Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 10, 2021

Report from Colombia #1

Filed under: Anthony from Colombia,Colombia — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

(Written on June 1 by Anthony, a long-time resident of Bogota)

On Sunday, the national strike committee decided that it would work to remove road blocks throughout the country as a measure of goodwill toward the government in an effort to get substantive negotiations started

On Saturday, the Colombian government had announced, and had begun carrying out, a major increase of military/police/paramilitary repression against the National Work Stoppage (Paro Naciónal). President Ivan Duque announced the militarization of eight departments: Valle de Cauca, Cauca, Nariño, Huila, and Caquetá in the southwestern corner of Colombia, Risaralda which is closer to the center of the country, and  Norte de Santander which is in the north of the country on the Venezuelan border. Key cities which have been epicenters of the struggle are located in this region. They include Cali – the country’s third largest city and a major transshipment and industrial center, Buenaventura – the most important port on the Pacific, Tumaco – another Pacific port, and provincial captials and cities of Pasto, Popayan, Huila and Perira plus other cities which have been important centers of protest such as Yumbo and Tulua.

A spokesperson for the strike committee characterized the government’s announcement as “an internal coup d’etat.” Lawyers say the government has no real legal basis for the measures, since the law they are based on is designed for natural disasters and emergencies.

At the same time as the government announced this escalation, it also announced that it had rejected the pre-agreement on negotiations with the strike committee that had been mediated by the Catholic Church and the United Nations. Instead it announced a set of conditions for negotiations which amount to a rejection of all negotiations: a complete end to all demonstrations and road blockades.

The government has focused on the road blockades as its most important target. Thousands of roads have been temporarily or intermittently blockaded all over the country. At first, they caused many local shortages and panic buying that were accompanied by widespread local price gouging. Since then, the strike committee has modified its policy to allow food, medical supplies, gasoline and other essential items to pass through humanitarian corridors, and blockades have become intermittent rather than continuous. Nevertheless, the strike committee does not have control over all blockades which often are local demonstrations by working class youth, are sometimes organized blockades by masses of truck drivers, and are sometimes imposed by masked groups of “encapuchados.”

The government’s announcements came in the middle of a major increase of police, military, and paramilitary repression, especially in the city of Cali and in the southwestern corner of the country. The internet is full of videos of police escorting armed men dressed in civilian clothes who are firing at demonstrators. In one case, a man in civilian clothes shoots two protestors and is subsequently, chased, caught and killed by other protestors. They pulled out his wallet and discovered his ID cards showing that he was an agent of the Fiscalia (equivalent to the office of the prosecuting attorney general). Subsequently, the Fiscalia confirmed his identity but disclaimed knowledge of, or responsibility for, his activity.

Nobody knows exactly how many people have been killed so far, nor how many have been wounded, arrested or simply disappeared. Over the weekend a strike committee spokesman said that the government had killed 70 demonstrators. As of May 20, the government admitted that 26 people had been killed, including 25 demonstrators or bystanders and one police officer. Indepaz, an independent NGO said that as of May 18, there had been 2,387 cases of police violence and 51 killings, 43 of which were presumably at the hands of the police.

The protest movement shows no signs of abating despite the repression. Over more than one month of mobilizations it has evolved but not relented.

The major demonstrations and work stoppages happen every Wednesday, but the strike committee has called other major events on other days, including last Friday. In between, the protests continue on a smaller, local and decentralized basis. It is truly impossible to keep track of.

One day walking day the street, a group of young people march by chanting and blocking the right of way of the bus mass transit system. That night there are reports of a major confrontation in a small town fifty miles from Bogotá. The next day, a conflict erupts between the riot squad and youth blockading a main thoroughfare in a previously quiescent working class neighborhood.

Road blockades occur on a stretch of highway at an unannounced hour of the day. The police and army show up to push the demonstrators back and remove the obstacles. The next day a blockade appears a few miles down the road.

The movement is large, but not really cohesive or well organized. It has numerous sectors. There are the unions: FECODE the teachers union, the CUT and CGT – the main union federations, and the USO – the petroleum workers union, there are various truck drivers’ and truck company federations, and there are small farmers’ organizations, LGBT organizations, indigenous communities, student organizations, pensioners and others.

There are also the unnamed armed participants collectively called the “encapuchados”. They include various anarchist groupings and presumably the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – National Liberation Army) and what are known as the dissident factions of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The FARC dissidents are those parts of the FARC who rejected the peace agreements from the beginning, or who accepted them at first but later rejected them.

There are also armed groups of common criminal gangs that join in the protests, especially in the looting of stores and ATM machines.

In Cali, the “primera linea” – the first line of militant youth in the protests, close down road blockades at 8:00 PM, but after that time unidentified armed men – nobody knows whom – police provacateurs? Paramilitaries? The ELN?  FARC dissidents? move into occupy the contested streets. The nighttime gun battles that ensure have been falsely attributed to the protestors.

