2013: The year of social protest and repression in Colombia (Pt 1)

(Photo: Marcha Patriotica)

How do people get what they want from their governments? Some simply lobby for what they want. These people may include those with high positions of power, such as politicians, companies’ CEOs, trade unions with high political influence and other wealthy sectors of the population.

Picture, for instance, that Colombian Congress members received an approximately 4,000 dollar Christmas premium last October 4. The President authorized such a payment because Congress members’ salaries had been cut twice throughout the year and Congress was unwilling to discuss and vote on important laws in the legislative agenda. Needless to say, Congress was rewarded for not doing its job. Left-leaning House Representative Iván Cepeda said the raise was “an unjustified and unnecessary privilege.”

But what happens with the people who lack direct access to power?

The same week Congress members saw their paychecks rise, a group of state employed caregivers protested in Bogotá’s major square because the government had not given them minimal work benefits such as labor protections and social security. Known as “community mothers,” these women raise and educate disadvantaged children in the country’s poorest neighborhoods and only get old-age subsidies every two months instead of being covered by a lawful pension regime. “Just like the President hands in premiums to Congress, why can’t he come and deal with our demands,” they wondered.

The community mothers are only one example of a politically marginal population. Lack of direct access to power can take many forms, including a waged-worker in an industry with poor labor practices, a rural worker in an area lacking the most basic social services, and an indigenous tribe that sees their territory increasingly occupied by military officials who care more about protecting companies’ interests than Colombian people.

So, what do people with little access to power and decision-making do to get what they want from their governments?

They take to the streets and protest. And they protest vividly.

In fact, 2013 has been the year of social protests in Colombia. As such, this article pays homage to people’s mobilizations by reviewing the major social protests in the past year. It is important for the international community to learn about the reasons behind so much unrest, dissidence and repression in a country generally considered the oldest democracy in Latin America.

Protests: their demands and legitimate grievances

Community mothers, miners, coffee growers, other rural workers, truck drivers, doctors and health professionals, students, and others took to the streets to demand attention and change in the policies that affected them most. Some protests received more attention than others, but most confronted violent state repression. Despite the different actors, demands, effects and repressions, the indisputable conclusion is that social protest in Colombia has become a widespread tool for democratic participation. Most importantly, protest as a democratic tool is likely to stay and strengthen as injustice remains.

The small-scale mining sector played an important role this year. 2013 began with coal miners in Guajira striking for better wages and improved working conditions, followed by miners throughout the country who mobilized to show their guild’s importance later in July. These miners protested Colombia’s national policy of favoring multinationals over artisanal miners’ interests and the potential devastation in their hometowns due to large-scale mining techniques. In fact, the incidence of social protests against large-scale mining has increased in the past decade and has received support from populations outside the small-scale mining industry (See CINEP study). Despite the repression, the organized national protest signaled upcoming resistance from the mining guild, which faces an avalanche of social conflicts as large-scale mining takes over their territories. Only last week, a community leader outspokenly opposed to open-pit mining was shot dead close to his home in Tolima.

Rural workers also played a major role in protesting this year. In March, peasants from the state-abandoned region of Catatumbo protested governmental negligence and regressive policies. The government had promised to establish a special reservation area for rural workers to increase their living standards and set up a set of technical studies to do so. A year later, the state failed to finalize the process, and used the technical studies’ findings to promote megaprojects in the region instead (mostly oil extraction). The protesters also condemned the decades-long policy of aerial coca-leaf eradication, which has criminalized peasants, damaged legal crops and deteriorated the local population’s health. Perhaps the bloodiest, the Catatumbo uprisings resulted in four protesters dead and many more injured. The special reservation and the responsibility behind the deaths have not been established.

The most emblematic and widespread protest of the year began on August 19th, when several campesino organizations, student movements and common citizens took on Colombia’s streets to protest the harsh economic and political conditions that agricultural workers experience on a daily basis (See emblematic video). These movements demanded more governmental assistance in the face of a poorly negotiated and detrimental US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and improved compensation for those who grow the food we eat daily. Known as the “Agrarian Strike,” the August protests blocked multiple roads in various regions and tested the government’s ability to cope with civil disobedience. Such was the magnitude of the mobilization that President Juan Manuel Santos (questionably) ordered the militarization of Bogota on August 30. Unfortunately, police were brutal, people died (12 according to protest organizers) and some damaged public and private infrastructure.

Finally, indigenous movements convened a “Minga Indígena” on October 12th to demand government responses to a set of issues that have compromised their autonomy, which the national constitution and international legal instruments protect. In conjunction with student and Afro-descendant organizations, the Minga sought presidential responses to the fact that not even 30% of the land promised to indigenous peoples in Cauca had been delivered to them. Similarly, the groups demanded changes in the mining and energy extraction policy and indigenous inclusion in peace negotiation agreements.

The armed conflict has allowed the government to treat indigenous peoples as a scapegoat: the state continuously bombs indigenous lands claiming to be persecuting insurgent groups. It’s real intention, though, is to secure and depopulate territories for extracting industries. The indigenous groups have also been accused of aiding the FARC, a claim that has stigmatized their legitimate protests and produced death threats against the demonstrators. In fact, Amnesty International warned about paramilitary groups threatening protesters of “social cleansing,” since the right-wing illegal armed groups regard the indigenous protesters as “cannon fodder” by the FARC guerilla. Amnesty also reported that the riots police repressed the mobilization by wounding 60 people, 16 with serious injuries and preventing injured demonstrators from receiving medical treatment for several hours.

All of these massive protests evidence popular discontent with the way the government treats populations and designs public policies related to mining, agricultural production and land use and management. People are angry about oppressive policies that favor those with direct access to power and harm the hard-working rest. People are also indignant about the lack of formal participation channels. That is why they have taken to the streets and even resisted violent repression. The human cost has been invaluable, as tenths have died and thousands have been injured, but the tenacity of these demonstrations shows people are ready to fight for their rights and eager for change.

Social protest as democratic participation

Colombia has experienced an approximately 50 percent voter abstention since 1998. Clearly, the vibrancy of Colombian democracy is not in the voting polls; it is in the streets. Social movements use protests to express their dissatisfaction with policies and laws and demand change, attention and justice. Protests are not ideal in themselves, but they are the means by which people with no direct access to power and decision-making make their opinions visible and demand their rights to be respected.

The absolute ideal would be an egalitarian power structure that abolishes exploitation, oppression and promotes liberation for all Colombians. Yet, under our current existing conditions, where Congress members get easy money for not doing their job, while community mothers do not even get labor protections for their hard work, social protest is the most sensible means to achieve the democratic dream and access government benefits. For these reasons, social protest must be protected.

2013 has been the year of an unprecedented number of protests in Colombia. Though, this year might not be the last one to see such an increase in the multiplicity of actors and the number of protest participants. 2013 may just be the beginning of deep and widespread democratic practices.

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