Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 16, 2021

Report from Colombia

Filed under: Colombia — louisproyect @ 10:05 pm

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

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.

July 25, 2020

Days of the Whale

Filed under: Colombia,Film — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

Now available as virtual cinema, “Days of the Whale” is set in Medellin, Colombia and tells the story of two young street artists contending with street gangs. Given the provenance of both factions, it is not surprising that nearly the entire film takes place on the gritty streets of a city that will always be associated with Pablo Escobar and violence.

When I was in high school, my English teacher Fred Madeo, who was just one of a number of radical-minded faculty members keeping his politics close to his vest, clued us in on “Hedda Gabler”. He said that in act one, you see a pistol being handled by Hedda Gabler. Whenever you see a pistol, a knife, etc., in act one of a play, you are primed to expect some kind of tragedy by the final act.

In “Days of the Whale”, instead of a weapon, you get a gangster warning Simón (David Escallón Orrego), one of the film’s young co-stars, that unless he pays for the “right” to do art on the city’s walls, he might get killed. His girlfriend and fellow artist Cristina (Laura Tobón Ochoa) both put up brave fronts against this threat but you cannot help but feel that they are doomed. Even though most of the film shows them happily at work in an art form that is truly proletarian, you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Despite the threat of violence, this is really much more of a love story and a very good one at that. As much as they love each other, another threat hangs over their head, namely one of being separated through no fault of their own. Cristina’s mother is an investigative reporter whose opposition to the city’s gang world has forced her to move to Spain because of threats on her life. Simón, who comes from a working-class background and who even was a gang member when younger, is torn between loving her and anger over being abandoned. To fight against both threats, they put their heart and soul into their artwork as if each day was their last.

Neither of the co-stars are professional actors. The director-writer Catalina Arroyave Restrepo decided that this would give the film authenticity and she was right. In the press notes, she said that John Cassavetes’s films were an influence. It shows. Her statement on what motivated her to make “Days of the Whale” conveys the hunger of young Colombians for a different way of living in a country degraded by almost a century of dictatorship, corruption, and criminality:

I have always been obsessed with freedom, and that took me to write a story about my discontempt [sic] with that criminal reality and the desire of rebelling against it. I started fantasizing about using the stories that my graffiti artist friends told me about their adventures in the streets, dealing with the owners of each territory, and also with using the colors, rhythm and textures of this universe to make a film. That’s how Days of the whale was conceived.

Highly recommended.

November 24, 2019

The Wild District

Filed under: Colombia,television — louisproyect @ 9:23 pm

Two seasons of “Wild District” (Distrito Salvaje) are now available on Netflix. This is an outstanding Colombian TV drama about a former FARC member who is coerced into becoming an undercover agent. It is both the lead character Jhon Jeiver’s (Juan Pablo Raba) story as well as pointed social commentary about the country’s failure to resolve long-standing problems of crime, corruption and the elite domination of the state.

“Wild District” depicts a government and police department that turns a blind eye to criminality. Season one, which premiered on Netflix last year, is set during the period that opened up after the Colombia government and the FARC came to an agreement that would allow the long-time revolutionary movement to become a legal, electoral-oriented party. By now, that agreement has largely become undone as the government resorts to the murderous policies that have been in force for the past fifty years at least.

Jhon Jeiver (Juan Pablo Raba) is a legendary FARC guerrilla who moves to Bogotá after the peace treaty is signed. Hoping to live a normal civilian life, a hope deepened by his disillusionment with the FARC, he is a fearsome fighter who has killed many soldiers and rightwing military members. As such, he is subject to arrest for war crimes but the military intelligence officer who recognized him from an old photo decides to force him to go undercover and penetrate the country’s gangs that are staffed with both ex-FARC and paramilitary fighters. His prowess qualifies him for membership in a leading gang that has deep ties with Bogotá’s bourgeoisie that makes the men around Trump look like boy scouts by comparison.

Jhon Jeiver seeks only to fulfill his obligations as an undercover cop and return to normal life as a father to his teenage son who is beginning to adopt the grubby values of the rich kids he goes to school with. His story is a combination of family and police drama that is told exceedingly well. As for its ability to tell the story of Colombia’s social and political fault lines, it leaves a lot to be desired but it is likely that it never would have been funded if it cut the FARC some slack.

