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Colombian Students, Unions Mobilize Against Neoliberal Reforms While Government Stalls

November 26, 2019

Hundreds of thousands protested throughout Colombia in the past days against neoliberal reforms and the government's failure to comply with an agreement to increase education funding.

Hundreds of thousands protested throughout Colombia in the past days against neoliberal reforms and the government's failure to comply with an agreement to increase education funding.


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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

After Ecuador, Chile, Haiti, and Bolivia now, Colombians are mobilizing against their conservative neoliberal government. Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets last Thursday in cities across Colombia. Social movements and unions had called for a national strike against the neoliberal reforms that would slash minimum wage, eliminate the right to a pension, privatize state-owned companies and hike electricity rates by as much as 35%. The protests continued on a smaller scale every day since then, as the government imposed a curfew in the cities of Bogota and Cali and sent police to the streets to repress further protests.

On Sunday, the right wing president Iván Duque had tried to preempt further protest by announcing a series of national dialogues with mayors and ordinary citizens. These talks would last until March and would focus on six topics such as economic growth, corruption, education, the environment, and strengthening government institutions. Protest organizers, however, have rejected the president’s proposal out of hand.

Joining me now to discuss the latest developments in Colombia is Forrest Hylton. He’s Associate Professor of History at the National University of Colombia in Medellin. Also, he’s the author of the book Evil Hour in Colombia. Thanks for joining us again, Forrest.

FORREST HYLTON: Thanks for having me, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: So these protests that have been happening seem to be rather diffuse in their demands and what they’re reacting to. I mean, is that impression correct or what can you tell us about their motivations and their demands?

FORREST HYLTON: Well, I think what you have to understand is that there had been a series of a course the Colombian government has signed with different social sectors and it has not obviously complied with those agreements and that’s a big part of what’s at stake right now. So in the second half of 2018, Colombia’s Public University Students waged to successful strike. They won $1.4 million in additional government funding for public higher education in Colombia and an end to the systematic government subsidizing and favoritism towards private universities, right. All of this was set forth on paper and signed by both parties. And yet when it comes to implementation, the Colombian government has been rather slow, and the perception of students is that the government has been dragging its feet.

And one of the most important aspects of the course between students and the Colombian government is the right to protest. And every time that students had tried to protest peacefully, their massive protests and marches are infiltrated by police who they cover their faces and then they incite acts of vandalism or they engage in acts of vandalism. And so after this really successful nationwide strike on November 21st in which sort of students played a really important role because they’ve been sort of galvanizing social protest in the previous month or month and a half, they were met with really excessive force by the anti-riot police.

And so one woman who was kicked in the face on Thursday, November 21st is in the hospital. On Saturday the 23rd, an 18-year-old high school student was shot in the back of the head with a tear gas canister, a tear gas canister. His name is Dylan Cruz, and he is currently in the hospital in a coma. So the right to protest peacefully and democratically is not one that the government of Iván Duque recognizes, And that’s because the Colombian government that Duque inherited is a cold war national security state in which protest and mobilization is seen as subversive.

And for a long time, of course, Colombia had armed insurgencies, the FARC, the ELN, and until 1991, there were various other insurgencies in Colombia as well. And so with the presence of these insurgencies during the cold war, the Colombian government consistently criminalized, stigmatized, and acted violently towards social protest and mobilization in Colombian cities where the majority of Colombians live. So there’s never really been much of an urban left in Colombia. And what there has been of the Left in Colombia has been largely focused for many decades on agrarian conflicts in the countryside, and that’s where the FARC and the ELN and other guerrilla insurgencies had their roots and their basis if you will.

So we’re in a really new conjuncture now after the piece of court signed by the Colombian government and the FARC in November of 2016 where kind of the old script of criminalizing and stigmatizing legitimate, democratic student protest as terrorist or criminal in the cold war mode, doesn’t really work any longer with Colombian public opinion. And students managed to gain for themselves a great deal of legitimacy in their strike during the second half of 2018 precisely through very disciplined nonviolent methods of protest. And to some degree, they’ve been doing the same things since late September, early October. And as I said, they continue to meet with excessive force from the riot police. So I would say that the students are really the most numerous in terms of whose out there in the major cities of Colombia in these marches, in these manifestations. But until now, they have been largely kind of on their own.

