Colombia’s National Strike #21N

On Thursday 21st November, thousands of people took to the streets of Colombia to take part in the country’s first big national strike in three years. Although President Iván Duque has only been in power for little over a year, a Gallup survey back in August showed a disapproval rate of 69% amongst the general public, with 70% of people stating that things are “getting worse.” But what exactly was everyone protesting for? Well it’s hard to pinpoint, because in reality it’s not just one thing but rather a whole multitude of issues that people aren’t happy with, including but not limited to unemployment (88%), cost of living (85%), insecurity (85%), corruption (83%) and the economy (77%). 

During the protest, there was such a wide range of people and groups from all different ages and backgrounds. I was already aware of some of the issues going on in the country, but as a foreigner who has only been in the country for a year and a half, I couldn’t deny that my knowledge was still limited and I wanted to find out more. Speaking to other protesters here in Bogotá, we got a clearer understanding of exactly what the national strike means to Colombians and what they want to change. So here are some of the social issues that were being protested and what people had to say:

Government corruption and violence

One main concern amongst Colombians is the scale of corruption, and one big scandal this year was the case of the Universidad Distrital de Colombia, a case that sparked one of the largest student protests in a long time when it was revealed that the Rector of the University had been using the University’s budget for his own expenses. These expenses included personal holidays, buying property and even paying for prostitutes. Students, not just from La Distrital but from other Universities such as La Javeriana, took to the streets in October in protest but were met by the ESMAD (Escuadrones Móviles Antidisturbios) (think Stormtroopers but in black armour instead of white…) which then led to a violent confrontation involving physical fights and teargas.

Many denounced the unnecessary heavy-handedness of the ESMAD against the students, which led to even more anger and disappointment towards the state.

“We’ve come today to protest peacefully because we’re against the government’s awful management of this country. It’s a government full of abuse, full of blood, full of hate, that wants to instil fear in us. There’s a lot of repression now in this country and that’s why I’m here today, to show that we have a right to be free and to fight for our dignity.”

– Joana, an artist from Bogotá’s Colectivo de Artistas

Continued armed conflict

Colombia has a decades-long history of violence and armed conflict, but with the signing of the peace treaty back in 2016, there was hope amongst Colombians that things would change. However, armed conflict continues to rise, costing the lives of innocent people every day in rural areas of Colombia, and concerns have grown especially in light of the recent news of FARC rearmament. Armed groups are occupying rural territories, pushing civilians out or worse, killing them. Not only this, but many children are also being recruited by these groups. This isn’t anything new, though.

I remember researching information about child soldiers in Colombia back when I was in school around 10 years ago. Yet living here as an adult and knowing that it’s still happening is heartbreaking. Children are recruited by these groups either by force, manipulation or false promises. And as if losing their childhood wasn’t enough, these kids are then villainised by the very state that failed to protect them and their families in the first place.

Speaking of, another reason people are furious with the state is because of the news that came to light just a few weeks ago, of a bombing in Caquetá ordered by Botero, Colombia’s Minister of Justice. The aim was to bomb a FARC camp. And that aim was achieved, but 18 of the deaths from that attack were those of child soldiers, some aged as young as 12 years old. Unsurprisingly, when this information came out, it caused widespread anger across the country. For obvious reasons, people are also protesting the way this situation was handled.

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’18 children massacred’

When Duque was confronted about the event by a journalist, he responded “¿De qué me hablas, viejo?” which translated to “What are you talking about, man?”, a response that went viral. During the protests could be seen many handmade signs with this exact phrase, or responses to it.

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“This is what we’re talking to you about”
Credit: Zonacero

False Positives

With the aim of cracking down on armed groups, the government has put in place quotas for the military to reach in terms of taking down guerrilla groups. In return for reaching these quotas, the Colombian military would be rewarded with monetary bonuses. Can you see where this is going? Unfortunately, what has happened more than once is that, in a desperate attempt to reach those numbers, soldiers have lured, tricked and killed innocent people, passing them off as guerrilla group members. A  2018 study claims a total of 10,000 “false positive” victims between 2002 and 2010.

The most famous case is that of the Soacha scandal that broke out in 2008, whereby 22 men who were supposedly recruited for work were later found dead a few hundred miles away. One of those recruiters later confirmed that he had received $500 from the Colombian military for each man he recruited and delivered to them. Six members of the army were later sent to prison.

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Pregnant woman whose belly reads “I don’t want to be a False Positive”

Murders of social leaders and activists

Somos Defensores, a human rights group, recorded 591 attacks on human rights activists in the first half of this year alone, attacks that are considered to be at the hands of paramilitary groups (53%) unknown culprits (28%) as well as FARC objectors, the ELN and security forces (19%).

Somos Defensores, a human rights group, recorded 591 attacks on human rights activists in the first half of this year alone, attacks that are considered to be at the hands 2of paramilitary groups (53%) unknown culprits (28%) as well as FARC objectors, the ELN and security forces (19%).