Together, the encapuchados and armed groups have been responsible for a lot of the massive destruction of property that has occurred. They target small community police stations, ATM machines, mass transit systems, and government buildings.

Most, or all, of these groups have been infiltrated by the police to one degree or another. For the last century, the Colombian police and military have built up a clandestine machine to infiltrate the left, the guerrilla movements, and opposition political parties. The budget for these operations is large, but secret. Infiltration is backed up by electronic surveillance which was vastly increased under Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia.

In between the mass peaceful protest movement and the armed groups there is a growing layer of angry, militant urban youth who have manned the road blockades, control the urban street blockades, and who have engaged in confrontations with the police.

These groups have established “resistance points” at mass transit bus depots, major intersections, and parks in many of the main cities including Bogotá, Medellin and Cali.

In Bogotá, where I live, there are two main focal points: the Portal Resistencia (officially the Portal de las Americas), and the Los Heroes monument. These are twenty-four hour demonstrations with loose-knit organizations of thousands of young people who come and go and take turns. The Portal is one of the major mass transit bus depots serving the whole city of Bogotá. The youth there have not only renamed it Portal Resistencia, they have changed all the signage, too. They control whether the buses can enter or leave.

At the Los Heroes monument, there is a major traffic interchange and a major mass transit bus interchange, both of which can be opened or closed by the demonstrators at will.

The police attack these youth, especially at night, using rubber bullets and tear gas. The youth respond with rocks, sling shots, and improvised defensive gear including makeshift shields and bicycle helmets. The Red Cross and other NGOs have set up first aid stations for those injured in the exchanges.

Other points of resistance have formed throughout this city and u in other cities,  especially in working class neighborhoods. Some are momentary and ephemeral, some have taken on a semi-permanent existence.

There is a lot more to say, and I hope to write about some of it in future updates. Here are some of the topics I hope to write about:

–La Minga (the indigenous resistance)

–Neighborhood assemblies

–The “Reconciliation” march in Cali

–The May 2022 elections

–Political pressures and factions within the government

–Political parties and their positions

–The roles of the IMF, World Bank, Standard and Poor´s

–ANDI and Colombian business

–Drug dealers/Paramilitaries/trucking

–The media

–Human rights Inter American commission

–Appointment of retired Colonel in Cali by Green Mayor

–Duque’s loan program

–The hang over of guerillerismo

–The notion that this is an insurrection floated by Forrest Hylton (It isn’t)

–A discussion of the tactic of road blockades

Anthony

May 16, 2021

Report from Colombia #2

Filed under: Anthony from Colombia,Colombia — louisproyect @ 10:05 pm

(Written on June 7 by Anthony, a long-time resident of Bogota)

Colombia Upsurge at a turning point

As of this moment, the national strike has continued for nine days since it began on April 28th. It has opened the floodgates of pent-up social and political tension that had been stuffed into a bottle by the pandemic.

At the end of 2019, and the beginning of 2020, a massive protest movement of the students, unions, and indigenous people had pushed the government back and looked like it would win very important concessions. Then the pandemic hit, the streets emptied, and instead of improvements, things got worse economically, especially for the poorest third of society. Assassinations of local indigenous leaders and activists in rural areas continued during the pandemic.

When the unions and the students called the national strike on April 28th, they took the cork out of the bottle. The first day of protest was massive, and it occurred all over the country, even in small cities where nothing ever happens.

Although it is difficult to estimate how many people participated, there were very large demonstrations in all of the major cities that included 10,000s of thousands of people in each. In the capital, Bogotá, estimates range from 100,000 up to several hundred thousand. My own guess is that about 2,000,000 people demonstrated nationwide out of a population of a little less than 50,000,000.

The catalyst for this massive outpouring of protest were two major legislative packages proposed by the government of President Ivan Duque: a regressive reform of the tax code, and an even more regressive reform of the healthcare system.

Initially, the strike committee focused on the tax reform, but from the beginning the movement went beyond the demands of the strike committee. The truck drivers and the taxi drivers have their own demands: no gasoline tax, reduce or eliminate highway tolls, end photo traffic tickets. The teachers union has its own demands: vaccinate all teachers and make schools safe for physical reopening, eliminate tuition in public schools, and more. The list is much longer.

The mass demonstrations were peaceful, and even joyous. People sang, played music, and danced. There was street theater everywhere. The symphony and philharmonic orchestras played as part of the demonstrations. Marches were well organized and mostly without incident.

However, every time there is a large protest in Colombia, the “encapachudos” show up. They are hooded and masked. They throw rocks and potato bombs, they commit acts of vandalism like wrecking Transmilenio stations (the mass transit system) and ripping ATM machines out of walls. Organizers of demonstrations try to stop them, often successfully, but they go somewhere else and continue their activities.

