Colombia’s popular uprisings Background, political subjects, and perspectives towards the future


As Popular Uprisings continue across Colombia, they have been met with brutal repression from an  alliance of neoliberal, right-wing and extreme-right forces. Who are the people involved? How did we get here? And what's the way out?


Article by

Antuan Art

Public space recovery by young people taking part at the popular uprising. Monument to the heroes. Bogota, Colombia.

Recent history

The popular uprisings in Colombia that started on 28 April 2021 are part of the trajectory of the country’s history. A review of recent history can help to understand the current situation and highlight some of the dynamics and actions that various political subjects are advancing today.
Colombian society is marked by deep social stratification and the continuity of power structures that – maintaining logics implanted since colonial times and further entrenched almost always with violence at different moments in history – have eliminated any option for recognising and safeguarding the rights of the popular working classes.
The armed conflict of the last 60 years is one of the most painful chapters of the Colombian peoples; its origins are found in the concentration of land and wealth in a few hands – those of the criminal oligarchy and elites who used the State to maintain the status quo.
Art performance as part of mobilisations in Bogota.
This violence and the urban-rural armed conflicts were exacerbated over the last 20 years, beginning with the presidency of the currently impeached Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010) and his doctrine of war - the misnamed democratic security.1 The doctrine was sold as a viable option for ensuring stability in order to attract Foreign Direct Investment, complementing the negotiation of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and Bilateral Investment Protection and Promotion Treaties (BITs). Against the backdrop of international criticism, these strategies materialised at the national level through subsidies and tax exemptions for transnational corporations (TNCs), accompanied by weakened environmental legislation, enabling the legalisation of land grabbing and the imposition of mining, energy and agro-industrial projects through a truly armed process of paramilitary agrarian reform and territorial occupation.
Between 2002 and 2010, the pacification of territories with blood and fire through the democratic security’s paramilitary and military armies left 4 million internally displaced people and dispossessed 8 million hectares of fertile lands2 that are geopolitically strategic and rich in water and minerals. 
A second component of democratic security was the idea of social cohesion, the consolidation of networks of informants to control territories through paramilitary expansion and illegal surveillance strategies3 used against journalists, opposition members of congress, judges, and judicial officers of the high court. This was a clear strategy to create internal enemies and disseminate fear and terror with the excuse of dislodging insurgent controls from areas they had supposedly consolidated, mainly during the 1990s. The result was the dismantling of existing precarious democratic institutions, and the creation of mechanisms of coercion and persecution that became acceptable to public opinion.
The arrival of another pacifier – Juan Manuel Santos (2010 - 2018) – to the presidency created the conditions, starting in 2012, for negotiations between the Colombian government and then guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, for its acronym in Spanish). The negotiations imposed a neoliberal corporate pax with the existing territorial occupation through the democratic security doctrine as a starting point, expanding control by TNCs while at the same time weakening safeguards for peoples’ rights. All the while, great social and political advances were demagogically voiced at the international level under the various fallacies introduced through the discourse of the peace negotiations. 
Despite the efforts of social movements and organisations to build peace with social and environmental justice, and to seek other paths for resolution of historical conflicts, none of the agreements were fulfilled, neither during the negotiations nor towards the end of the Santos presidency. The return of the extreme-right Democratic Centre4 to the presidency in 2018 brought a systematic extermination of ex-combatants and social leaders opposed to the ultra-right presidency. These popular working class subjects sought and worked daily to build peace with social and environmental justice, since long before the negotiations. In fact, during Iván Duque Márquez journey to the presidency he said that he would rip the peace agreement to shreds, a promise he has kept while also ripping the country to shreds.5 So far in 2021 (as of 28 May),6 67 defenders and 25 ex-combatants have been assassinated and there have been 41 massacres, which Duque has described as collective homicides in his discourse to international audiences and the public in Colombia.7
At the same time, successive governments have maintained a foreign policy close to the United States. This positioning was expressed through FTAs, as well as in Colombia’s actions at international forums and its opposition to the Latin American governments closest to the popular working classes. Governments even threatened armed confrontation with Venezuela, undermining any possibility of peace in the region. 
These are some aspects of recent history, an overview of the right and extreme right’s authoritarian agenda that unfortunately controls State policy in the South American country. The current government has not only failed to comply with the peace agreements and historical commitments to diverse sectors, it has also imposed regressive policies that deepen the crisis in a profoundly impoverished society, for the benefit of national and transnational corporate powers and the financial system.

