The Wide-Angle Lens of Colombia’s National Strike

Peace has become the central axis of political-economic contestation in Colombia, as competing visions of what peace means to different sectors play out in the streets. 

December 16, 2019

Photo by Maria Adelaida García – Equipos Cristianos de Acción por la Paz @ecapcol

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The protests in Colombia are entering their fourth week. Student groups, labor unions, pensioners, women’s and feminist organizations, Indigenous leaders, Afro-Colombians, environmentalists, and land defenders have come together in the largest national strike in recent history. In a country known for the repression of street mobilization, where protest has historically been criminalized and conflated with guerrilla warfare, the size and duration of the mobilizations—and the fact that a reported majority of Colombians supports them—is revealing. Colombia is often portrayed as an outlier, separated from regional trends by the country’s conservatism, “stable” economy, and the persistence of a half-century of armed conflict. In some ways, Colombia’s strike is different from those of its neighbors—for one, organizers planned the protests prior to the other uprisings that have swept the region. Moreover, protesters’ demands focus on one element not present in the streets of Quito or Santiago: a peace process. But rather than separating Colombia’s strike from neighboring uprisings, the peace focus is the central axis around which disparate sectors of civil society are contesting the same anti-corruption and anti-privatization demands happening throughout the region.

Colombia’s Discontents

As NACLA reported, strikers’ motivations vary from unpopular policy prescriptions to the Duque administration’s refusal to implement the 2016 peace accords and related acts of violence by the country’s Armed Forces. The administration’s plans to alter wage and pension structures have been particularly motivating, alongside attempts to privatize the state-owned oil company Ecopetrol, lower taxes on corporations, introduce new income taxes on the poor, hike utility costs, and reduce investment in public education. Alongside public anger at a state that aims to continue to impoverish and disregard its population while cozying up to multinationals, the Senate’s recent approval of the so-called Andrés Felipe Arias Law represents an attempt to re-legitimate the country’s system of parapolitics by offering those convicted of paramilitary corruption a second chance at impunity.

The Duque administration’s active obstruction of the hard-won peace accords is accompanied by continued militarization of the countryside, with the recent killing of up to 18 minors in a military strike targeted at a FARC dissident leader. In total, nearly 170 former FARC combatants have been killed by paramilitaries or unknown assassins, left vulnerable by the government’s failure to comply with protection protocols. These killings follow three years of  brutal targeting of social movement leaders, land defenders, and Indigenous activists. The nightmare is now being reenacted on the streets of Bogotá as the killing of Dilan Cruz fuels a call for the dissolution of the ESMAD riot police. More than 750 human rights defenders have been murdered since the signing of the 2016 peace accords, including 198 Indigenous people—a rate of one murder every 72 hours. Women activists face particular levels of revanchism in the context of this violence, subject to sexual torture when targeted for their activism. According to Feminicidios Colombia, 239 women—social leaders and otherwise—have been murdered in Colombia in 2019 in crimes classified as femicides. Strikers decry the “collusion of the State and paramilitary forces” that targets the poor and the defenders of the peace while entrenching the neoliberal project by way of benefits for the fracking and large-scale mining industries. These dynamics work together to endanger the lives of Colombia’s poor.

Multi-Sector Claims and Coalition Politics

One of the most remarkable aspects of uprisings in Colombia, Chile, and Ecuador has been the presence of multiple sectors of civil society in the planning and orchestration of demonstrations. The region is witnessing a convergence of struggles, led by coalitions of Indigenous communities, student movements, women’s and feminist groups, farming interests, and broad swathes of the working class.

Region-wide, the weakening of social movements since the turn of the century has been attributed in part to the institutionalizing effects of Pink Tide governments, whose collaboration with—and sometimes appropriation of—social movement structures led to a broad demobilization. These effects are now seen in the rise of the proto-fascist Right in Brazil and Bolivia. In Colombia’s case, decades of criminalization of protest and brutal persecution of unionists, student leaders, and land defenders, combined with disillusionment after several failed peace attempts, had similar effects. The exception to this defanging of radical protest—in Colombia as well as elsewhere in the region—has been women’s movements and Indigenous communities, who according to the Uruguayan theorist Raúl Zibechi have managed to maintain a relatively autonomous level of mobilization. In Colombia, women’s and feminist groups managed to mobilize society after the failure of the 2002 peace talks between the FARC and the Pastrana administration when other progressive movements were unable to do so. Similarly, Indigenous communities, notably the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), are continuing an unabated tradition of radical street mobilization which has served as a model and a support for today’s National Strike.