Who are they? Some of them are anarchists who think that this is a useful form of protest, some of them may be parts of the urban arms of the ELN and dissident FARC organizations, and some of them may simply be street gangs taking advantage of the situation to commit robberies. One thing that is certain is that they have been infiltrated by the police and army who encourage vandalism in order to justify repression of the mass movement.

The press focuses on the actions of the “encapuchados” thus aiding the right wing politicians who want to repress the movement. Former President and Senator Alvaro Uribe, the evil puppeteer behind President Duque’s policies, has publicly called for the military and police to use deadly force against the demonstrators. His tweet was removed by Twitter, and he had a meltdown on a CNN en español interview. Duque has called out the army, but it is not clear what, if anything, they have done or are doing.

In Cali, there was an armed incursion into a poor neighborhood that may have been carried out by the army, although the press says it was done by the local police. Videos online show buildings burning and a tank, but the police have their own tankettes so it is not clear who was responsible. In Bogotá helicopters have been buzzing working class neighborhoods, but Claudia Lopez, the mayor and a leader of the Green Party, says that they are police helicopters, not military helicopters.

The press and NGOs have reported somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty killed, and hundreds injured, but the real numbers are higher.

The hospitals were already full because of the current wave of Covid-19. Before the protests started, ICU occupancy rates throughout the country were above 90%. Now they have waiting lists. At least Colombia still has oxygen. I could tell you a lot of horrible Covid stories, but right now I will stick to the protests.

Since the protests started, emergency rooms have filled with young people with eye and head injuries.

Duque, who is a comic president who looks a little like Porky Pig and speaks Spanish a little like George W. Bush speaks English, has withdrawn the proposed tax changes for a rewrite but has not clearly backed down on most of their provisions. He has made some clear concessions: his Minister of Finance has resigned, he has said that income tax will not be extended to lower income brackets currently exempt, and the military has decided not to buy a bunch of new jets that had been in the budget.

Rather than appeasing the protests, the concessions have shown the weakness of Duque’s position and  encouraged the movement to press forward. There now seems to be contention in the movement, as Gustavo Petro, the most visible and important political leader of the left, and the left’s most likely candidate in next year’s presidential elections, has criticized the strike committee for not suspending the strike in response to Duque’s concessions.

Two days ago, the second national day of protest focused on defeating Duque’s healthcare system. The current system in Colombia is a mishmash of private and public health care held together by bubble gum and string. It was the first great achievement of Alvaro Uribe and is in many ways the model of Obamacare. Now, Duque wants to completely privatize health care in ways that will open the door wider to multinational companies, limit covered procedures and drugs, and make healthcare more expensive. And he has made this proposal in the middle of the pandemic!

It is impossible to predict where things are going to go from here. The truck drivers have effectively blockaded the country’s highways, and shortages are beginning to appear everywhere. In some small towns where people normally cook with propane, they are cooking with wood. Supermarket shelves in Cali are empty, and there has been panic buying at supermarkets and stores in Bogotá despite the fact that there have still been no major shortages here.

Yesterday, the Senate invited the strike committee to present its case to them, and now there is speculation that Duque will meet with the committee. The committee presented seven primary demands to the Senate:

Withdrawal of the health care reform combined with a mass vaccination programGuaranteed basic income of one minimum monthly salary

Defend national agricultural, industrial and artisanal production

Defend sovereignty and food security

Eliminate tuitions and alternative education

End gender discrimination and support sexual and ethnic diversity

No privatizations and end crop eradication with glyphosate

Up until now Duque has talked about finding consensus, but has only met with the leaders of the major capitalist political parties, the military, and the Supreme Court, but now he says he is willing to meet the strike committee.

The massive revival of the protest movement was unexpected, even by its leaders. Its revival is a good thing, and marks a major step forward in the rebirth of the Colombian left after decades of being dominated by the debilitating guerrilla wars.

Government repression is a constant factor in this country, but it had been mostly absent from the cities for a long time. It’s return is a bad thing, but it has not returned on the level demanded by Alvaro Uribe. City governments are mostly in the hands of opponents of the central government, especially in the hands of the Green Party which has been trying to mediate the conflict.

In Bogotá, Claudia Lopez tried to remain firmly in the middle, but has inched closer to supporting the protests. During Wednesday’s protests, Lopez set up monitors along the 22 lines of march to monitor police behavior, and she encouraged all citizens to film the police with their cell phones. Last Monday, Jorge Iván Ospina, the Green Party mayor of Cali declared a “civic day” and joined the protestors.

The strike and protests are not just occurring at the height of the most recent Covid-19 wave, they are occurring just as a new presidential election race has begun. Elections will be in May 2022.

