Latin America

"Stopping in order to move forward": the popular revolt against Duque grows stronger

After a week of protests, thousands of Colombians take to the streets again against poverty and police violence

Rosa Pérez Masdeu / Rodrigo Sedano Saiz
4 min
A demonstrator ddavant a riot police vehicle during clashes at the protest against the government of President Ivan Duque at Bolivar Square in Bogota

Bogotà"How does it feel to fill empty stomachs with the cold of a rifle?" wrote Laura Sofia, a journalism student, in red on black on her banner. "In this country, to eat we have more bullets than food", she justifies. Recently Noticias Caracol leaked the Colombian government's intention to buy 24 military planes for 4.5 billion dollars, a third of what the tax reform that triggered the National Strike on 28 April was intended to raise.

On Sunday, Colombian President Ivan Duque announced that he was withdrawing the tax reform, and on Monday the finance minister who had pushed it through, Alberto Carrasquilla, resigned. But the strike is no longer about this alone, but about the poverty that affects 40% of the country (according to DANE), the widespread corruption that prevents people from believing in the state and the people who have died during the first week of protests: 24 according to the Ombudsman's Office, 37 according to the NGO Temblores.

Two policemen during the big demonstration against poverty and police repression in Bogota, on 5 May, 2021.

The repressive violence of the security forces has provoked fear, but also indignation. In the Colombian capital alone, there were dozens of demonstrations. The main one, in the National Park heading north on Carrera Séptima. It was filled with messages like "Uribe, Duque, stop the massacre", "Mom, if I don't get home the state has killed me".

At the intersection with Calle 60, Pablo, a sociology student, explains: "Colombia has been at war since it was formed, but we have divided into green and red zones. Most urban areas, like Bogotá, are artificial bubbles that the government and the media use to sell a false social peace. That's why the fact that the conflict is exploding here, in the city, and that the aggressiveness of the repression is so visible, delegitimises the government even more", he says.

Maria Fernanda, a friend of Pablo's, complains about the "traditional" media coverage, which focuses on the cost of the vandalism and on fomenting panic. Recently, Radio Cadena Nacional (RCN) television news recently sparked viral outrage: they passed off a demonstration in Cali, the country's most repressed and militarized city, as a celebration of the withdrawal of the tax reform. Like many young people, Maria Fernanda follows what is happening in other parts of the city and the country through instagram accounts. But she agrees with a sign pasted on a facade on Carrera Séptima: "Don't cry on the networks what you don't fight in the streets".

"We have to take to the streets, despite everything", reaffirms Queraldín Gil, still dressed in her blue hospital uniform. "The pandemic stopped the 2019 movement and has dramatically worsened the economic situation of many people, it can't be the reason to stay at home. In addition, everything is related, in this country if you don't have resources you don't have health care", she sentences standing at one end of the Parque de los Hippies.

Street vendors sell scarves with "I support the strike" and Colombian flags for five thousand pesos, a little more than one euro. Four girls write "We Resist" on the ground in yellow, blue and red. "The flag is the only symbol that unites us and belongs to the people. It's a way of saying that we are here for everyone", explains Natalia, an industrial engineering student. "My father took us by car today, but he was very afraid that they would give the order to shoot us", says her friend Daniela.

Clash between demonstrators and riot police during the protest against the government of President Ivan Duque in Bolivar Square in Bogota, Colombia

A graffiti occupies the centre of the square: it is a cheese-like map of the country, devoured by red-eyed rodents. The title of the work is Gobierno de ratas (Rats' government). It was painted a week ago and every day a dozen urban artists restore it from the damage caused by the daily rain. The same rain that at about one o'clock in the afternoon forces to interrupt the route.

Instead of scattering, those present found refuge under the roof of a petrol station, which turned into a party animated by drums and trumpets. The cumbia Colombia patria querida, essential songs such as Bella ciao and chants against the government can be heard: "Uribe, paraco hijodeputa" ("Uribe, paramilitary son of a bitch"), "Que lo vengan a ver, que lo vengan a ver, esto no es un gobierno, son los paracos en el poder" ("Let them come to see this, this is not a government, these are paramilitaries in power"), or "Parar para avanzar, viva el Paro Nacional" ("Stopping in order to move forward, long live the national strike").

It stops raining and the pace picks up again. Thousands of people arrive at the Los Héroes monument, presided over by a statue of Simón Bolívar, who today wears a national flag around his neck. Night falls and the police repress the demonstration with tear gas and explosive grenades.

The Duque government and former President Alvaro Uribe justify the militarisation of the country and the repression of the protests by the alleged presence of guerrillas. A discourse that feeds the potential intervention of paramilitary groups. "The right wing always uses the guerrillas to criminalise protests and foment fear", says Santiago Pachón, a 25-year-old audiovisual producer, as he leaves the demonstration.

A policeman loads his gun with tear gas during clashes after a protest against police brutality amid a nationwide strike in Colombia

Unions, opposition and social organizations have rejected Duque's proposal to "initiate a national dialogue" until the country is demilitarised. With no fixed date for the end of the protests and uncertain about the level of state repression, the NGO Temblores has so far recorded 37 deaths, 831 arbitrary arrests, 22 victims of assaults on the eyes and 10 victims of sexual violence by the security forces.