Chile’s feminist movement is also famous for its multi-sector coalitions and radical transversal politics, with the feminist collective Las Tesis recently making headlines around the world with its critique of the patriarchal state. In Argentina, the #niunamenos movement has called global attention to the way gendered concerns about bodily security and reproductive rights are interwoven with claims for economic justice. In Colombia, Afro-descendant and Indigenous feminists have been key in pressing for an intersectional analysis. Fueled by the mobilizing role of student movements, feminist and Indigenous movements are at the vanguard of region-wide uprisings as class-based concerns are seen as integral to gender-based and ethnicity-based demands

The multiple sectors of society represented in the National Strike are, in Judith Butler’s words, mobilizing precarity. They are pushed together into the streets by the shared corporeal vulnerability arising from the interlocking forces of neoliberalization, militarization, and continued state prioritization of elites and foreign investors. In Colombia and in the region, sectors of civil society long operating separately are mobilizing together. Whether this collaboration will last beyond the protests has yet to be seen.

Following Butler’s definition of politics as something happening in-between bodies, formed and performed by the relations between people, the National Strike has been highly creative. Professors used their networks to mobilize and support students, the Indigenous guard proposed to replace the ESMAD, artists took the streets of Bogotá with the musical initiative #UnCantoXColombia, protesters created a “first line” to repel the ESMAD and protect other protesters, and the “cacerolazos” employed longstanding traditions of contentious politics.

Thirteen Demands, One Vision

According to Duque administration official Diego Molano, the Colombian government “cannot ...establish a negotiation based on 13 different topics.” James Robinson, a British economist working in Colombia, similarly opined at the beginning of the strike, “It’s not clear who is organizing the protests in Colombia, or what protesters want.” Unlike the apparent unity of protest demands in Chile, he continued, “It’s just not clear that Colombia can reach a consensus about what its underlying problem is.”

Without a comprehensive synthesis of the interrelatedness of the strikers’ 13 demands, the international press will, perhaps intentionally, remain blind to the mobilizations’ unifying vision. Protests against the administration’s tax reforms and privatization plans, calls to dismantle the ESMAD riot police, and protesters’ insistence that the government commit to the implementation of the 2016 peace accords arise from the unity of all three phenomena: the deepening of economic neoliberalization, resulting in further privation of the poor and middle classes and enabled by corruption at the highest levels of government, requires the cooperation of a police state to repress dissent, in contradiction to the somewhat more progressive vision of state-society relations embodied in the 2016 peace accords.

Peace, then, has come to be the central axis of political-economic contestation in the country, as competing visions of what peace means to different sectors play out in the streets. The 2016 accords, albeit imperfectly, contained the potential for troubling some of the foundations of the country’s armed conflict, particularly in the areas of rural land reform. That potential is a threat not only to Colombian elites, but to U.S., Canadian, South African, and Israeli multinationals who stand to benefit from regularizing the dispossession of the poor. By ignoring or defunding the more potentially transformative elements of the 2016 accords, the Duque administration seeks to impose the liberal notion of a peace that pacifies—a transformation-in-name-only that serves to move violence and land seizures out of the frame of “crisis” and into the frame of “normalcy.” This framing is achieved at the expense of the communities—Afro and Indigenous, in particular—who are displaced, threatened, and murdered by the centering of fracking, mining, and agrofuel extraction as the economic drivers of post-conflict reconstruction. Peace, according to the academic Lara Montesinos Coleman, “marks the consolidation of an order imposed through massacres and selective assassinations.” This vision of peace relies on surveillance and repression, revealing the role of the ESMAD as central to pension privatization and mineral extraction.

In this way, Colombia’s peace has become the battleground for competing imaginaries, the “central axis” around which the fight between a doubling-down on neoliberal repression and the vision of a responsive state now orbits. Having created a transgressive space for a vision of public action in a country with a long tradition of enforced political apathy, the 2016 accords are key to understanding Colombia’s place in Latin America’s 2019 uprisings. In the longest “democracy” with the longest-running armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere, Colombia’s National Strike joins with its neighbors in demanding a renewed vision of the meanings of peace and democracy.

Kate Paarlberg-Kvam is a visiting faculty member in Society, Culture, and Thought at Bennington College, where she conducts research on the role of gender and feminist organizing in post-conflict transitions.

Priscyll Anctil Avoine is a PhD candidate in Political Science and Feminist Studies at Université du Québec à Montréal. She is an activist at Fundación Lüvo and student member of CAPED.

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