Colombia: National Strike Committee calls off movement – Duque could have been overthrown

The Colombian Paro Nacional [National Stoppage] has gone on for almost two months now. At its peak, 23 cities across the country saw uprisings against the government of Ivan Duque – a president seen by many as ex-president Alvaro Uribe’s puppet. Hundreds of thousands of workers and youth blocked the roads and marched through the streets of cities including Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla.

This massive movement can be traced back to the 2019 national stoppage, which picked up where the uprisings in Ecuador and Chile against Lenín Moreno and Sebastián Piñera left off in that year. The birth of the “primera lineas” (“First Line”, a self-defense body meant to protect protestors from police repression) and “coordinadoras populares” (neighborhood committees meant to organise the day-to-day protests) are tremendous steps in the right direction, and lessons that the working masses across Latin America could learn from in the next period as the fight against the bourgeoisie of the continent and their imperialist masters continues.

The withdrawal of the tax bill

Initially, the protest was called on 28 April by the CUT, the CTC and CGT (the trade union confederations). The aim was to demonstrate against a tax bill that would have increased taxes and prices on consumer goods. The increases were introduced to make the workers pay for the state budget deficit, caused by the crisis of capitalism that had been triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Historically speaking, protests like these do not often lead to concessions from the Colombian ruling class, an oligarchy composed of landlords and robber barons who are known internationally for their brutality. After all, this is a country where 3,062 trade union leaders and activists have been murdered since the General Strike of 1977.

Primera linea Image Oxi dot app FlickrThe movement in Colombia, which goes back to 2019, has taken important developments from movements in other parts of Latin America, including the formation of "primera linea" self-defence groups / Image: Oxi.ap, Flickr

However, on this historic occasion, the government was forced to back down and withdraw the tax bill. They did this, thinking that the movement was only about the tax bill and that this would defuse it. But the movement was about much more than that.

It was about the general strike in 2019. It was about police brutality, like the murder of Javier Ordoñez by police in September 2020. It was about the fact that the Colombian minimum wage was barely 1,000,000 pesos ($268 USD) while the minimum cost of living for any given household was between $211 to $792. It was about the 72,235 killed by COVID-19 as of 28 April, as well as the criminal mismanagement of the pandemic by the Duque government, which took more than a month to close everything up, only to reopen as early as June 2020, pushing workers and youth into the meat grinder in order to restart production.

The withdrawal of the tax bill was a historic victory for a working class, which had not won such concessions in the last few decades. It merited further advances, and so the workers threw themselves head-on into the struggle.

A government standing on feet of clay

If there is one key lesson to take away from this movement, it is that the Duque government is incredibly unpopular. According to Pulsopaís, in a poll conducted for W Radio, Duque has reached an unfavorability rating of 79 percent. His political mentor, Alvaro Uribe Velez (considered by many to be the man behind Duque), has reached a disapproval rating of 76 percent.

By contrast, the general strike amassed an approval of 74.5 percent, according to CELAG (Latin American Strategic Centre for Geopolitics). The same poll finds that 80 percent of people in Colombia think that rich people in the country gained their wealth either due to corruption or inheritance. We’re seeing a sentiment of complete rejection, not just of the government of Duque, but of the whole infamously corrupt capitalist oligarchy that he represents, with its ties to narcotrafficking and paramilitarism.

Duque Image Casa de AméricaThe Duque government has been exposed as exceptionally weak. It cannot simply use left-wing guerrillas as an excuse for wide-ranging repression, as Uribe once could / Image: Casa de América

The social base upon which Uribe based his repression has withered away steadily over the last period. Without FARC, and with ELN fading away steadily, the threat of the guerrillas - which the government had exploited in the past - has not been as effective when it comes to cowing the masses.

Previously, Uribe peaked at an 85 percent approval rating in the second term of his presidency, and there was general support for violent repression of the guerrillas and the left. Now, any repression conducted by his handpicked successor only causes him and his party (Democratic Center) to sink lower in the polls. Attempts at provocation, such as the blowing up of a car bomb in Cucuta (on the border between Venezuela and Colombia) on 15 June have done little to sway people away from the movement to bring down Duque’s government.

Duque’s criminal mismanagement of the pandemic, the economic crisis, corruption and his cabinet’s ties to narcotrafficking were enough to trigger the movement against him. But it has been the repression that has really further shown the true scale of the weakness of this government.

The widespread deployment of the ESMAD (the Colombian riot police) was not a sign of strength but of desperation. Once the government understood that withdrawal of the tax bill wasn’t going to be enough to put an end to the movement, it had no other recourse than force. Duque’s attempts to negotiate with the National Strike Committee, as he sent what he called “the biggest military deployment in history” to Cali (the epicenter of the protests), were seen as a farce by many.

The limits of the current trade union leadership

The role of the leaders of the workers’ organisations must be noted in all of this. The same organisations that called for the mass demonstrations against the tax bill on 28 April (CUT, CTC and CGT), closed the first day of the movement by asking protestors to go home and express further protest through daily online meetings. This was an early glimpse of the role they would play throughout the next two months.

After the repression in Cali triggered a national protest movement that threatened to go beyond simply repelling an attack from the Duque government, the CGT, CTC and CUT (alongside some other student unions) formed the Comité Nacional de Paro (National Strike Committee or CNP) to represent the interests of the people on the streets in negotiations with the Duque government. Unfortunately, the committee’s main role throughout the protests was to try and get the people back home, while seeking minimal concessions from the Duque government, such as free education for one semester for students from low-income households.