In the midst of the pandemic 

A first popular uprising was organised in November 2019, prior to the global health crisis resulting from neoliberalism that became the COVID-19 pandemic. People mobilised en masse against regressive policies and the lack of compliance with the peace agreements. Protesters were met with an unprecedented criminalisation that went so far as to declare a curfew in several major cities, a phenomenon not seen since the 1970s.
The escalation of the November 2019 strike and social mobilisation was interrupted by the arrival of the state of emergency, decreed under the pandemic. In 2020 this helped the already-illegitimate Duque government to demobilise the population and enabled illegal ultra-right forces to carry out systematic assassinations and massacres. Ninety-one massacres were documented in 2020, in which 381 people lost their lives.8
Thus, the crisis in Colombia dates back to decades before the pandemic. However, the extreme implementation of the neoliberal doctrine during the health crisis, which favoured large capital and worsened a situation that was already critical for popular working class political subjects, was an important trigger.
The most recent study9 by the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE for its acronym in Spanish) shows there are over 21 million people living in monetary poverty in Colombia (more than 42% of the  country's population), 3.5 million of whom fell into monetary poverty in 2020.  The official statistics speak for themselves. In contrast, the financial system made over 55 billion Colombian pesos ($15 billion US dollars) in profits during 2020.10
Far from enacting public policies to provide structural support to the working classes, the ultra-right government in Colombia (as well as local governments like the City of Bogota) expanded its repression by declaring complete mandatory restrictions on movement that are not accompanied by necessary social policies like a universal basic income sufficient to ensure survival. On the contrary, the government implemented dedicated emergency monetary transfers, with the financial sector profiting from its role as an intermediary. This situation led to spontaneous expressions of resistance in popular working class neighbourhoods, where people have hung red banners in their windows to denounce the hunger and misery that the national (and some local) governments have peddled throughout the pandemic.
The declaration of an economic, health, and environmental emergency continues to be an excuse to impose regressive neoliberal policies that previous governments were unable to enact given the strong collective responses from working class political subjects.

Triggers of the strike and the uprisings

The specific moment of the popular uprisings was determined by several factors in history and the current context, particularly:

i. The tax reform proposal presented by the Executive to Congress of the Republic, which was devised by the then Minister of Finance, Alberto Carrasquilla.11 The proposal included a 19% Value Added Tax (VAT) on basic food and other necessities (the “family basket”), public services, and internet service. It also lowered the threshold for paying income tax to twice the minimum monthly salary (approximately $600 US dollars).12 All of this is a clear attack on the middle class, which has nearly disappeared in Colombia, and forces the working classes to pay for the impacts of the pandemic while the government continues to promote policies and subsidies that favour TNCs and the national and international financial system. 

ii. A new health reform to expand the privatisation of healthcare and give more responsibilities to Health Insurance Entities (EPS for its acronym in Spanish).13 Based on Law 100,14 these companies privatised the provision of services to realise the right to health and turned them into a for-profit business, leaving the general population in a precarious condition with regard to healthcare. 

iii. A de facto labour reform15 that cuts rights, lowers salaries, and attacks the freedom to form trade unions and collectively bargain, all with the excuse of creating incentives for businesses to create jobs, which translates into more exemptions for corporations that workers must pay for.

iv. The authoritarian responses to social protest by Duque’s government, which in 2019 had already claimed the life of young Dylan Cruz at the hands of the police's Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD for its acronym in Spanish). As well, the police violence of September 2020 that claimed the life of Javier Ordónez at the hands of Bogota police agents, which gave rise to popular uprisings that resulted in 11 civilians allegedly massacred by the security forces in the capital last year.

