Colombia’s national strike

Text and photos by Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

On Friday 22nd of November a curfew came into effect and troops were deployed on the streets, here in Bogota. It was the first time since September 1977 that a curfew had been imposed on the city. The decision was a cynical pre-planned exercise by the state. Some days prior to it, troops had been seen patrolling the city, to get the populace accustomed to it. The move came on the second day of national protests that had been organised in response to Duque’s package of assaults on the rights of workers.

Duque’s package tramples on the rights and conditions of Colombian workers. Amongst the measures is a proposal to increase the retirement age to 67, to introduce hourly contracts and changes to the pension contributions made by workers. He has proposed to increase the workers’ share of contributions and also to allow for the contributions to be made according to the hours worked and not weeks as currently stands. It is nigh on impossible for many workers to meet the almost 25 years of pension contributions required to retire in Colombia. Now with the hourly contributions and contracts it will be impossible for all but the older workers who have already contributed over 20 years in payments. He also proposed to reduce the wages of youths to 75% of the minimum salary.

His proposal met with hostility from many sectors and his disdain for the children murdered in the bombing of a FARC dissident camp, added fuel to flame. He was confronted by a journalist about the killings at a social event and his response was “What are you talking about pal?” For the strike on Thursday 21st, many banners alluded to this, with slogans such as “More Education, Less Repression, That’s What We Are Talking About” or “On The 21st You Will Know What We Are Talking About”.

The repression of the protests began before the protests themselves, with house raids and arrests on trumped up charges across the country. On the day itself the marches were jovial, good humoured with artists participating, even children. When the marches reached Bolívar Square there was no sign of violence, but it was then attacked by the riot squad. In the midst of mayhem an attempt was made to set the Mayor’s Office on fire. There are indications that the person involved was actually an undercover police officer. There is precedence for this in Colombia. In the recent student protests the Educational Credit Agency (ICETEX) was set on fire by masked demonstrators, however, ten police officers are under investigation for this incident.

The following day on Friday a Cacerolazo, the banging of pots and pans, was called for in Bolívar Square. The attendance at it was massive, but once the square began to fill up, the police attacked it again, setting off further rioting and then the state swung in with its predictable planned-for response. A ban on alcohol sales, even though alcohol played no role in anything, a curfew and the deployment of troops to the streets. However, in various parts of the city people came out on to streets banging pots and pans, even managing to do so in front of the private residence of Duque in the north of Bogotá.

The media, for their part, did what was expected of them, falsifying accounts of violence and ignoring all the video evidence of police violence against, not only protesters but also bystanders, one of whom has died from injuries received. They also conveniently ignored many videos of the police dropping off vandals at peoples houses to wreck them and create an atmosphere of fear to later turn up as the saviours, without arresting the vandals or arresting them to only release them further down the street. One of the vandals was caught by the community and said the police had paid him about 15 US dollars for the night. In another video cops can be seen feigning challenging looters, when one of them falls, the cop walks over and pats him on the head. You couldn’t make it up.

The question arises as to what now. Senator Gustavo Petro declared that the strike should go on for various days, but this was dismissed by some in the trade union bureaucracy as opportunistic. There is no doubt that Petro can be opportunistic but he is right, it needs to go on and the students and younger workers who came out on Friday understand this. Just as Duque is slipping and sliding and calling for a national dialogue, part of the trade union movement comes to the rescue and, rather than pile on the pressure, they want to ease up and have stated they have to wait till they meet with Duque rather than force him to come crawling to them. However, the teachers’ union has said the strike goes on.

As I write this a young man’s life is in the balance having been shot in the head in the centre of Bogotá by the riot squad. He is not the only serious injury, in Pasto, in the south of the country, the riot squad killed a student by running over him with a armoured personnel carrier. It will no doubt fan the flames. The strike committee has said it will meet on Tuesday to decide on what further actions will be taken by them. However, today Saturday 23rd, the youths are taking the matter into their own hands and marching and protesting. The cacerolazos continue around the country.

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