Since April 28, Colombia has witnessed one of the largest popular mobilizations in the country’s history. The massive protests began as a national strike — called by students, workers, trade unions, left-wing parties, social movements, peasant communities, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, and feminist collectives — against the US-backed government of far-right president Iván Duque and a now-withdrawn regressive tax reform.
The bill would have raised taxes on basic necessities and public services (water, electricity, and natural gas), disproportionately affecting the poor and middle classes. Over May Day weekend, the demonstrations expanded in scope and intensity, turning into a popular uprising despite a deadly police crackdown.
More than five millions Colombians, 10 percent of the total population, have taken to the streets over the past two weeks to protest against neoliberal policies, economic hardship, social injustice, environmental devastation, government corruption, police brutality, and the systematic murder of activists. They demand the resignation of President Duque and fundamental social, economic, and political reforms. Yet progressive opposition politicians, such as the center-left reformer and 2018 presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, have not played a leading role in the protests.
All major cities and the countryside have seen violent clashes between the protesters and the police’s riot control unit. Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, in the south of the country, has become the epicenter of the protests and state repression. After President Duque ordered its “maximum” militarization, parts of the city now resemble a war zone.
Military helicopters rotate over burning roadblocks, while hooded youths defend themselves with shields, helmets, masks, and stones against water cannons, tear gas projectiles, and rubber bullets. Numerous videos have circulated on social media showing the police, armed civilians in SUVs, as well as residents in rich neighborhoods fire live ammunition at protesters. More than twenty people have died so far.
The repression is not limited to Cali. According to the Colombian nonprofit organization Temblores, a total of thirty-nine people have been killed, around eight hundred injured, and almost a thousand arbitrarily detained. Human Rights Watch has reported forty-eight deaths. Over four hundred protesters swept up by police are missing and believed to be held in clandestine detention centers.
There have also been numerous attacks on UN staff and journalists. The United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the repression. Colombian nongovernmental organizations and leftist senator Iván Cepeda filed a complaint before the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the United Nations Security Council against the government for crimes against humanity.
The Colombian right, on the other hand, has criminalized the protest and called for an even more repressive approach. Former president and Duque’s patron Álvaro Uribe, still highly influential in national politics, speaks of “terrorist vandalism” and accuses the protesters of being orchestrated by Colombia’s other remaining guerrillas, the National Liberation Army (ELN), the drug trade, and the regional left.
The protests come as Colombia is facing a deadly third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with high infection rates and overcrowded intensive care units. More than eighty thousand people have died — the third-largest number in the region after Brazil and Mexico. The pandemic has devastated an already crisis-ridden economy and fragile social fabric, leaving millions unemployed, impoverished, and hungry.
Poverty has increased by 6.8 percent from the year before the pandemic; 42.5 percent of the population now lives below the poverty line, 15 percent in extreme poverty. The sharp devaluation of the peso has made imports more expensive and fueled inflation. The price increases hit poorer sectors hardest, widening the gap between them and an opulent ruling class.
According to the World Bank, Colombia is the country with the second-highest social inequality in Latin America after Honduras; globally, it ranks seventh in this category. Many of those who protest today against the government’s failed crisis management literally have nothing left to lose. This is especially true for the younger generation: a recent survey showed that 84 percent of those between the age eighteen and thirty-two support the national strike.
But poverty, unemployment, and precariousness aren’t the only complaints of the protesters. Free trade agreements and subsidized agricultural imports from the United States and the EU threaten Colombian small farmers’ existence. Environmental groups and indigenous movements criticize the expansion of large-scale extractive projects, the introduction of fracking, and the controversial resumption of aerial fumigation with glyphosate in areas with coca plants. Trade unions complain about the creeping privatization of the public pension system and the chronic underfunding of public health care. Students are denouncing the deepening crisis of public universities and the brutality of state forces in the streets.
The Duque government has also long been criticized for stalling the implementation of the peace agreement, signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas in 2016. In particular, the land reform envisaged in the agreement has been ignored to the benefit of large landowners and narco-traffickers.
Acts of violence have also increased again under Duque. The United Nations counted seventy-six massacres in 2020, the most since 2014. The victims are mostly activists, small farmers, and indigenous leaders, defending their land and ways of life against armed groups, mining megaprojects, and agribusiness. According to the nongovernmental organization Indepaz, three hundred ten activists were murdered in 2020 alone. And since 2016, more than two hundred fifty former FARC members have lost their lives through violence. In both cases, the perpetrators are mostly right-wing paramilitaries, dissident FARC groups, the military, or drug gangs.
The ongoing protests in Colombia are not a spontaneous and unforeseeable uprising against the Duque government. They are rather the continuation and radicalization of the mobilizations of late 2019. Back then, mass demonstrations, work stoppages, and road blockades shook the country for weeks.