The other major character is Daniela León (Cristina Umaña), the country’s Attorney General, who hopes to prosecute construction company magnates who have been getting overpaid for underperforming projects. They are willing to kill people who interfere with their criminal enterprise, including Jhon. He has his hands full trying to penetrate criminal gangs at the lower levels of society and at the same time trying to help the Attorney General extirpate the rot at the top. None of this comes easy since he has big problems raising a troubled teen-aged son as a single father. His guerrilla mother was killed by a FARC combatant who had her pegged as a spy. All in all, both the FARC and the big bourgeoisie come off as bad guys. Jhon is an existential hero who has no illusions about a better world. If you’ve seen Humphrey Bogart in “Key Largo”, you’ll be familiar with his character.

In season two, Daniel León has a much larger role. In every episode, the scene alternates between her efforts to become Colombia’s first female president and Jhon’s to track down missiles that have been smuggled into the country from Venezuela. In almost every aspect of story-telling, character development, and social commentary on Colombia’s intractable capitalist ills, season two is even better than the first. My enthusiasm was only dimmed by the extravagantly distorted portrayal of Venezuelan society.

Jhon is dispatched into Venezuela as an undercover agent seeking to buy missiles on the black market. He is arrested by Venezuelan cops who are depicted as sadistic monsters who would make the actual Colombia police force look genteel by comparison. In prison, he meets an idealistic politician who has been falsely arrested for subversion. He is so bent on making Venezuela a virtuous state once again, he refuses to take advantage of a release from prison offered by the government in order to keep the democratic movement alive. The words socialism and imperialism are not mentioned once.

Once he escapes from prison, Jhon returns to Colombia to track down the stolen missiles. In the course of his search, he runs into a hitman nicknamed Monsanto (a brilliant touch) who is attempting to destroy León’s campaign through murderous attacks on her ex-husband and a friendly reporter.

What is even more of a threat to her campaign is the persistent efforts of her campaign manager to turn it into a tool of oligarchic interests. In the climactic final episodes of season two, the missiles, her campaign, the oligarchy, Monsanto and Jhon all collide to highly dramatic effect.

Despite her efforts to redirect her campaign to its original idealistic goals, León discovers that it is much harder to take the reins of the state to eliminate capitalist abuse under conditions of capitalist rule. She faces the prospects of being the nominal head of a reformist government whose “deep state” ties to the ruling class make reform impossible. Was she being used to placate the masses with false hopes? As an oligarch puts it to her in the final episode, “Everything must change in order for it to remain the same.” Do those words ring a bell? They come from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard”. They were spoken by an aristocrat who throws his support for a revolutionary movement during the Risorgimento that failed to root out the feudal privileges that held Italy back from entering the 20th century. Despite the obvious willingness of the creative team to lie about Venezuela, they are capable of telling the truth about their own country.

October 13, 2017

Bringing Down the Cali Cartel: “Narcos” Season 3

Filed under: Colombia,Counterpunch,crime,drugs — louisproyect @ 2:57 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, OCTOBER 13, 2017

Last December, I recommended Netflix’s “Narcos” to CounterPunch readers with the qualification that it had political problems. After having just finished watching Season Three, which deals with the Cali cartel (seasons 1 and 2 were about the hunt for Pablo Escobar), I can only repeat my endorsement for a thoroughly entertaining and frequently accurate portrayal of the attempts to bring down Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, the brothers who ran the Cali cartel.

The series is based to a large extent on William Rempel’s “At the Devil’s Table”, a 2011 book whose subtitle “The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel” refers to Jorge Salcedo who was chief of security for the Rodríguez brothers. Rempel’s book is a redemption tale as its protagonist decides to become an informer for the Colombian security forces and the DEA after seeing sicarios(hitmen) kill one of the cartel’s enemies. He was happy to keep his bosses safe from the law’s grasp through sophisticated counter-surveillance strategies, especially when the pay was very good, but drew the line at torture and murder.

Given the risks of going undercover against the cartel, much of the drama in Season Three revolves around Salcedo’s high-stakes game. His motivation was not to get a handsome reward for his efforts but to simply return to a normal life. Resignation from the cartel was not an option, especially when they relied on you for security. However, if he was ever found out, the consolation prize would be suffocation by a plastic bag wrapped tightly around his head, the preferred execution method in such circles.

Continue reading

Blog at WordPress.com.