Yearning for Real Democracy in Colombia




Since April 28, 2021, the Colombian people has risen and undertaken a national strike against the Duque’s administration’s neoliberal drastic policies and its fragilization of the 2016 Peace Accords. The revolts are being met with extreme violence, as Edna Martinez tells us in this text.

Martinez Funambulist
El Elegido (The chosen one). / Artwork by Edna Martinez (2007) depicting infamous Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Vélez.

The Republic of Colombia was founded in 1810. It has today approximately 50 million inhabitants, and its area is three times the size of Germany. Because of its location between the northern and southern countries of the American continent, Colombia is of great geopolitical importance. Its multicultural population is the result of long, continuous and violent historical processes: expropriated Indigenous peoples, European influence mainly from colonizing Spain, people of African origin brought as slave labor, and settled mainly on the country’s coasts and ports, moreover waves of migration from the Middle East in search of refuge. All of them have left their mark on the Colombian population of today.

At its inception, the construction of the Colombian nation-State was influenced by liberal ideas that advocated the pacification of the population to impose economic and political structures serving the interests of a minority, elitist and exclusionary class, historically composed of families of European descendants. Colombia’s history has been marked by civil wars in which the opposition, mostly represented by Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, has been oppressed and forgotten by the State. In fact, until 30 years ago, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities were still politically, socially, and legally invisible. It was not until the 1991 Constitution that the State was obliged to include these communities and their fundamental rights, such as the right to self-determination, as part of the national project while recognizing the enormous cultural and social values they bear.

It is worth taking a close look at the contemporary national political landscape, which implies grasping the current Constitution, globalization, and the processes of transnationalization as fundamental points of reference. It is imperative to understand the current configurations inherent to the construction, not without tensions and resistance, of a “modern democratic State.”

On April 28, 2021, amid a spike in Coronavirus infections, I was in the city where I grew up, Cartagena de Indias, when the peaceful National Strike led to the largest nationwide protests in the last 70 years. Since that day and in the little more than a month of daily demonstrations in the streets, the finance minister, the chancellor, and the High Commissioner for Peace have resigned. The trigger for this still ongoing protest was the government’s draft ironically named Ley de Solidaridad Sostenible (Sustainable Solidarity Law) presented to Congress. In reality, it is a tax reform that mainly aimed to raise additional COP 23 trillion (around USD 6.3 billion) to cover the country’s expenditure on social programs due to Covid-19. The most controversial aspect of this draft — aside from its imposition during a pandemic that has considerably increased the poverty rate of the country (42.5% in 2020) and to which no short-term solution is seen — is the intention to reduce the minimum amount to declare taxes: from 2022, people with an income of more than COP 2.4 million per month (about USD 663) would have to declare income taxes. The trade and labor unions immediately rejected this measure since the minimum monthly wage is equivalent to USD 248. This measure would also tax fundamental consumer goods and funeral services, among others, amid a period of the global health crisis that has hit average citizens hard. By doing so, the government demonstrated once again its ignorance about the reality and the needs of the people.

One month after the protests began, on May 28, 2021, the NGO Temblores reported the following numbers: 1,133 victims of physical violence, 43 homicides allegedly committed by the security forces, 1,445 house arrests without warrants against demonstrators, 648 violent interventions in the framework of peaceful protests, 47 victims of ocular aggressions, 175 cases of gunshots, 22 cases of sexual violence, and six victims of gender-based violence. In the city of Cali, the epicenter of the protests, mobilizations of Indigenous people, the large Afro-Colombian population, and peasant farmers from the north of Cauca and the south of the country have converged. It is precisely here, where the protests have been most concentrated, that the president decided to carry out a maximum military deployment. The numbers of victims varies according to the reporting entity, but the magnitude of abuses against demonstrators, journalists, and civilians, in general, is terrifying. Recorded videos circulating on social networks show not only security forces, but also civilians shooting weapons at other civilians in the presence of the police. This has generated great distress and indignation of great national and international resonance, leading to the request for an immediate visit by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Nevertheless, at the time I write these lines (June 1, 2021), this visit has not taken place because the Colombian government has not allowed it.

The response of Ivan Duque’s government was to be expected; he came to power as president promoting his attachment to the neoliberal and far right-wing political project of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, former president between 2002 and 2010, and senator of the Congress until last year. Uribe represents an unprecedented political phenomenon in Colombia: he keeps broad popular support despite several cases of corruption, human rights violations, stigmatization of the opposition, illegal wiretapping of the Colombian Supreme Court of Justice, links with illegal groups such as paramilitaries and drug traffickers, extrajudicial executions as the scandal of the “falses positives” — a series of murders of civilians by military forces, to be presented to the authorities and to the public opinion as guerrilla-members killed in combat — among other crimes.

The main slogan of Uribe’s policy has been the Seguridad Democrática (Democratic Security), which emerged from the Plan Colombia (1999), a bilateral agreement between Colombia and the United States to fuel the international war on terrorism.