A new nationwide strike, planned for March 2020, had to be postponed, due to the pandemic and quarantine measures. Since then, the government’s inept handling of the health crisis has further fanned the flames of discontent. More and more people are demanding structural change from an increasingly violent and authoritarian government. Whereas in the past, the protests had primarily a defensive character, they are now growing more offensive. The participants are not only rejecting the prevailing social order; the idea of a socially just, democratic, and peaceful Colombia is also taking shape.
Colombia’s popular uprising is diverse, not only in its demands and particular interests, but also in its protest forms and symbols. But the protesters have understood how to foreground the unifying elements among them. What unites the different sectors is the positively connoted self-definition as pueblo.
In the Colombian context, the term is clearly a class concept. It groups together the various sectors of the excluded, exploited, marginalized, and dissident popular classes — formal and informal workers, housewives, students, peasants, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, leftists, women, and LGBT groups — and pits them against a repressive government, defending the interests of large landowners, agro-industry, transnational companies, big finance, business conglomerates, and paramilitaries.
The activism and the political struggle of the pueblo is not only directed against Colombia’s oligarchic-plutocratic regime and its representatives in government. Many of the concerns and demands of the protesters are directly or indirectly related to the socioeconomic and ecological repercussions of the country’s neoliberal, extractivist accumulation model. The rejection of the latter unites the pueblo.
The radicalization and expansion of the protests over the past years is thus a sign of a profound crisis of that same model. The material concessions conceded to the popular classes are just not enough to build a broad and stable cross-class consensus around how Colombia’s economy should be organized.
Another aspect that has unified the protesters is the rejection of Colombia’s far right, personified by former president and now senator Uribe. Uribismo hegemony has long seemed solid in the country. When Latin America saw center-left governments come to power during the “progressive cycle” between 1998 and 2014, Uribe escalated Colombia’s civil war with the guerrillas and intensified counterinsurgency activities against the civilian population. During his presidency (2002–10), the country became the staunchest regional ally of the United States, which gained access to at least seven military bases on Colombian territory.
Uribe then strongly objected to the peace negotiations between the government of his successor Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC guerrillas. The opposition of his camp to the peace process paved the way to the presidency of Uribe’s handpicked candidate Duque in 2018. Yet, despite the victory, the hegemonic decline of Uribismo had already begun.
It was the former guerrilla Gustavo Petro who made headlines on Election Day, achieving a historic result for the Left in the runoff against Duque. During his campaign, signs of a political awakening were palpable, especially among young people and students. Since then, the anti-Uribe sentiment has grown stronger. The massive mobilizations of 2019 and the ongoing popular uprising are the latest chapters of a deepening crisis. The capacity of Uribisimo to lead large sections of the pueblo — culturally, intellectually and politically — is fading.
Despite this dual crisis, the decentralized and sometimes uncoordinated nature of the protests makes it difficult to formulate common political goals. The first attempts in this direction have come from the National Strike Committee, which unites the different protest groups. The committee is calling for police reform, a basic income for the poorest sections of the population, a halt to the planned glyphosate spraying, and the demilitarization of the country.
Talks with the government have so far failed to produce any results. For many protesters, the demands do not go far enough anyway; they reject the strike committee’s representation and vow to continue the struggle in the streets. Community assemblies and neighborhood councils have emerged across the country.
For Colombia’s left, the cycle of mobilization, the emerging hegemonic crises, and the growing action in the streets could play an important role in view of the 2022 presidential elections. Leading in the polls, Petro will run again with a broad social and political alliance. Many protesters, however, understand that profound and emancipatory social change in Colombia would require more than Petro’s electoral victory. As the past two weeks have shown, the repressive state apparatus and right-wing paramilitaries are prepared to defend the interests of the ruling classes by any means necessary.
How long Colombia’s popular uprising will last, and in which direction it will develop, can’t be foreseen. The situation in Cali remains extremely tense. Meanwhile, the protection unit of the indigenous communities from the neighboring Cauca region has arrived to support the demonstrators on the ground. But after two weeks of mobilizations, clashes and road blockages, the city is now experiencing shortages of food, fuel, and medicines. As the price hikes mainly affect the poorer population, there are more and more voices calling for an end to the protests. But that end is still not in sight.
Last week in nearby Pereira, Lucas Villa, one of the student leaders of the local uprising, succumbed to his gunshot wounds in the hospital. His killers were armed civilians who wanted to send a message to all his comrades fighting for change.
Villa has now become a symbolic figure throughout the country. For many, he embodied the rebellious spirit, the fearlessness and the joie de vivre of all those who yearn for a different Colombia. One of his last voice messages, sent to his cousin the day he was shot, turned out to be a fatal premonition: “The worst can happen, güevon. Everyone for everyone. Many of us can die because today, right now in Colombia, the mere fact of being on the street, being young and being on the street, is risking your life. We can all die here.”