The Colombian election system has undergone several major changes in the last few decades. First, the Constitution of 1991 introduced a proportional representation system that led to the dissolution of the old two party system and the creation of a multiparty system. The old Liberal and conservative Parties still exist, but they have spun off three other major capitalist parties: the Partido de la U, Cambio Radical, and the Centro Democratico.

Most importantly, a new party on the left, the Polo Democratico Alternativo, and a new center left party, the Green Party, emerged in the process. Both have suffered major internal crises, faction fights, splits, and reorganizations.

Currently, descendants of the three major elements that had formed the Polo (M-19, the Communist Party, and MOIR) again have separate organizations and coalitions but exist in a kind of fluid situation of temporary coalitions that sometimes include the Green Party.

In the run-up to the last presidential election in 2018, the Polo and two factions of the Greens formed Coalición Colombia while Colombia Humana (descendant of M-19 led by Gustavo Petro), El Movimiento Alternativo Indígena y Social, and Fuerza Ciudadana formed Inclusión social para la paz. Each held primary elections to choose presidential candidates leaving Sergio Fajardo of the Greens as the candidate of “Coalición Colombia” and Gustavo Petro as the candidate of Inclusión social para la paz.

Similar temporary coalitions were formed among the right and center capitalist parties. In the end, there were six candidates in the first round of the 2018 presidential election. Ivan Duque, the acolyte of Alvaro Uribe and candidate of something called the Grand Alliance for Colombia, came in first, and Gustavo Petro heading the “List of Decency” came in second. Duque, with 54% of the vote, won the second round against Petro who had 42% of the vote.

Similarly dizzying realignments are now underway in the run-up to next year’s elections.

The second major change in Colombia’s electoral system occurred with the 2015 Constitutional amendment which established that a president can only serve one term in office. This means that Ivan Duque cannot be a candidate in the upcoming election, so the field is wide open for a major dust-up among the five major bourgeois parties.

Uribismo, the child of Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia, seems to be on the ropes, but whether or not Colombia’s complex and divided left can take advantage of this opportunity remains to be seen.

Underlying the current political and social crisis is the pandemic and its economic consequences. Duque’s reforms aimed to shore up government finances which have been undermined by his own 2019 tax reform which cut taxes for major corporations and the rich combined with a disastrous drop in tax revenue due to the Covid-19 induced recession.

According to DANE, the country’s statistical agency, the percentage of people officially classified as poor rose from 34.7% in 2018 to 42.5% in 2020 while the percentage of those classified as middle class fell from 30.5% to 25.4%.

Duque would like to please the country’s banks and the world bond market by maintaining the country’s bond rating, Petro on the other hand has tweeted that poor countries have the right to stop paying the foreign debt, especially owing to the pandemic.

If Duque in fact withdraws his tax reform, it will merely postpone the inevitable economic consequences of rising foreign debt which now stands at 56% of annual GDP.

Where is all of this going? While no precise predictions are possible, it is a certainty that the crisis is going to deepen during the next year. Any deal the strike committee makes with Duque will at best be a stopgap measure and almost certainly will not be able to meet all seven of the committee’s programmatic points.

Addendum to “Colombian upsurge at a turning point?”

Upon rereading what I just sent you, I realize that I have omitted a major factor in the situation that could determine tomorrow’s outcome: Covid 19.

The country’s hospitals and ICUs are overflowing. This is the worst moment of the pandemic here so far, despite a significant increase in the rate vaccinations. Colombia is approaching a health care crisis similar to those experienced already by Brazil and India.

When the national strike was announced in response to the government’s tax reform at the end of April, a lot of people on the left were hesitant or even opposed because of the increasingly desperate health care situation. Nevertheless, when the protests began, the left united behind them.

The Covid-19 crisis is clearly the cumulative result of the government’s slow and indecisive reaction to the pandemic combined with the predictable development of new and more contagious and/or deadly variants. The Duque government followed what might be called the European Union model rather than that Trump or Bolsanaro model. It relied on government restrictions on movement and socialization combined with masking and a cost-conscious vaccination program.

The policy seemed to work, more or less. It prevented the country’s hospitals from becoming overwhelmed for more than a year, but by the end of April that was beginning to change as new more contagious variants (including a Colombian variant) began to appear and become predominate here. While the older population of the country has been vaccinated, the hospitals have filled up with younger and younger Covid patients, and many of these younger patients have required ICU care or have died.

Miami hotels are full of upper class and upper middle class Colombian vaccine tourists.

Colombia’s frontline doctors and nurses are sick and exhausted. While many of them have supported the paro, their sentiments are divided because of fears that the massive crowds, some without masks, have added to the contagion.

The government and the right-wing media have increasingly used Covid 19 as a cudgel against the mass movement, falsely blaming it for the current spike in the pandemic.

This may have been part of the reason for last week’s low turnout at demonstrations, and it could affect the turnout tomorrow.

Anthony

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