In the United States, today is the day that we celebrate and remember the life, teachings, and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps more than anyone else in US consciousness, Dr. King embodies the ethic of nonviolence. Like King, our Colombian partners understand that nonviolence is not passive. It is active and risky, requiring discipline and courage. The protests that are happening in Colombia are very much in line with King’s understanding that “riots are the language of the unheard,” and while the strike and protests have been largely peaceful, they have been met with violence from the national government.
There were historic protests in Colombia at the end of 2019 that began on November 21. They took a break for Christmas, but there are plans to restart the strike tomorrow, January 21, 2020.
“For those of us in Colombia who believe in and work for peace, who accompany victims of the violence, what is happening is a sign from God,” wrote Germán Zárate, Colombian Coordinator of the Accompaniment Program, in December. “That is to say that little by little the people, those at the margins of society, are getting tired of being deceived, and little by little they are realizing that to fight with those who have weapons–be it the government or insurgent groups–with the same means doesn’t bring about anything new. They are finding new forms of protest that appeal to common sense and intelligence more than the use of force.”*
President Ivan Duque, a right-wing candidate who ran on the platform of undoing the 2016 Peace Accords, took office in 2018. Since shortly after his inauguration, much of Colombia has been unhappy with his administration, especially rural Colombians who experienced the most violence and displacement at the hands of paramilitaries and government forces during the six-decades of civil war.
But the anger from civilians is not only about how poorly the government is doing in helping implement the Peace Accords that came after six decades of civil armed conflict. Underlying the conflict is massive inequality in Colombia. Now that the war is officially over, this fact of inequality, which has been an ongoing reality, is no longer masked by the armed conflict and it is more apparent than ever to Colombians that there can be no real peace as long as inequality, poverty, and injustice exists, even if everyone has put down their arms (and it’s important to note here that the Peace Accords only required that the FARC guerillas disarm, but the Colombian military and the paramilitaries that still exist and rule much of Colombia are very much armed).
The protests that began in November 2019 were initially led by one of the largest labor unions in Colombia, but the supporters of the strikes include students, women, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, environmentalists, and more. The strikes began in response to a plan announced by Duque’s administration that would gut the pension program and lower the national minimum wage for Colombians under 28 years old. Colombians have the right to peaceful protest, and the protestors themselves were peaceful, but (as we see in places around the world, including the US), the police responded with violence and repression. A 23-year-old named Dylan Cruz died after injuries inflicted by the riot police (ESMAD).
Several Colombians I have spoken with in the past few days (while I’m in Bogotá for a workshop on accompaniment of human rights defenders convened by Nonviolent Peaceforce) have credited the protests in Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, and other Latin American countries with inspiring Colombians to also take to the streets for days at a time in cities around Colombia to hold their government accountable. In the past, they said, Colombia has held strikes for one day, but these days-long protests that they say will begin again next week, are historic.
At the beginning of the strike, PPF, along with 33 other US organizations and several academic leaders, signed a letter of support for the protests. We will continue to support Colombian civil society as they begin the protests again on January 21 and do what we can to pressure the Colombian government to refrain from using force against protesters as they seek to bring more justice and equality in their country.
*Original quote from Germán: “Para nosotros en Colombia, para quienes creemos y trabajamos por la paz, para quienes acompañamos a las víctimas de la violencia, lo que está pasando es una señal de Dios. Es decir, que poco a poco el pueblo, la gente de la base, se está cansando de ser engañada y poco a poco va entendiendo que ponerse a pelear de igual a igual con quienes tienen las armas, ya sea el mismo gobierno o los grupos insurgentes, no produce nada nuevo. Se están encontrando nuevas formas de protesta que apelan más al sentido común y a la inteligencia que al uso de la fuerza.”