What’s happening in Colombia?

By Nicole Tirado, Paula Gamboa, Tatiana Valenzuela, Yuliana Aborda, Roxanna Barrera and Diana Carolina Ortiz

Our history teacher says that, in the twenty-first century, citizens do not engage with political parties because what moves them now is the analysis of concepts and narratives that shape them as political subjects—as citizens with voices and rights. This implies awareness and the memory that, in Colombian history, fear has lived with us as another citizen. Part of Colombia’s origin has been violence, and with it comes fear; we know this, as do those who govern us. For this reason, nowadays we’re going through a national strike whose main slogan is fear. Current events are nothing other than the repetition of Colombian history: fear of death, missing people whose mothers mourn their absence, corpses that cannot be identified, and speeches that endorse violence by armed forces, who profess to defend the public good but not the public, not the people of their own country.

Johan Galtung (1969) states that there are three types of violence: explicit, cultural, and structural. Colombia constantly lives with all three. Murders, disappearances, threats, and abuses have been normalized day by day. However, we seldom talk about the history that has led to this. Since colonial times, repression and subjugation of vulnerable people has been the way to exercise power. Those few who own the land have rarely seen the people who work for them as humans. It seems that slavery, which was part of our country for centuries, still lives: human life is disposable if you do not have the privileges associated with wealth and power.

For centuries, our oppressed, pained, and mistreated people have been afraid. We have not been able to grieve those who have died. Therefore, we have no choice but to think of ourselves during these turbulent times and to look for a way to leave behind fear and search for peace.

What has been going on since April 28th?

Today, protests continue. They started in response to an awful tax reform, the draft of which was partially approved at 4 a.m. in January 2020, while all Colombians were sleeping peacefully after hearing that it would not be approved. This reform considered: taxing public services, basic family needs, menstrual hygiene items, technological devices, and funeral services; putting tolls inside the city; and so on. The first draft was withdrawn, but we are still waiting for the new version to be presented. However, we continue the National Strike because there are still urgent issues that have not been resolved. 

What are these issues? Until mid-May people protested against Health Reform 010, a bill that opponents maintain would have disproportionately affected the poor. Although it was recently withdrawn due to constant social protests, it is not clear if there is going to be a new proposal. In any case, this reform proposed that health services become private. If it was implemented, the Health Promotion Companies (in Spanish EPS “Empresas Promotoras de Salud”) could avoid payments for certain groups of at-risk patients with pre-existing conditions, forcing them to pay for medical services in addition to paying monthly fees. Hospitals for cancer patients would only accept those who have the capacity to pay for it, not those who really need it. The health and vaccination programs in some regions would depend on EPS criteria, and current health benefits would end for everyone except the President and Vice President. Also, hospitals would have to make new financial adjustments, and those who couldn’t meet profit benchmarks would have to close; currently, more than 1,000 public hospitals have been closed for this reason. These measures, which are just a part of the reform, represented an enormous barrier for millions of Colombians to access health services and would only benefit the EPS and the owners of private hospitals.

For centuries, our oppressed, pained, and mistreated people have been afraid. We have not been able to grieve those who have died. Therefore, we have no choice but to…look for a way to leave behind fear and search for peace.

Colombians have also been protesting the non-compliance of the Peace Agreements signed in 2016 with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who have been complying with their part. However, in return, there is a lack of guaranteed social services and protection for the ex-combatants of the guerrilla group FARC-EP who have decided to demobilize and to rejoin society. According to Infobae, in 2020, 232 ex-combatants were murdered. More than 5 years after the signing, little or nothing has advanced. 

Within the protests, we can talk about police brutality: as of May 24th, 2021, the NGO Temblores reported 3,155 cases of police brutality against 955 victims, including 43 murders, 1,388 arbitrary arrests, 595 violent interventions, 46 victims of ocular assault, 165 cases of aggressions with firearms, and 22 victims of sexual abuse. To these numbers, we have to add 980 missing people as well. We also have had irregularities in the protocols used by the Armed Forces, the National Police, and the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squad (Escuadrón Móvil Anti-Disturbios, ESMAD): the use of expired tear gas, arbitrary police stops on transportation centers and coliseums, landing helicopters on schools during the night to distribute ammunition, cutting off basic services such as power and gas, and even internet censorship to stop protests and the spread of information through social media.

In addition to this, we have to consider the recent shootings by armed civilians, accompanied and protected by the police, of individuals from the Minga Indigenous group. This event took place in one of the richest neighborhoods of Cali and left at least eight Indigenous people injured, which shows that the hate speech and violence many of the mayors, senators, and governors promote have not only generated a huge gap between the rich and the poor but have also promoted racist and anti-Indigenous hate speech. The aggressors were granted immunity and demanded the Minga return to their territory—the territory where, since 2016, more than 900 social leaders have been assassinated with impunity.

The first draft of the tax reform was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Colombians have continued to endure cases of police brutality that go unpunished to this day, and are added to the cases of the 2019 strike (and even the 2003 strike) where ESMAD murdered students and nothing happened. Lucas Villa (2021), Dylan Cruz (2019), and Nicolás Neira (2005) are just three names out of hundreds that have been assassinated and blinded by the Colombian National Police. And of the three, to date, only the ESMAD agent who murdered Nicolás Neira obtained a sanction (15 years later).

This is why, today, Colombia keeps fighting and protesting.

Image: Flickr