Against all odds, the Colombian people have succeeded these recent weeks in mounting the biggest challenge to the country’s ruling class in living memory.
Since April 28, Colombia has been rocked by mass protests—and excessive police and military repression. The government’s human rights office acknowledges the deaths of at least 42 protesters and one policeman, but independent groups put the toll much higher.
Protests began because of an ill-conceived plan to raises taxes on working and middle-class people while the COVID pandemic continues to take a huge toll on human lives and the economy. The government backed down and the finance minister quit, but the protests continue because taxes are not the only problem.
The government of Iván Duque, the president who depends on former president Álvaro Uribe for political support, has done little to implement the peace agreement reached in 2016 by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, and the FARC guerrillas. Nor has it pursued talks with the other guerrilla army, the ELN. Some of the once-demobilized FARC fighters have taken up arms again. Killings of social movement leaders, human rights defenders and ex-combatants continue, reaching “shocking levels” in 2020 according to Amnesty International.
Little is done to assist Colombia’s nearly 8 million internally-displaced people to recover land taken from them by paramilitary death squads acting on behalf of large land-owners—the class that Uribe defends most ardently. Ancestors of that group seized control of Colombia in the wake of the independence struggle two centuries ago, and it continues to take land from Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and other small land-holder farmers.
With the pandemic, poverty has worsened—and the government does not address the problem. The UN’s Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimated that 37.5 per cent of Colombia’s population lived below the poverty line by the end of 2020, making it the country with the highest poverty rate in Latin America. The World Bank’s numbers give cause to even greater pessimism: it estimates a poverty rate of 45 per cent.
Trade unions, women’s groups, students, Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and LGBTI groups have all been part of the protests. Churches were slow to speak—and some merely echoed the government’s call for order. But Colombia’s Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church have affirmed the rights of the multitudes to protest. The Evangelical Lutheran Church called on the government to “peacefully listen.”
The Women’s Popular Organization (OFP), a partner of KAIROS Canada, called for political will to implement the peace accords, demilitarization of areas where protests are taking place, and for a “universal basic income for women and families living in poverty.”
Through Common Frontiers, several Canadian allies of Colombian groups issued a joint statement of solidarity with the protests, and called on Canada to press Colombia to dismantle its riot squad (called the ESMAD and held responsible for most of the violence), halt human rights violations, to negotiate with the National Strike Committee, and “engage in a serious dialogue with social and institutional actors to address the deep inequalities which are at the root of this conflict.”
For a few days, the protests garnered worldwide attention. Canada’s foreign affairs minister, Marc Garneau, condemned “the violence, including the disproportionate use of force by security forces.” He went on to express concern about “the acts of vandalism and attacks directed against public officials responsible for the protection of all Colombian citizens. Canada calls upon those responsible for road blockades to allow the free passage of goods and services essential to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.”
When thinking about Colombia today, however, it’s important to bear in mind the falsos positivos, the false positives—6,402 murders carried out during the Uribe presidency. Colombia’s armed forces kidnapped young men from urban barrios, murdered them, dressed them as guerrillas, and then tried to pass them off “successes” in its war on “terrorism.” They’re quite capable of dressing themselves up, acting as vandals, and then blaming the protesters.
While proclaiming support for peace, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed a free trade agreement with Uribe in 2008; opponents (among whom I was one) stalled its implementation until 2011 because it rewards the same thieving class that has ruled Colombia since 1810.
Canada also allows weapons sales to Colombia. The Colombian human rights group CREDHOS, a partner of Peace Brigades International, is calling on Canada to stop technical assistance, logistical or financial support to the Colombian armed forces and police.
“The world is seeing the repression that is happening in Colombia. We call on Canada and other countries to please talk about the violence in Colombia. If there is any sort of military support or technical assistance, please abstain from providing that military aid because they are attacking the civilian population.”
“With due respect to the Canadian government we are asking that through your different actions and mechanisms, diplomatic channels that you have with the Colombian state, that you can speak to the national government and express your concern about systematic human rights violations in the context of the social protests.”
“Hopefully from the actions of the Canadian government and other countries we will be able to de-escalate the violence we are facing today in our country.”
Canada also has a “bilateral police initiative” with Colombia, announced in 2017 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.