The main slogan of Uribe’s policy has been the Seguridad Democrática (Democratic Security), which emerged from the Plan Colombia (1999), a bilateral agreement between Colombia and the United States to fuel the international war on terrorism. Democratic Security is based on the idea of “security for sovereignty” that considers terrorism as an existential and State problem, thus justifying the annihilation of any suspects threatening that security. This national policy aggravated the serious human rights crisis and consolidated an authoritarian regime, which, far from ending the internal conflict, responsable for a long history of violence, and far from stopping drug traffic or illegal groups, has leveraged and reinforced the collaboration between military forces and paramilitary groups. The demobilization of the latter occurred with the State’s support and pardon, in exchange for information or extradition to the United States. In this regard, it is worthy to remember Operation Orion (2002) when President Uribe — after only two months in office — ordered a state of commotion and a military offensive in Medellín to attack the guerrillas supposedly established in the city’s comunas (slums). This offensive, operated by the army, police, air force, and paramilitary groups, resulted in a crossfire that left hundreds wounded, civilians tortured, arbitrary detentions, and established the control of paramilitaries groups in the area.

During the Juan Manuel Santos administration, the Colombian State and guerrilla organization the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed in 2016 a historic peace agreement on which all hopes were put for ending the violence in the country. This agreement included specific initiatives to, among others, prevent crimes against human rights defenders. However, Human Rights Watch has stated Colombia as the country in Latin America with the highest number of human rights defenders executed (more than 450, since 2016), among which Indigenous leaders represent a disproportionately high percentage. Indeed, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), approximately 16% of all human rights defenders assassinated since 2016 were Indigenous leaders, when only 4.4% of Colombia’s current population is Indigenous. The armed conflict that takes place mainly in rural areas of the country and ancestral territories of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities has resulted in forced displacement, which, in turn, generates a complex process of relocation and deterritorialization. However, these processes are not new; they date back to the conquest and the colony.

During the 20th century, there were two moments in which social and political violence has emerged with greater intensity: on the one hand, the period known as La Violencia (The Violence) in the middle of the century, characterized by armed confrontations between the liberal and conservative parties and stressed by the assassination of the political leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitán in 1948; on the other hand, the wave of violence that re-emerged in the mid-1980s and extends to the present day. In both moments, the number of deaths and human rights violations has been indescribably elevated.

Unfortunately, in a country with very high rates of impunity, the numbers released by Temblores on May 28, 2021 do not surprise us.

The shadow of Uribe is still present; although the protests have managed to overthrow the draft of the so-called “Sustainable Solidarity Law,” as well as the health and education reforms, they go beyond and reveal the indignation…

The shadow of Uribe is still present; although the protests have managed to overthrow the draft of the so-called “Sustainable Solidarity Law,” as well as the health and education reforms, they go beyond and reveal the indignation, which has been intensified by the urgency of defending the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, such as the rights to protest, to life, and land.

It is the first time in history that extremely violent methods by the State, so far carried out with impunity in rural areas, have been perpetrated in the cities and recorded and spread through live videos or influencer’s channels. The information about current protests, held in a country where the right to free expression has been threatened for decades, is circulating at a national and international level. Especially now, facing the distressing nature of the circulating videos and the present crisis in the country, the media are putting internationally the spotlight on Colombia. They support and send messages of encouragement and solidarity to the people who are gathering vehemently and creating meeting spaces (such as Puerto Resistencia) which, now more than ever, are an oasis in the middle of this dystopia.

There is a widespread interest in coming out of the numbness in which Colombia’s traditional media have kept the population in complicity with the government. Independent media speak out despite censorship, and in doing so build networks of solidarity with transnational struggles and transnational resistance processes. For example, on May 22, I curated a 24-hour lineup, broadcast through RADIO ALHARA (Palestine), during which artists, musicians, and DJs expressed solidarity from Colombia to Palestine. This initiative was born as a call for international support to the Palestinian people, who experience dynamics of human rights violations very similar to ours. As in Colombia, the crimes against Palestinians are deeply rooted in the neoliberal colonizing expansion project disrespecting human rights, subjugating citizens to the power of others, not recognizing ancestral values, and prioritizing the development of mega-projects by various transnational companies with interests in the exploitation of the region’s natural and mineral resources.

Colombia’s cities are densely populated, partially due to the eight million displaced people violently forced to leave their homelands because of the internal conflict. Our democracy doesn’t guarantee the full exercise of the fundamental rights of communities; on the contrary, the State continues to “justify” its “democracy” according to the terms of Democratic Security. After so many days of road blockades and confrontations between protesters and the security forces, people are tired; but we must continue to resist and turn this historic moment, embodied in the unprecedented demonstrations at a national level, into an opportunity allowing active citizens to exercise democracy from democracy itself. Otherwise, we will succumb and continue to be immersed not in “hundred years of solitude” — to quote the title of Gabriel García Márquez — but in the two hundred years of State neglect that have characterized our reality since the “independence” of 1810.

Fortunately, we are not alone any more. The interest of an awakening youth to take responsibility for our political processes and history seems, finally, to be crystallizing into the long-awaited opportunity to transform a country so tormented by State violence. ■