Colombia’s anti-capitalist rebellion

June 1, 2021
Protester in Bogota on May 31. Photo: @Col_Informa/Twitter

Colombia has been burning with the flames of resistance ever since a national strike began on April 28.

The impetus for the large-scale demonstrations came from a regressive tax reform. The Colombian state introduced the tax bill to drive down its rising fiscal deficit, which could reach 10% of GDP this year. On top of this, the tight integration of the Colombian economy into the architecture of imperialism has resulted in an external debt of $156,834,000,000 (51.8% of GDP, projected to rise to 62.8%).

Someone had to pay for this crisis and the ruling class had no interest in doing so. This was demonstrated when the finance minister ignored the recommendations made by the state-appointed expert committee to tax the highest earners first. The attempt to make workers and the middle class pay for the crisis was the spark that ignited people’s accumulated rage.

The movement slowly spread into the larger questions of political economy, openly confronting the structural barbarity of a glaciated plutocracy. This plutocracy has blood on its hands; it has amassed obscene amounts of wealth by relentlessly mowing down the resistance of the oppressed.

Entrenched violence

The modern history of Colombia is enveloped in vapours of violence.

From 1948 to 1958, the country was the scene of some of the most intense, protracted and widespread violence of the 20th century. In this period, a civil war — “The Violence” — between Liberal and Conservative parties took 200,000 lives.

To bring an end to civil war, the Conservatives and Liberals made a political pact in 1958 — known as the National Front (NF) — which established that the presidency would alternate between the two parties for 16 years and all positions in the three branches of government would be distributed evenly between them. Despite this, violence continued until 1966.

The NF barred the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) from the conventional political process in 1955, to ensure that its rising popularity was curtailed. In this way, the NF helped in the alternation of power between the different factions of the Colombian elite, while strengthening the armed forces to suppress popular reforms.

After the civil war, capital accumulation consolidated, agribusiness interests grew stronger and land-ownership more concentrated. Suffocated by the brutal vehemence of blood-tainted profit-making and hamstrung by the closure of traditional channels of opposition, the PCC formed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - People’s Army (FARC-EP) on May 27, 1964, as its armed wing.

Between 1984 and 1988, the FARC-EP agreed to a ceasefire with then-President Belisario Betancur, and many of its militants opted for electoral politics by forming a mass-based political party, the Patriotic Union (UP).

The UP gained 12 elected congressional members, 21 representatives to departmental assemblies, 170 members of city councils and 335 municipal councilors. Before, during and after scoring these substantial electoral victories in local, state and national elections, military-backed death squads murdered three of the UP’s presidential candidates.

More than 5000 legal electoral activists were killed. The FARC-EP was forced to return to armed opposition because of regime-sponsored mass terrorism. Between 1985 and 2008, tens of thousands of peasant leaders, trade unionists, human rights activists, neighbourhood leaders, journalists, lawyers and congresspeople were killed, jailed or driven into exile.

Whenever ordinary Colombians stood up for life, the governing political caste and the ruling economic class systematically tapped into the vast power of state terror to chop off any hope for a better future.

Even today, the same practice of deploying ever greater amounts of violence continues. Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco believes the protests in Colombia have seen a level of police violence previously unknown in Latin America. He claimed that on the continent he has never seen “tanks firing multiple rounds of tear gas projectiles, among other things, horizontally at demonstrators at high speed. A most dangerous practice”.

US support

The elite’s construction of a repressive apparatus has been fundamentally aided by the US Empire. Colombia has been witness to a US-sponsored counter-insurgent nation-building project aimed at contesting the rapid expansion of rural guerrillas on Colombia’s endless coca frontier, its mining and energy frontiers, its agro-industrial frontiers, and into most of its towns and even cities. This project has turned out to be purely destructive.

By the end of the 1990s, there were more than 400 paramilitary massacres annually. Enter US-backed Plan Colombia, ostensibly designed to cut cocaine production in half: 80% of it went to the police and armed forces, who worked with the paramilitaries against the FARC, or, more often, against the people who lived in areas where guerrillas were active. From 2006 to 2010, the  armed forces disappeared more than 10,000 civilians and disguised them as guerrilla kills to boost the body count.

Propped up by a bloated, national security state, the political class became totally dysfunctional; making no move to implement the 1991 constitution, whose provisions on indigenous autonomy became dead letters. Such was the mockery of the electorate’s existence that the passage of the constitution was preceded by record numbers of indigenous deaths.

The war machine’s dispossession, disappearance, torture and massacre of indigenous people left no community untouched. The Afro-Colombians in the Pacific, who had secured collective land title in 1993, following the indigenous model of autonomy through communal land tenure, suddenly found themselves in the thick of death and destruction, as their lands were coveted by mining and logging companies as well as drug traffickers-cum-ranchers-cum-paramilitaries.

Today, Colombia continues to be the stooge of the US, being the largest recipient of US foreign aid in Latin America, and the largest outside of the Middle East.

US Congress appropriated more than US$460 million in foreign aid in 2020, with most of the funds directed towards “peace and security”, which includes providing training and equipment to security forces. This translated into the build-up of huge police and military forces that are unleashed against the civilian population whenever the need comes to enforce the neoliberal model.

Continued resistance

The government and FARC-EP signed a peace agreement in November, 2016, the “Final Agreement for Ending the Conflict and Building a Stable and Lasting Peace”. However, this promise of peace has proven to be full of contradictory tensions.

Insecurity and inequality continue unabated, despite the promise of stability, inclusiveness and state responsiveness. There can be little prospect of a meaningful or sustainable peace if large sections of society remain vulnerable to violence, insecurity, injustice and other harms.

However, an entirely elitist architecture of governance has been a part and parcel of Colombia’s history.  Whether it is conflict or “peace”, all types of political periods have been utilised by the agribusinesses and extractive industries, large-scale landowners and rural elites to enrich themselves. Meanwhile, the marginalised have been exposed to further violence and insecurity.

The calcified cruelty of this system reached such a level that the subjugated pole could no longer keep quiet; it had to take to the streets to reassert its right to live with dignity.

Since Ivan Duque came to power in 2018, Colombians have led fierce social struggles: student-led demonstrations against corruption and state terror over three months in 2018; a nationwide strike of teachers, students, farmers and pensioners in support of public education and pensions in April 2019; “March for Life” demonstrations by students and teachers in response to escalation in assassinations of activists and opposition politicians by neo-paramilitaries and police in July 2019; nationwide general strikes against austerity and the cover-up of a military-led bombing campaign that killed at least eight children in the department of Caquetá; and mass demonstrations against police violence that erupted during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in September last year.

In the current conjuncture, resistance will continue as the heavy fist of neoliberal authoritarianism disrupts the existence of the majority of the people.

[Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India, and can be contacted at]

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