Claudia López, leader of the Green Party and mayor of Bogotá, has said: “We must recognise there has been abuse on both sides”.

Despite the ongoing violence committed against students and workers, the CNP has engaged in negotiations with the government. These negotiations not only legitimise Duque and his repression; they also take the momentum away from the youth-led rebellion on the streets and prevent it from reaching into broader sections of the Colombian working class.

“It is essential that the forces that have been unleashed since 28 April are organised to overpower the leaderships that seek to channel the struggle towards institutional and electoralist measures”, says Reyes. “We know that the victories that are obtained in favour of the working class and popular sectors—if they are not deepened—will otherwise evaporate together with their fighting energy. But for now, the combination of repression and conciliatory measures has been unable to stop this new wave of rebellion.”

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