This so-called leadership quickly became discredited. Many of the youth and fighters in the streets claimed that the CNP did not represent them. This was the main impulse behind the proposal for a National Peoples’ Assembly (Asamblea Nacional Popular), which was an attempt at convening a national meeting of all of the strike committees in every city with the express purpose of creating a programme representing the demands of the people fighting on the streets. The first meeting of the ANP took place in Bogotá on 6-8 June, but unfortunately it didn’t manage to attract the attention of the masses.

As Trotsky explains:

“(...) even in cases where the old leadership has revealed its internal corruption, the class cannot improvise immediately a new leadership, especially if it has not inherited from the previous period strong revolutionary cadres capable of utilising the collapse of the old leading party.”

This effectively explains what happened in the general strike. The trade union leadership had discredited themselves from day one by showing their unwillingness to fight. They were then picked by the government to represent the movement, precisely because of their role as reformists. Rather than recognising the possibility of using the hundreds of thousands of members of the trade unions to mobilise and unionise the rest of the class, the CNP preferred to simply defuse the situation, calling off the protests on 15 June. While this won’t be nearly enough to stop all mobilisations (there remains a substantial layer of radicalised youth on the streets in the big cities, ready to fight) it certainly succeeded to a large degree in hamstringing the movement by withdrawing the organised rank-and-file workers from the equation.

Attempts to build an alternative organisation in the middle of these events proved incredibly difficult. They reflected the existence of a vacuum. The CNP was an attempt by the trade union leadership to grasp the reins of the massive protest movement that erupted, and move it into safe channels. While the movement on the streets was shouting, “Duque Out!”, the trade union leaders of the CNP were thinking in terms of defeating him in the 2022 elections.

Duque could have been overthrown by the mass movement, but that required taking steps which the trade union leaders were not prepared to take: a call for a proper general strike involving all sectors of production, giving the movement a democratic structure through elected delegates at all levels accountable to mass assemblies, the generalisation of the self-defence committees. That is, what was required was revolutionary leadership and an approach that matched the determination of workers and youth on the streets.

The convening of the ANP was an attempt to remove a leadership that didn’t really know what to do with the energy of the masses. Unfortunately, the speed at which events developed has proved how difficult it is to build an alternative organisation.

A year from the elections

The 2022 elections are shaping up to be a contest between whomever Centro Democratico (Democratic Centre, Duque’s party) picks and Gustavo Petro, the progressive candidate from Colombia Humana (Humane Colombia). Petro has a favorability rating of 40 percent and a 30 percent voting intention, as per the CELAG study cited above. This wouldn’t be surprising considering that Petro’s last run for presidency also reflected discontent with the ruling class. It is likely that this will be the next big expression of the anger of the Colombian masses, as the CNP, the trade union leaders and the rest of the reformist leadership have impressed upon the protestors the necessity of “voting out this rats’ nest”.

As the figures show, there’s a lot of hope in Gustavo Petro. Unfortunately, we must point out that we’re living through a worldwide crisis of capitalism that would not allow Petro’s presidency much room for maneuver. If Petro were to be president, he’d be hamstrung by the mounting external debt, which stands at 51 percent of GDP and is projected to climb to 62 percent, as well as an infamously bloodthirsty and conservative oligarchy that would not back an inch away from the fight to preserve its profits.

Many of the reformists (and Petro himself) would call for moderation in this period in order to prevent the worst attacks of the ruling class. However, we must be unequivocal. Moderation would not help the cause at all. The recent example of Pedro Castillo in Peru is instructive. He moderated his programme in the course of his electoral campaign in order to appease the bourgeoisie. As a result, he steadily lost much of the massive support he had displayed during the first round, whilst the hysterical, anti-communist campaign of the ruling class did not abate. This proves that if you give the ruling class an inch, they will always take a mile.

reforma tributaria Image Oxi dot ap FlickrThe only thing preventing the masses from overthrowing Duque was the reformist leadership of the trade union movement. Nonetheless, the movement represented a massive leap forward, being the first in decades to wring real concessions from the brutal robber barons who constitute the Colombian ruling class / Image: Oxi.ap, Flickr

Petro’s programme is based on the idea that Colombian capitalism can be reformed, by appealing to a “well-meaning and productive” section of the ruling class to act in the “national interest”. This is completely utopian. The Colombian capitalist class is linked by a thousand personal, family and business threads to the ranch owners and the narcotraffickers. In turn, the oligarchy is completely bound to their masters in Washington. The only way forward, for a genuine national and sovereign development of the country, is through the expropriation of these parasites and the unity of the Colombian workers and peasants with their brothers and sisters across the continent.

There’s an entire layer of youth and workers that have been radicalised in the last two months. This layer instinctively understands that postponing a struggle that should be settled now to elections in 2022 is a substantial setback, and they’re looking for answers as to why it is that Duque’s government is still standing when it’s so weak, and when the masses showed such a massive display of strength. In the final analysis, this was due to the absence of the subjective factor – of revolutionary leadership.

It is imperative to reach this layer and explain to them that the reformists’ attempts to take the presidency won’t be a panacea for the crisis of capitalism that Colombia is going through. We must pose an alternative path to them: we need a revolutionary organisation, which can connect the struggles of the working class, peasantry and youth through a socialist programme. An organisation that can openly challenge the Colombian oligarchy for power and not just for concessions.

The two-month-long national stoppage movement was not just a first step but a gigantic leap for the working classes, the youth and the peasantry of this country. Hundreds of thousands of workers, students and peasants openly confronted state forces and managed to win substantial victories against austerity measures. This demonstrates that militant action and not moderation is the best way to oppose not just Ivan Duque but the class he represents. Only by building a workers’ party, which can fully express the political will of the workers and address their needs, can the Colombian workers give a coup de grace to this rotten government once and for all.

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