And what was remarkable about the strike on November 21st precisely was that all of the different social sectors in Colombia with grievances towards the government or that have accords that are waiting to be implemented, all of those sectors came out together and there was really remarkable coordination, synchronicity, and that goes for mobilization in the countryside as well. And it wasn’t only the cities where people mobilized. So in that sense, you haven’t seen I don’t think anything quite like this in Colombia, maybe since the last great civic strike of 1977. And at that time, of course, the Cold War was really revving up in Central America and indeed throughout the world and the Colombian government very successfully used the Cold War to wage counterinsurgency campaigns against students, professors, trade unionists and peasant leaders at that time in Colombia.

And they can’t do that in the same way anymore, but they don’t have any other script. So what we saw on Friday, on November 22nd was that after a very, very successful strike on Thursday, which ended spontaneously all throughout cities and towns in Colombia where people spontaneously came into the streets banging pots and pans, supporting the strike, and rejecting the use of force against demonstrators. Those continued on Friday and they continued on Saturday and Sunday, as well. And I think we’re likely to see more of that sort of protest in the coming days and throughout the holiday season. I don’t think they’re likely to disappear.

GREG WILPERT: I want to move on to another issue though. As I mentioned, President Iván Duque proposed to engage in a dialogue process that’s supposed to last several months, but unions and social movements have rejected the proposal teams. Why is that?

FORREST HYLTON: Well, because it’s so open-ended. You mentioned the sort of six-thematic axes around which the national conversation is supposed to happen. But what we see in that sense is a real gap in terms of temporality between the thinking of Duque and his government and what’s actually happening in the country and indeed in South America. So he announced on Friday that conversations would begin the next week. And meanwhile, there’s a curfew and to a certain degree a massive outpouring of protest, and yet conversation is going to begin next week and it’s going to go on for months.

There’s no kind of concrete proposals for addressing the demands of the major movements and unions that called for the strike. President Duque has not said that he’s going to retire the package of neoliberal measures that he introduced that led people out into the streets in the first place and I think you mentioned in the different components of the neoliberal reform package that they plan to introduce, but that certainly helps us understand why the rejection and discontent is so generalized because the vast majority of the population’s going to be affected negatively by one or another of these neoliberal reforms that the government has introduced. So it proposes to hold a national conversation that’s going to go on for months, but the themes are rather abstract. It’s not clear that there’s any sort of practical strategy or methodology for how to work through these different issues in order to come up with concrete policies for change.

And the reaction of the newly elected Bogota’s Mayor, Claudia López, to her meeting with President Duque last night was that he seems really afraid, really paranoid, and really cornered. He doesn’t seem that he knows what to do. And she gave him a series of fairly sort of concrete proposals about what to do. And it’s not clear that A) his government is going to listen to any of those proposals or that B) it even has the capacity, in fact, to carry out dialogues with different social sectors and then arrive at agreements that it’s going to uphold. So a huge part of the problem here is that the government has no legitimacy and its word is virtually worthless because it signs agreements that it doesn’t uphold.

GREG WILPERT: So how do you then expect the situation to evolve from here now? Will the protests continue?

FORREST HYLTON: Organizers are calling for more marches and protests tomorrow, and we’ll see what kind of public comes out. I think it’s going to take some time to plan for any kind of really major strike action that would repeat the success of last Thursday. But in the meantime, I think we can expect that they are going to continue throughout the country. Young people are demanding a new future, a different future, a viable future, and they’re demanding a country that instead of spending most of its resources on war and destruction, reorients on investment priorities and government policy.

And so far the government of Iván Duque has proven completely incapable of responding. So it would seem almost inevitable that protest and mobilization is going to continue into December. And then the question is, well, what kind of unity can they achieve and what kind of alternative agenda of policy changes can they hammer out that would lead to some kind of constructive movement? But for now, it seems like things are really at an impasse. And I’m very doubtful that the government of Iván Duque can establish a dialogue that’s both serious enough and concrete enough to address the day issues that are brought people into the streets.

GREG WILPERT: Okay, well, we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Forrest Hylton, associate professor of history at the National University Of Colombia in Medellin. Thanks again, Forrest, for having joined us today.

FORREST HYLTON: Thanks again for having me, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.