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Many people held signs displaying the names of just some of the many social activists that have been murdered.
Credit: Beverly Goldberg

“Today we’re marching against the killing of social leaders. We’re also marching for education, health, against the reforms that the state are imposing, and most of all because we want a better quality of life both for us and for our children. The national strike is happening because the government want to reduce the minimum wage for young people and reduce pensions, but we’re also fed up of the state hiding information from us, as was the case with the bombing a couple of weeks ago. As a member of a community theatre group, I have a responsibility to be here and defend the rights of my community.”

– Diana, San Cristóbal theatre group
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‘No more killing social leaders in Colombia. For their lives, we march.’

Attacks on indigenous communities

People in the city are fed up of the way the country is being run, but those who are suffering the most are the rural communities. It’s no secret that violence in the Colombian countryside is ongoing, with armed groups occupying territories and forcibly pushing people out of their homes. One of the most affected regions of Colombia is the department of Cauca in the southeast of the country. A recent example is that of the murder of the governor of the nasa community of Tacueyó, Neehwesx Cristine Bautista, and four others at the hands of a local armed group.

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Adriana marching beside a Wiphala flag (an emblem used by indigenous Andes communities) Credit: Beverly Goldberg

“We’re here to fight for indigenous rights, because our leaders, our women, our children are being killed. Our fights are being ignored and silenced, and the problems of migration, displacement and murder that are affecting indigenous communities are only getting worse. We’re representing people from Chocó, Putumayo, the Amazon, and we’re also working with many people who don’t have anyone to speak for them. Stop killing us and stop taking away our land, that’s what we want. Respect the autonomy of indigenous people and respect our lives.”

– Adriana, Indigenous Authorities of Colombia Organisation

Environmental issues

There has been a growing concern over the Colombian government’s treatment (or rather lack) of environmental issues. The big headline a few weeks ago was that of the new law passed by the country’s Minister of Agriculture, Andrés Valencia, which established new fishing quotas for a range of marine species. The document caused controversy, mainly due to the higher quoter for the hunting and ‘de-finning’ of sharks, whereby the fins are cut off to sell, and the sharks are then thrown back into the sea. Unable to swim and hunt, these fin-less sharks die a slow and painful death.

Other concerns amongst environmental groups and activists include the rise of fracking and the building of commercial ports to import and export goods in areas such as Taganga, which will likely cause pollution and in turn affect the area’s marine biodiversity.

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‘In Colombia there are 58,870 animal and plan species’ Credit: Beverly Goldberg

“There are a lot of things wrong with this government. For example, those in charge are not taking action against the growing problem of climate change, which is linked to many of the social issues. We’re here protesting with Extinction Rebellion against the government actions we disagree with, but also against the lack of action taken to protect the environment. This government wants to go back to cultivation which uses glyphosate and cancerogenic chemicals; it also supports fracking, which is extremely damaging, and it wants to introduce mining in various Páramos, which are ecosystems we need to look after. We want out with Latin American multinationals!”

– Iván, Extinction Rebellion

In summary

There are a lot of issues that Colombia still continues to face, and I think it’ll be a while until they start being resolved. But Colombians are speaking up, and I think that the recent protests in Chile and Ecuador have acted as an extra catalyst to this. It’s clear that people are fed up. I’ve heard so many instances of inequality and corruption since I first arrived here, it’s nothing new. But people are coming together, and they’re making their voices (and pans*) heard through peaceful protest, and that’s a step in the right direction. However, although the majority of protestors have marched peacefully, there have been some instances over the past few days of looting and vandalism (again, the minority ruining the cause for everyone else), and there have been confrontations between some protestors and the police. So it’s understandable why lots of people are concerned about things turning violent, especially as it has been the case in the past during similar events. But all we can hope for is that this doesn’t become the norm and ruin what is supposed to be a positive call for change.

As a foreigner, it’s a bit of a double edged sword. Part of me thinks “Who am I to judge and criticise this country when I’ve only been here for less than two years?” whilst another part of me feels glad to be able to take part in the protests and support my Colombian friends in speaking up against struggles they’ve had to deal with for a long time.

Although the initial date of the strike was Thursday 21st November, protests are still continuing. No one’s sure how long it’ll last, but I’ll take a guess that it’ll probably be until people feel they are finally being not just heard, but actually listened to. So far, President Duque has agreed to open up a platform for dialogue regarding the issues presented. Aside from that, we’re yet to see what will be some of the outcomes.

*There has also been a ‘cacelorazo’ taking place since Thursday, whereby crowds are gathering together in various neighbourhoods of Bogotá with their pots and pans as another form of peaceful protest.

UPDATE: Sunday 24th November

Yesterday during continued protests, an 18-year-old student called Dilan Cruz, whilst trying to escape a teargas bomb, was shot by an ESMAD police officer in Bogotá’s city centre, and is currently in a critical condition in hospital.

Today people will continue to protest and this act of senseless police brutality will be another reason why.

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Dilan’s blood on calle 19 after the incident. Credit: Facebook (Santi Alarcón)

Useful websites where you can find out more information

In English:

The Bogotá Post

The Guardian

Colombia Reports

In Spanish:

El Espectador

El Tiempo

El País

Open Democracy

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