The popular forces of Colombia have been at odds with the forces of their state for decades. Yet this year on May Day, crowds of people mobilized not in opposition to their government but in support of its labor reforms and efforts to produce a lasting peace. Swept into power last year in the aftermath of a popular uprising, President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez have prioritized an agenda to reform the country and build power for working people and oppressed groups such as Afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples. While conservative elements continue to obstruct this agenda from within the state, the new administration is turning to popular mobilizations such as the ones on May Day to sustain momentum. TRNN reports on May Day from Cali, Colombia, one of the cities hit hardest by the crackdown against anti-government protests in 2021 by the previous Ivan Duque administration.
This story, with the support of the Bertha Foundation, is part of The Real News Network’s Workers of the World series, telling the stories of workers around the globe building collective power and redefining the future of work on their own terms.
Producer: Nick MacWilliam
Videographer: Nick MacWilliam
Video editors: Leo Erhardt
Francia Márquez, Vice President of Colombia (speech): Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez are here for you, governing this country!
Petro. All workers are with him because he sticks up for the working class, a man of the people, for the people and with the people.
Nick MacWilliam (narrator): On the 1st of May, workers in Colombia marked International Workers Day for the first time under a left-wing government following last year’s election of President Gustavo Petro. In the city of Cali, trade unions and social organisations led the traditional march. Unlike previous May Day marches, this was a show of support for the government.
Petro, Petro, Petro!
We’re here supporting him, I hope he’ll keep his word. We’re supporting the reforms and demands of the people.
After 200 years of slavery, the people have achieved a transformation to social justice.
Wilson Saenz, CUT Trade Union Federation, Valle del Cauca (interview): We’ve given total support to the government of Gustavo Petro y Francia Márquez, taking into account that their campaign presented a political project which offers a process of change for the people. We’re supporting reforms that are necessary to help us recover what right-wing governments have taken from workers and social sectors over the last thirty years.
Nick MacWilliam (narrator): Planned labour reforms have raised hopes of better conditions for Colombian workers. Key policies include improving job security, recognition of domestic work and an end to outsourcing. But amid a divided congress, there are obstacles to passing the proposals into law.
Valentina Peralta, SUTEV Teachers’ Trade Union (interview): The reforms aim to return certain benefits that were lost over twenty years ago, to recognize workers who work nights, and to guarantee job stability for workers. We’re also reclaiming the rights of the people and giving support to approval of the reforms as they are beneficial to the Colombian people.
Alfredo Mondragón, Congress member, Historic Pact Governing Coalition (interview): It makes me very happy to see people out with hope today because the country needs hope and social reforms to overcome years of neoliberalism.
Nick MacWilliam (narrator): Guarantees for trade unionists are also high on the agenda. Under successive right-wing governments, Colombia has been the world’s deadliest country for organised labour, with thousands of trade unionists murdered in recent decades. This is something the current government is working to change.
Valentina Peralta, SUTEV Teachers’ Trade Union (interview): Colombia is a country where to think or act differently is dangerous, particularly for trade unionism.
Nick MacWilliam (narrator): Gustavo Petro’s election campaign prioritized human rights and peacebuilding. Despite the 2016 peace deal with the FARC guerrilla movement, Colombia remains wracked by violence. Human rights observers have registered more than 1,400 social activists and 360 former guerrillas murdered since the agreement.
Darnelly Rodríguez, Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network (interview): Valle del Cauca is among the three or four departments most impacted in Colombia. The situation for social leaders and human rights defenders is still very complicated despite the willingness of some groups to participate in President Petro’s policy of Total Peace.
Nick MacWilliam (narrator): The government seeks dialogue with armed groups to address the violence. This initiative, known as Total Peace, is backed by unions, social organisations and conflict victims.
Wilson Saenz, CUT Trade Union Federation, Valle del Cauca (interview): We’re still in an armed conflict because groups outside of the law remain active in the country. Total Peace aims to sit down together to determine what Colombia’s future will look like: peace with social and environmental justice.
Nick MacWilliam (narrator): It also includes full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement following four years of neglect under the previous government.
Natalia Lucio, URAMBA Organization for Social Rights (interview): The Peace Agreement was signed in Havana in 2016 but we’ve seen worsening violence since then, especially of political violence, with killings of social leaders and former guerrilla combatants who signed the peace agreement and who today maintain an iron-clad commitment to implementation of the agreement, as well as to Total Peace.
It is lived, it is felt, the Minga rural movement is present!
We’re demanding dignified housing.
Nick MacWilliam (narrator): The May Day march comes just days after the second anniversary of huge protests over inequality and human rights abuses. Police killed more than 40 young protesters and carried out other abuses such as sexual violence, physical assaults and permanent eye injuries.
For our dead not one minute of silence.
We’re calling for justice for these young people who died during the social explosion
in La Glorieta and at a national level. We won’t tire of demanding justice.
Darnelly Rodríguez, Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network (interview): There are many threats which we’re sure come from the police, particularly in Cali, one of the epicentres of the National Strike protests.
Nick MacWilliam (narrator): At least 180 young people are still in prison. Although Petro wants to free the protesters, their release has been blocked by the attorney general. The repression was worse in Cali than anywhere else in the country.
We’re still fighting today, the first of May, standing up to fight, as you can see, it’s a river of people. Cali is the capital of resistance!
Francia Márquez, Vice President of Colombia (speech): Today, workers must go out to defend the labor reform.
Nick MacWilliam (narrator): Colombia’s Vice President Francia Márquez gave a speech calling for solidarity between government and people. Elected alongside Petro last year, Márquez is a long-time human rights and environmental defender who has faced multiple threats, including since taking office. As a social activist now governing in a country where social activists are murdered so frequently, her position exemplifies the change underway in Colombia.
Francia Márquez, Vice President of Colombia (speech): We will no longer tolerate leader who continue imposing the neoliberal model which has condemned the Colombian people to death. We want fair, equal and dignified salaries for women in this country. We want nobody to face job discrimination. Many people were horribly murdered, while others had their eyes taken or were sent to prison. And what are the people doing today? Today, we are with you and we will not forget you. I am not afraid to say it here, long live the Front Line resistance! Long live Cali, damn it! Long live the labor reform and long live the health reform! Long live the pension reform! The people do not surrender, damn it!
Nick MacWilliam (narrator): The Petro government faces a massive task to tackle inequality and violence. With only four years in office, the government must move quickly to put its plans into practice.
Darnelly Rodríguez, Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network (interview): There I think the government’s main challenge is to enter dialogue with armed groups, as well as to implement measures and policies to truly guarantee the exercise of social leadership and the defense of human rights.
Natalia Lucio, URAMBA Organization for Social Rights (interview): They need to continue ensuring decent conditions for workers, not only in the formal sector but also for people forced to work informally and in domestic care, which is a form of invisible work. This is important as it always accompanies the human rights agenda. The right to work is a human right.
For water, for decent housing.
Where are you from?
I am from Cali, I am from Cali.
We’re commemorating Workers’ Day and I am a worker. He is our President, elected by the Colombian people.
Nick MacWilliam (narrator): Although challenges lie ahead, many people are standing – or marching – behind its efforts to advance lasting peace and social justice in Colombia.