Desperate, brave ... but can the protests succeed without a party and clear strategic aims?

No split in army - yet

Derek James details the brutal response to the mass protest movement in Colombia and what needs to be done to avoid yet another failure

A wave of protests and strikes is sweeping Colombia and is being met with brutal state repression, which has resulted so far in more than 50 deaths.1

The protests began on April 28, initially in response to government tax reforms that favoured the wealthy and fell hardest on the poorest sections of society. But they have now broadened into a much wider attack on the Duque government’s policies.2 Alongside protests organised by the main trade union federation, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), youth movements, small-business owners, peasant farmers and indigenous people have also been mobilised.3 The protests have taken the form of national strikes, street demonstrations, occupations, blockades of major roads, burning of police posts and attacks on symbols of colonial oppression.4

As is now an established feature of contemporary protests and movements, social media posts, pictures and film footage have brought the reality of these events to the attention of people throughout the world.5 What emerges from these posts and reports in the Colombian media is a picture of a vicious campaign which aims to smash the mass movement, using all of the resources of violence available to the state. As well as the now standard attacks by the riot police (Esmad), using tear gas and stun grenades on demonstrators, live rounds have been fired at unarmed protestors, whilst police motorcycle teams have been filmed driving into the crowds and shooting individuals at close range.6

Two further sinister developments are the use of vigilantes or plain-clothes police acting either as provocateurs or police auxiliaries; and over 900 arbitrary detentions and more than 200 ‘disappearances’ of activists and demonstrators.7 Paramilitary militia with connections to rightwing politicians and landowners are also thought to be active in attempts to suppress the protests.8 Furthermore, as support for a coordinated national protest strike (paro nacional) on Wednesday May 12 grew, it was reported that tanks have been deployed around the capital, Bogota, and in one of the main centres of the protest, Cali.9

That what began as a protest about taxation should now have turned into a mass movement directed against the government will have come as no surprise to anyone following events in Colombia - or indeed anywhere elsewhere outside the main metropolitan capitalist states. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the deep social and economic crisis in the developing economies in South America, Asia and Africa. The devastating impact of Covid on the working class and rural poor has produced widespread unrest, protest movements and political instability across the global south, from India to Brazil. The recent events in Colombia are part of that pattern and follow on from a wave of protests against austerity and other ‘social outbursts’ (estallidos sociales) in opposition to neoliberal economic policies in both Chile and Colombia in 2019.10

Wider demands

Duque’s tax reform is more than a symbolic issue, around which protests can mobilise: it graphically encapsulates the obscene social and economic inequalities between a small elite of capitalists and landowners, and the mass of the Colombian people.

As the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean recently reported, in Latin America the richest 10% own 71% of the wealth and pay only 5.4% in income tax. In Colombia, the richest one percent owns a little more, but pays a lot less in tax.11 The proposed tax changes were designed to increase taxes on wages and consumption, while lessening the corporate fiscal burden in line with the government’s aggressively free-market and pro-capitalist policies.12 Moreover, the tax ‘reform’ was part of a much larger package designed to reduce state deficits, increase government revenue and stabilise the government’s finances to regain the confidence of foreign investors and lenders.13

In this, as in other aspects of economic and social policy, the Duque government continues the close adherence to the so-called ‘Washington consensus’, previously promoted by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. This strategy entails fiscal discipline, austerity, financial and trade liberalisation, the encouragement of foreign direct investment and cuts in public spending, and was the hallmark of Duque’s political mentor, Álvaro Uribe, who was in government between 2002 and 2010.14 Although Duque was forced to withdraw his reforms and his finance minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, resigned in an effort to placate the opposition, it seems unlikely that either the government or the Colombian ruling class in general will radically change their strategy of making the working class and the rural poor pay for the crisis.15

However, the May 12 general strike could be a turning point that may force some further concessions from the regime. Leading establishment figures have been surprised by the extent and duration of the protests that have successfully brought together a wide range of groups in opposition to the government. The first sign of a possible stepping back by the Duque government was a meeting on May 10 between the president and leaders of the protests, along with representatives from the UN and the Catholic church, but the discussions were inconclusive. The government said they were “exploratory” and designed to create “an environment of listening and respect … [and result in] the willingness to create a space to reach deals”. The president of the CUT, Francisco Maltés, said there had been no meeting of minds and that “there was not any empathy from the government with the reasons, with the demands that have taken us to this national strike”. Student leader Jennifer Pedraza compared the meeting to talks held after the protests in 2019, which had also achieved nothing. She added that “the discourse of president Iván Duque was permissive toward the excesses of the security forces”.16

