In the past six weeks, in a country half the world away from us but in a similar situation, mass protests have been continuing nationwide to this day.
Its economy struck like ours by the global pandemic, the government of Colombia, in South America, proposed a law increasing taxes. The people opposed it with a general strike, launched on April 28, impelling the government to withdraw the bill and the finance minister to resign.
Yet the protestors wouldn’t stop there. Instead, they have expanded their demands, including a basic income, opportunities for young people, equal access to health care and education, protection of indigenous people’s rights and an end to corruption and police violence. The strike, the Guardian reported, has “morphed into a generational outcry over the country’s deep-rooted inequalities.”
Some marchers are pushing for a 2016 peace agreement, signed in Cuba between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), aimed at ending “a civil war that lasted five decades and killed more than 260,000 people.” However, President Ivan Duque’s conservative government, which took over in 2018, has stalled the accord’s implementation.
At least 58 people have died in the protests, 45 of them reportedly killed by the police. Dozens, mostly young people, have been reported as “missing.” More than 2,000 roadblocks set up by the protesters have hit hard the operations of both the government and businesses.
Bloody street skirmishes between protesters and police in riot gear occur daily. Tear gas and live ammunition are used on crowds. Amnesty International has confirmed, through videos it analyzed, that the police used lethal weapons.
“Until the government listens to us, we have to stay in the streets,” said Alejandro Franco, 23. “If the people don’t have peace, then neither will the government.”
After a month, the government and protest leaders reached a “pre-agreement” to end the demonstrations and engage in negotiations. But the government hasn’t signed the written deal, demanding removal of the roadblocks set up by the protestors, before starting negotiations.
The prospect of a national dialogue seemed dim, noted the International Crisis Group: “The authorities focus on treating the protest movement as a law-enforcement problem and the accumulation of grievances leaves little hope for a peaceful resolution in the short term.”
In its Rights and Freedom series, the Guardian has recorded the core statements of certain frontliners in the Colombian protest/strike. Here are some of them:
• Tata Pedro Velasco, a leader of the indigenous Misak people: “The indigenous communities… are marching in the face of historic problems. Armed conflict continues in our territories while the peace accord with the FARC is not implemented. We want the war to end, but the government … doesn’t. The government has never helped the countryside and the poor; it just protects its own interests.
“Indigenous peoples have long paid the price for Colombia’s war. We have lived through the colonial wars, and now we are living through Duque’s war. The spirit of the government is the same as that of the colonizers.”
• Andres Oyola, 40, unemployed worker: “I’m out in defense of those that have gone missing, in defense of the environmental activists that have been murdered and against the lack of opportunities for the young people. I lost my job at the national parks agency because of the pandemic… So I’m marching in solidarity with those who have lost their jobs.”
• Jimmy Avila, 49, cattle rancher: “I’m here to be part of the solution. I want reconciliation in Colombia. I’m from the countryside. I’ve lived among the guerrillas and the paramilitaries, like so many others. I lost both my parents to the war… The war has left victims across the country.
“We want Colombia to be a better country, we want something else for our children – for them to one day thank us. But those in power… are getting things very wrong. They are repressing us, when this country needs reforms to become a fairer place. This strike is going to continue until that happens.”
• Karen Martinez, 17, and Isabela Morales, 21, students: “We want to study, and we want [education] to be affordable. There’s always money for weapons and bombs but not for education. That money just gets stolen, and the government has the nerve to call us vandals.
“We’re studying for our future, but what is that future? There are no real prospects in Colombia, but why should we be forced to move abroad to find work? Everything is backward here. The only dream a young person can have in Colombia is getting out.”
• Alejandria Martinez, 30, businesswoman: “I’m here in defense of my four-year-old son. If he wants to protest in 10 years, I don’t want him to get killed by the police. If the police want us to go away, they are going to have to kill all of us. We come out peacefully and what’s the response? The police or their allies shoot at us. The Colombian state is a bigger killer than the coronavirus.”
• Jefferson, 25, medical student in a health brigade: “I’ve seen the violence first-hand. I’ve treated people who have been shot in the eye, who are choking on tear gas. And [what] all this does is make people more angry, rather than afraid. Staying at home isn’t an option, because we’ll die of hunger there. The minimum wage, which is all anyone around here hopes of earning, doesn’t cover our needs… We’re not scared of anything now.”
• Carlos Andres Espitia, 23: “Corrupt politicians never made Colombia a better place, but young people have the balls to change this country. The government complains about the roadblocks we’ve set up, but they steal from the people every day. We’re showing them what that feels like. Maybe when they stop, we can talk about how our roadblocks are hurting their pockets.
“This is a revolution, and we won’t go away until Duque is gone.”
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Published in The Philippine Star
June 12, 2021