The Colombian government’s brutal treatment of protesters and its attempts to tighten control of state institutions have exacerbated the human rights and political crisis facing the country.
In April this year, millions of Colombians took to the streets to express their discontent at struggling to survive in one of Latin America’s most brutally unequal societies. Coordinated by trade unions and social movements, and joined by masses of disenfranchised young people from working-class urban areas, the so-called National Strike protests were the largest the country had seen in decades. Diverse movements – indigenous people, students, public sector workers, LGBTQ activists and many others – unified around the Strike’s central demands for economic justice, human rights and peace. The message was unmistakably clear: we’ve had enough.
Having launched in November 2019 as an ongoing series of mass mobilisations, the National Strike sought to exert maximum pressure on the government of President Iván Duque, whose election in 2018 veered the country back towards a hard-right course last taken by Duque’s predecessor – and political mentor – Álvaro Uribe in the 2000s. Duque’s economic governance of Colombia has been characterised by policies which have adversely impacted the most disadvantaged social sectors. April’s mobilisations centred opposition to Duque’s proposed tax reforms as the core grievance, with the Colombian equivalent of Britain’s Trades Union Congress, the CUT trade union confederation, warning that the reforms would see living standards deteriorate yet further for millions of families already trapped in grinding poverty.
It is not difficult to understand public anger over Colombia’s deeply unequal economic model. The government’s woefully inadequate response to the global pandemic exposed the system’s failings, as millions of people lost their incomes and underfunded health services teetered on the brink of collapse. While the government largely abdicated its responsibilities towards the public, it scrambled to protect major corporations such as the Avianca airline.
Since the pandemic began, trade unions have fought to protect their members and hold government failings to account. Health workers have risked their lives to treat the sick without personal protective equipment, leading to a spate of deaths and resignations among frontline medical staff, which increased the burden on public hospitals. Teacher unions, meanwhile, requested stringent biosecurity measures for classrooms to safely reopen, a measure implemented only after extensive government delay.
Nevertheless, this has not prevented politicians in Duque’s party, the Democratic Centre, from falsely accusing teachers, particularly those in the large FECODE teachers union, of a desire to indoctrinate and harm vulnerable students. Teachers’ only ‘crime’ has been their robust trade unionism, an admirable quality under normal circumstances, but one which takes on new dimensions given the violence that has targeted Colombian labour organising for decades.
Senators with massive social media followings have driven this stigmatisation even as trade unionists are being murdered with horrifying frequency. Colombia’s ruling class historically advanced and consolidated its interests through blood, with more than 3,200 trade unionists killed between 1971 and 2018, often with the involvement of multinational corporations and national elites.
Amid a legacy of impunity, the violence goes