Given the record of the Duque government, it clearly will not hesitate to crush the opposition through force and intimidation, if it senses the leadership of the protests is weakening in any way. As it stands at the moment, the state certainly has all the armed bodies of men it needs. Not only does it have the usual complement of troops and police, but it also has at its disposal a variety of paramilitary groups, linked to politicians and landowners, with a long, bloody record of murder of working class militants and peasant leaders who dared to challenge the capitalists and the ranchers.17

The experience of the army’s long war against the 50-year insurgency of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), ended by a ceasefire and the beginnings of a ‘peace process’ in 2016, will also stand it in good stead for further violent suppression of any opposition.18 Extra-judicial state murders and ‘disappearances’ of activists have continued since the 2016 ceasefire and show that Duque’s authoritarian threats to impose martial law and crack down on the protests are not idle.19 The army - one of the key elements in any revolutionary situation - remains loyal to the regime: its ranks show no signs, as yet, of splitting and going over to the side of the protestors.

Despite the violent response of the state, after two weeks of strikes, protests and state murders the movement shows no signs of receding. The leaders of the protests, like Maltés of the CUT, seem to be carried along by events in the streets and the continued militancy of the mass movement, whilst the demands of the protestors are going beyond the immediate issues of taxation and are now being linked to social and educational reforms, as well as the resignation of the government.20

However, the organisation of the movement still seems inchoate and in the early stages of development, and, as yet, no significant political forces on the left have emerged to generalise this struggle beyond the level of protest by raising a programme of democratic and socialist demands. The situation is finely poised, and much will turn on the outcome of the eagerly awaited general strike on May 12.

If the protests can be spread beyond the cities and even further into the countryside, linking the struggles of the peasant farmers with those of the urban workers, and if the movement can undermine the discipline of the army and win significant sections of the rank and file over to its side, the days of Duque’s regime must indeed surely be numbered.

  1. channel4.com/news/dozens-dead-as-anti-government-protests-sweep-colombia; see also france24.com/en/americas/20210512-death-toll-from-colombia-protests-rises-to-42-reports-human-rights-investigator.↩︎

  2. ft.com/content/eedc1ffb-3fd4-4da3-96f6-755d72cc01ae.↩︎

  3. cut.org.co.↩︎

  4. france24.com/en/live-news/20210507-indigenous-colombians-topple-conquistador-statue-in-capital;


  5. commondreams.org/news/2021/05/05/sos-has-sounded-colombia-rights-groups-blast-deadly-repression-national-strike. See also instagram.com/p/COfrhM2iTvZ; twitter.com/kimmed505; facebook.com/1061230966/videos/pcb.10221017325677107/10221017348237671.↩︎

  6. theguardian.com/global-development/2021/may/03/colombia-protests-police-response-unrest.↩︎

  7. amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/05/colombia-preocupan-las-denuncias-de-desapariciones-y-violencia-sexual-contra-manifestantes. See also elespectador.com/noticias/nacional/paro-nacional-denuncian-detencion-de-defensor-de-derechos-humanos-en-piedecuesta.↩︎

  8. itfglobal.org/en/news/shocking-police-violence-and-repression-in-colombia-must-stop.↩︎

  9. thenationalnews.com/world/the-americas/calls-for-calm-after-deadly-clampdown-on-colombia-protests-1.1217160.↩︎

  10. jacobinmag.com/2019/12/colombia-protests-paro-nacional-ivan-duque-farc.↩︎

  11. Figures quoted by Jacobin magazine: jacobinmag.com/2021/04/colombia-protest-ivan-duque-tax-reform-neoliberalism-general-strike.↩︎

  12. economist.com/the-americas/2021/05/06/protests-in-colombia-derail-an-important-tax-reform.↩︎

  13. jacobinmag.com/2021/04/colombia-protest-ivan-duque-tax-reform-neoliberalism-general-strike.↩︎

  14. ft.com/content/3d8d2270-1533-4c88-a6e3-cf14456b353b.↩︎

  15. dw.com/en/colombia-finance-minister-resigns-after-protests-against-tax-reform/a-57418516.↩︎

  16. reuters.com/world/americas/colombias-duque-recognizes-protesters-concerns-after-cali-violence-2021-05-10; youtu.be/y7G8_DFsV1o.↩︎

  17. theguardian.com/global-development/2020/oct/08/colombia-activists-murder-amnesty-international.↩︎

  18. independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/colombia-civil-war-government-farc-ceasefire-south-america-conflict-guerilla-a7099021.html.↩︎

  19. jacobinmag.com/2021/04/colombia-protest-ivan-duque-tax-reform-neoliberalism-general-strike.↩︎

  20. eu.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/world/2021/05/12/colombia-protesters-face-police-brutality-we-want-world-see/5020717001.↩︎