v. The government’s announcements and plans to restart aerial fumigation of so-called illicit crops16 and the advance of fracking exploration,17 once again breaking public promises made by Duque during his presidential campaign.18
vi. Continuation and deepening of historical racism, refusal to recognise the citizenship of Indigenous people as rights-holders. This was seen in President Duque’s call for the indigenous caravans to return to their “reservations” (resguardos),19 in response to civilian violence during the strike. 
vii. The historical and ongoing exclusion of peasant, afro-descendent, and traditional communities, who – similar to indigenous communities – are not considered rights-holders. They are the victims of neoliberal trade policies, land grabbing, and constant violence in rural areas. 
viii. All of the above-mentioned regarding systematic massacres and assassinations of social leaders and ex-combatants since the ultra-right’s return to power as expressed in Duque’s presidency.
Since the national strike began on 28 April up until the time of writing (2 June), the Colombian government’s unconscionable and criminal response has produced: 1248 victims of physical violence; 45 murders allegedly committed by members of the security forces; 1,649 arbitrary detentions of demonstrators; 705 violent interventions at peaceful protests; 65 eye injuries; 187 shots  fired  by the police, and 25 victims of sexual violence perpetrated by the security forces.20
The warlike response to the national strike transformed it into a popular uprising that has  lasted almost one month already. This has created an unprecedented institutional crisis that has raised questions about governing with force. The crisis has also led to the resignations of Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla and his deputy minister, Foreign Minister Claudia Blum, and Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos (who in recent years has been dedicated to promoting the war). Finally, it has resulted in the Executive’s withdrawal of the tax reform proposal, the collapse of the health reform in Congress, and the loss of host status for the Copa America football tournament, among other consequences.   
Although the violence unleashed by Duque’s government against the popular mobilisation has been widely rejected, permanent international solidarity as well as monitoring and follow-up by international organisations (both official and unofficial) continues to be necessary. International attention has been crucial for breaking the media blackout used by the government to continue violating peoples’ rights while it pushes an international diplomatic offensive to minimise the crisis and hide the killings of civilians by security forces, among other atrocities. International calls and pressure were essential for a visit from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to be requested and accepted, despite the government’s initial refusal. 

