CIVICUS speaks about the protests that began in Colombia in April 2021, triggered by proposed tax increases, with a young social and human rights activist who chose to remain anonymous for security reasons. The interviewee belongs to a network of youth organisations and young activists that promotes solidarity, organisation and the struggle of excluded groups and that works in the capital, Bogotá, and in the city of Medellín.
What were the causes of the protests, and what are protesters’ demands?
The tax reform was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it added to a host of problems. In the assemblies in which we participated, hundreds of demands, and demands of all kinds, were collected, from filling holes in neighbourhood streets to overthrowing the government led by President Iván Duque and seeking justice for the so-called ‘false positives’, that is, cases of civilians killed by the military and presented as casualties of the armed conflict. What young people are experiencing is a feeling of wanting to change everything, of not wanting to continue living as before.
But despite the diversity of demands, there are some that unite young people from the lower classes the most. I think that, in economic matters, young people from the lower classes are demanding employment and opportunities to get ahead, and in political matters these young people, particularly those who were on the protest frontlines, are demanding dignity, to not be humiliated anymore. Nothing unites these young people more than their deep hatred of the police, as the main representative of the outrages and humiliations they experience on a daily basis. They feel like outcasts with no economic future, with no hope of getting a job beyond the daily grind to survive, rejected by society and persecuted like criminals by the police just because they are young and poor.
Students – also young people but more intellectual, some from the middle class – were also a significant force in the protests, but tended to emphasise demands against political repression and human rights violations, the issue of the ‘false positives’, the assassinations of social leaders and the criminalisation of protest.
How do these protests differ from those of previous years, and are there any lines of continuity with them?
Basically, motives are the same as those of the 2019 and 2020 protests. In the 2019 protests, the crisis of unemployment and hunger weighed more heavily, while in the 2020 protests, the issue of repression, not wanting to continue to be humiliated and killed, became more important. Those that broke out in April 2021 combined the motives of the two previous waves, because not only had neither of the two problems been tackled at the root, but not even palliatives had been offered; on the contrary, the economic crisis worsened and political repression continued.
Perhaps one difference is that the latest protests have received greater international attention, which reflects the strength with which the Colombian people took to the streets. The protest had broad legitimacy among social groups that do not usually mobilise. The economic and political crisis and suffocation was such that groups such as medium-size and even large business owners supported the protests. The massive character of the protests also forced everyone, from artists to congresspeople, to take sides.
There were Colombians abroad who protested in their respective countries, speaking up about what their relatives back home were telling them. Some may think that this increased international attention was due to the repression, but I tend to believe that what magnified the message was the size of the middle-class groups that mobilised. Repression has been very present in previous cycles as well as in the face of protests by groups of peasants. I think what was decisive in this case was the diversity of social strata that supported the protest.
How has the government reacted to the protests?
Generally speaking, it reacted first by violently repressing them, then by delegitimising them by using the media to attack some groups, and in particular young people, and finally by trying to divide them in order to demobilise some social groups and isolate young people from the lower classes. For the latter, the government engaged in several negotiations with a self-proclaimed National Strike Committee, and also carried out negotiations at the local level to try to contain or calm down some social groups.
Particularly at the local level, even in localities with so-called centrist and independent governments, the government set up dialogue roundtables that do not solve anything, where demands are listened to but nothing specific is offered in response to those demands. Many local governments washed their hands of the repression, blaming it on the central government alone, but they did everything in their power to demobilise the protests, sending representatives to calm down protesters and promising people that if they stopped protesting they would listen to their demands, something they had not done during the whole previous year.
Violence by some groups seems to have become a problem. How did activists and civil society organisations deal with this?
Violence has often been a spontaneous reaction to repression. Confronting the young person who is throwing a rock with judgement and scolding serves no purpose except to radicalise them further and earn their distrust. In order to change this violence, we must begin by understanding it and distinguishing it from the violence that comes from the state, rather than putting them on the same level. This is not to say that violence is desirable; indeed, it diverts the initiative of many young people. But getting between them and the Immediate Response Command (Comando de Atención Inmediata) – the police unit that operates in urban perimeters – to try and stop them ends up having more of a reverse psychological effect than a deterrence or educational one.
In my experience, civil society organisations that do not reach out to these young people and offer them alternative spaces for politicisation and awareness-raising end up isolating them and losing the ability to influence them. Our organisation has dealt with this through the strategy of avoiding negative judgement and, instead, approaching them with understanding and trying to create alternative spaces for political participation and the organisation of young people.
What roles has your organisation played in the protests?
Our organisation played an active role: we organised the participation in the protests of young people and families in the neighbourhoods where we carry out community work and promoted a solidarity campaign with protesters to collect economic support and other resources, such as first aid, support through community kitchens and human rights advocacy, to help various protest points in the cities of Bogotá and Medellín.
In Bogotá, we provided support to find information on missing persons and participated in solidarity campaigns with people who had been injured. In Medellín we established community kitchens and repaired roofs and other damage caused by protests in neighbourhoods close to the major protest hotspots in the city. Finally, throughout the protests we developed awareness-raising activities and promoted the involvement of young protesters in more lasting processes of social and community building.
What impacts do you think this cycle of protests and repression will have on the upcoming elections?
In my opinion, the protests increased the political capital of the former mayor of Bogotá and former presidential candidate for the left, Gustavo Petro. The government did not give any real response to protesters’ demands and people are still looking for alternatives, and – although our organisation has no interest in campaigning for him or intention to do so – I think Petro is the only available option. In the next elections I would expect a higher rate of youth participation, and I would not be surprised at all if Petro wins.
Civic space in Colombia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.