The protests in Colombia have triggered a huge and surprising popular reaction: protest movements in big cities and small villages, roads and tracks, squares and streets and even in homes where people protest daily, in their own way and according to their means, banging saucepans, flying flags and chanting slogans.
In all these places there are people from all social classes, ethnicities and stations in life; even groups of catholic priests, and priests from other religions, swell the ranks of the marches fully aware, all of them, of the risks they are taking.
This spontaneous movement is replicated throughout the world uniting people from Colombia with local citizens of all shades that support the protests in Colombia.
This whole mobilisation, with its strength, self-assurance and vigour, and with its spontaneous nature, needs those who lead it to be capable of maintaining an enriching dialogue with the mobilised so that anything that is achieved at the discussion table is a product of the harmonisation of those two key principles in any change process: organisation and spontaneity duly coordinated.
It is too soon to know how this exciting Colombian process will evolve. It might achieve some reforms or at least stop the reforms that are in progress.
Maintaining unity among so many groups of people – including not insignificant sections of the middle classes – will therefore be critical. This struggle can help to progress with the formation of a broad front that achieves a significant victory in the next parliamentary elections and that removes the far right from government in next year’s presidential election.
It should not be forgotten that creole fascism exists as well and that a full military regime cannot be ruled out.
From the reform to other reforms
The opposition to fiscal reform in Colombia has borne fruit. The government decided to withdraw it in the form that provoked the popular uprising only to present it again in a new format, thereby debilitating the opposition and ending up by imposing something similar.
But what it achieves is a different matter. The same is true of the proposals to reform the health, education and pension systems, all according to the same neoliberal philosophy and all incurring rejection from large sections of society.
For there to be a worthwhile advance in the dialogue with those who oppose these proposals, it will be necessary for the Duque government to change the neoliberal philosophy of its politics generating new realities in the country.
Some people might speculate that the President will follow Biden’s likely new direction, introducing some form of Keynesianism, that is if the big bourgeoisie allows the US President to make such changes, the mere mention of which arouses open opposition from important business groups.
If Duque pushed for this sort of change, the pressure from the groups of the creole bourgeoisie – who benefit so much from the current neoliberal model – would be enormous. In addition, there would be manoeuvres by international capital (financial centres, above all) who have much more powerful weapons than the local oligarchy.
The Colombian President is facing another large obstacle: there are only a few months until the legislative elections of the coming year and the presidential election. Therefore, his margin for action would be quite short-term if he decided to introduce changes to satisfy some of the popular demands.
In reality, it is much more probable that Duque ties the process up in interminable sterile dialogues in order to weaken the opposition movement and manages to leave the time bomb of popular discontent for the next government. A bomb that will be impossible to defuse and which will probably explode again soon.
Repression and right
The current leader is also under pressure from those who propelled him into government and who do not appear willing to accept even the smallest concessions.
The power behind the throne, the ultra right-winger Álvaro Uribe Vélez, has so far managed to impose his “iron fist” strategy leaving the management of the problem in the hands of the military and the police, savagely repressing the protests but without managing to quell them.
On the contrary, the protest movement – whose founding organisations include what is known as the National Strike Committee – is now accompanied by, and significantly enlarged by, the population’s spontaneous reaction which has surprised everyone with its vigour and permanence despite having suffered brutal repression.
This repression has been so strong that even the UN, the European Union and many governments and human rights organisations have expressed their concern (that is all diplomatic language allows them to say) and have, at the same time, called for calm and asked Duque to seek solutions through dialogue.
In short, the current government and the political and social forces that support it appear unable to control the situation (at the time of writing) and have fundamentally handed the management of the problem to the military, an old custom of the Colombian regime which in this way has its own version of a military coup.
It remains to be seen whether after the dialogue that has started a new process can be begun whereby troops are withdrawn from the streets, language demonising social protest is abandoned and the squads of the armed far right (people from rich areas together with the underclass) can be brought under control. These squads go out to fire on the demonstrations with the complicity of the police, as has been seen in Cali, Pereira and other places in Colombia.
Isolated acts of vandalism are often provoked by agents of the so-called “forces of order”, a well-known tactic designed to criminalise peaceful marches.
For its part, the movement opposing the government must manage to maintain the unity of the many disparate sectors that comprise the National Strike Committee, adequately manage the demands in accordance with the real balance of power and find the formula by which what is debated at the negotiating table is followed through and does not just end up as empty words.
The experience of so many unfulfilled promises to students, indigenous people, blacks and salaried employees from different sectors is undeniable. There is also the lack of compliance with what was agreed with the demobilised FARC guerrillas, whose members are murdered daily by hidden forces whose far-right nature is undeniable.
The same is true of the systematic assassination of the leaders of popular movements who oppose the rapacious plans of large multinational and national companies, landowners and landholders.