Socio-political nuances

It is difficult to understand the crisis, the possibilities of overcoming it, and the political perspectives by superficially pointing to the existence of two “sides” in the confrontation, as certain mass communications media and those sympathetic to the government have attempted.21 There is simply no single political subject grouped in the National Strike Committee (CNP for its acronym in Spanish) that has coordinated and built sectoral unity among the diverse political subjects mobilised in the confrontation with the government. In fact, the CNP – consisting of a few teachers’ unions, student representatives, and trade union spokespersons, among others – has admitted that it does not represent the totality of the population currently mobilised.22 At the same time, collective popular working class subjects have challenged the CNP, emphasising that its representatives are not the ones who mobilised the majority of the population currently in the frontlines on the streets.23
While the CNP launched a call for the strike that started on 28 April, the mobilisation went beyond the Committee’s indications. They were unable to control right-wing infiltration, which led to acts of vandalism, looting, and chaotic scenes widely disseminated by the regressive and infantilising media.24 This coverage sought to delegitimise the right to peaceful protest by showing the world the violent actions that police and military forces orchestrated and tried to attribute to the demonstrators.25 The strategy was not altogether successful, as complaints of police brutality – along with audio-visual proof recorded by demonstrators and disseminated through social media – caught the attention of the international community and showed the government taking the peaceful mobilisation as a complete war scenario that allowed for excessive and disproportionate use of force.26
As the days passed, and due to Duque’s warlike response, what started as a national strike turned into a social outburst and became a popular uprising that onetime “representatives” could neither guide nor control. The uprising did not share unified interests with the “official representatives” vis a vis the government. It was certainly not directed by electoral alliances like the centre-right Hope Coalition (Coalición de la Esperanza) that initially rejected the demonstrations27 and then during the strike tried to act as spokesperson with the government.28 These “representatives” were also questioned in 2019 regarding their actual mobilisation capacity and the negotiations they held with the Executive that were dispersed, unilateral, and without comparable people power in the streets. 
Young people are at the front of the popular uprising. They were building organised coordination since 2019, with proposals for neighbourhood assemblies and committees, open town halls,29 and organisational structures from the local level to the municipal, departmental, and national levels. However, popular organisation to dispute the political arena and build solutions by and for the peoples is not a linear process with short-term results. It entails open social-popular participation and recognition of existing organisational processes with historical construction and trajectories (peasant, indigenous, trade union, Afro-descendent, urban movements), while at the same time recognising the emergence of new subjects. It avoids artificial representation at all costs, such as leadership claimed by sectors that bring a dated analysis and present the anachronistic demands of the misnamed “national bourgeoisie”, as if it were opposed to transnational corporate power. These sectors serve the government by reaching agreements that will never be implemented, enabling power-holders to fragment the popular camp and negotiate without advancing towards structural transformations. 
Young people have risen up in response to precariousness exacerbated by the health crisis and expressed in the lack of opportunities to envision a dignified future based on public, free, and high-quality education and healthcare. They are fighting against the lack of access to decent and stable jobs that – in the absence of a true universal basic income – would be a step towards social protection and security regardless of the ability to contribute, with health and education as fundamental rights guaranteed by the State. 
One part of the self-named environmentalist sector is conspicuous by its absence in the popular uprising. During the pandemic, environmentalists have demonstrated their disconnection from territorial struggles. Beyond social media and online discourse, the sector has not contributed to the struggles of popular territorial urban-rural political subjects. The inertia of success characterising that side of the Colombian environmentalism in recent decades seems now to be taking its toll. Also absent is their capacity to deliver the research, analysis, and contributions needed in order to include environmental issues in the popular agenda to negotiate around uprising. However, there is a direct relation between environmental struggles and the central demands of the Colombian popular uprising. Indeed, territorial political subjects lift up environmental demands, without the support of certain organisations that continue to profit from international cooperation while struggles continue on the ground over territorial occupation, devastation, and the loss of livelihoods in urban and rural areas. 
The political dispute in Colombia is not binary. This perhaps makes envisioning the ways out of the crisis more complex, but it also reveals that representation in popular struggles cannot be limited to outdated sectors that ignore the new visions coming from emerging political subjects organised spontaneously and/or in the historical trajectory of their uprisings. The possibility of negotiation depends on a unified construction of a list of demands that includes the demands of those who have led and are leading the struggle today. It also depends on recognition of these subjects in a broad negotiation process free from the influence and manipulation by the patriarchies reigning in the sectors that claim those binary voices.  

Perspectives towards the future

One year away from the first round of presidential elections 2022-2026, the current uprising can reconfigure the historical trend that has ensured the victory of the Colombian right throughout the country’s existence as a Republic. This will depend on the sectors that distance themselves from the “centre” and their capacity for analysis and for convening. This “centre” raises false green flags and serves the divisionist strategies of the right, with whom they share strategic visions of the country. 
More than the specific people who will run in the next elections, the possibility of transformation necessarily depends on the capacity to listen to the demands of collective popular subjects. This entails recognising collective political subjects and adding their demands to proposals for structural transformations of the Colombian State and for a participatory construction of public policies towards a just recovery in the midst of the crisis. This is certainly not in the plans of the right (in all its expressions of centre, green, etc.), which continues to impose the neoliberal doctrine at any cost to human lives, social destabilisation, and growing hunger and poverty in Colombia.
  1. For a description of democratic security, see (in Spanish): The Democratic Centre party created by Uribe Vélez after his presidency is now in power with Iván Duque Marquez as president. 
  5. The lower S&P investment rating does not reflect the country’s situation, but it is an indication of how the international parameters from the point of view of the government are falling. 
  11. Carrasquilla is sadly famous in the country due to accusations of corruption for his active role in water privatisation through the so-called Departmental Water Plans.
  14. Promoted in 1993 by Alvaro Uribe Vélez prior to becoming president, in his role as senator of the Republic.
  21. and 
  29. Representative space guaranteed by the Colombian constitution

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