Popular Resistance in the Age of Neoliberal War: The Case of Colombia

By Evan King and Pambana Gutto Bassett

Since April 28th hundreds of thousands of Colombians have taken to the streets to demand the end to neoliberal reforms, chanting “el pueblo unido jamás será vencido”. Workers, women, students, unionists, pensioners, Indigenous and Afrocolombian campesinos, and youth began the strike in opposition to a regressive tax reform that disproportionately affected the poorest Colombians. Now, a month later their joint call has grown into a generalized rejection of the neoliberal and far-right government of Ivan Duque. His government is polled as the least popular in recent Colombian history, already a low bar for a State that has waged an ongoing war against its people.

Shortly after the nonviolent protests began, the government tabled the reforms, but both the Finance Minister and Foreign Minister were forced to resign in response to the people’s pressure. The demonstrations rejected them for proposing austerity measures that burden the poor in the midst of a pandemic. This victory was followed by the decades-old government response to resistance: repression, outrageous lies, racist and misogynist violence, and sheer terror. At the marches most carry only instruments and placards, and are met with murderous state forces shooting indiscriminately or targeting community leaders who defend human rights and collective decision-making. In the face of this, the protests have grown stronger in number and location. They are now across the country, proving that the demands are shared by many more than those who can brave the streets.

The right to protest is denied daily by the militarised forces that are well-equipped with U.S. funding. They shoot from helicopters, motorcycles, and from the massacres, forced disappearances, sexual violence, and real and constant fear. While the state and paramilitary focus their brutality with unprecedented intensity against the people, the protesters focus their demands on an alternative agenda that builds popular power. This agenda emerges out of the most poor sectors, and out of Indigenous and Afro-Colombia whose resistance is over 500 years old.

It cannot be denied that the resistance is led by the youth. It is mainly impoverished young people from urban peripheries who are the leading force in the “puntos de resistencia” or points of resistance. Although they face the brunt of police terror, and have witnessed the police massacre their community members and forcibly disappear, rape, and torture their neighbours, they refuse to stop organising.

Youth from the most poor sectors and their families account for a majority of Colombia’s 50 million. On the rare occasion that they are interviewed, they say things like: ‘We have no future because they have taken everything from us.’ This was already true before Covid-19 hit, but the State’s failure to ensure basic economic support during the pandemic, coupled with a wholly inadequate public health response, has made daily life an act of survival. The youth add, “Even fear. We have nothing left to lose.” The marches are an exercise in despair, coupled with a clear and utter rejection of a system that enriches the small Euro-descendant elite and the multinational corporations that buy them. The youth have an unparalleled determination to build a distinct path.

Urban middle-class university students, whose families account for about one third of the population, have not hesitated to participate in ‘the resistance’; they went on strike in 2018 and again the following year, helping to trigger the general strike. Many of them are only a generation or two away from those who suffered hunger. During the pandemic, confined to their homes, they have seen their job prospects and educational opportunities dry up, bills arrive that their families can no longer pay, and many small and medium family-owned businesses have closed. They understand that the precarity they face is a product of the disinterest of the elite in their future, and have joined the demonstrations against neoliberal reforms.

The youth in Colombia demand dramatic changes to the country’s increasing privatisation and militarisation and they are willing to put their bodies on the line to achieve it. They call for a radical transformation of the country, from a neoliberal, racist, and warring regime, to one that is democratic, participatory, and guarantees basic necessities for a life with dignity: an end to austerity and the creation of universal healthcare, education, dignified housing, and peace.

The “puntos de resistencia” are also where the youth build community, and practice the world they want for all Colombians. They are filled with solidarity and a sense of purpose. Many of the puntos host communal soup kitchens, free workshops for children, and tables for mutual aid or “mesas solidarias”. They carry out cultural work with music, dance, theatre, and painting, a reprieve as well as a creative and collaborative outlet. The youth are newer protagonists in the formation of neighbourhood assemblies or “asambleas”. There, the people meet, hold long discussions and debate, and make decisions through collective processes. Direct and participatory democracy, service-provision, as well as cultural production all flourish in resistance to the centuries-long disenfranchisement by the State, and the current militarised government crackdown.

The resistance and the protagonism of the poor, Indigenous, Afrocolombian, women, and the young are threats to the powerful. Although there has yet to be an exhaustive investigation of State crimes, preliminary reports by local human rights groups have documented 3155 incidents of police violence, including 43 homicides, 1388 arbitrary arrests, 22 cases of sexual violence, 42 blindings and at least 93 cases of forced dissapearance, in the city of Cali alone. The victims include minors as young as 13. Images of the bodies of young men can be seen floating down the Cauca River in the outskirts of urban centers. Chop houses, a gruesome tool of colonial violence, have resurfaced.

The level of violence points to a systemised plan from the top echelons of the State.The types of violence and its targets are similar to those committed by other U.S.-trained and -funded state and paramilitary forces across the Americas. These repressive tactics are elements of a particular kind of military doctrine known as counterinsurgency, a doctrine of the U.S., a nation-state borne out of white supremacist genocide and counter-revolution. This doctrine has targeted resistance movements across Latin America and the Caribbean, for decades. It is by sheer determination and dignity of the people, the resistance continues.

A Brief History of Counterinsurgency in Colombia

During the 1960s, a time of global anti-colonial struggle, the United States began formal training of the Colombian armed forces in counterinsurgency warfare. It was a declared campaign to halt the so-called spread of communism- or, the mass mobilisations by poor and racialised people to end exploitation and promote governance by the oppressed. The U.S. invested heavily in attacking the organised resistance of anyone or group that opposed U.S. interests and corporate control. U.S. military officials instructed the Colombian armed forces to target armed and unarmed actors suspected of harboring communist sympathies or “subversive thoughts”. Any advocate of rights- of workers, youth, women, Indigenous, Afrocolombians, farmers- became a potential target, and many of them were surveilled, threatened, disappeared, assassinated.