Editor’s note: In Colombia there is an ongoing rebellion against the neoliberal, authoritarian government of Iván Duque, who has unleashed his military and police against the unarmed population. Below we print translated excerpts from a May 9, 2021, interview with Afro-feminist Bety Ruth Lozano, a Colombian social leader living in the city of Cali, the epicenter of the revolt and also of the repressive cruelty that has resulted in deaths, disappearances, rapes and hundreds of injuries.
Bety Ruth Lozano: The strike was set for one day but continued and the repression was very strong on April 29 and 30. Already on May 1, Labor Day, there was a historic march, which is estimated to have been more than a million people in Cali. In fact, the organizers of the strike called for a virtual mobilization, but people ignored it and took to the streets and mobilized. There are multiple blockade points throughout the city and also in Bogotá and Medellín, escalating very fast nationwide.
‘DANCING TO THE RHYTHM OF PROTEST’
Cali is recognized as the world capital of salsa, but we have shown that we also dance to the rhythm of the protest, right? To the rhythm of rebellion, insurrection, dignity we can also dance. Cali is a city that has about three million inhabitants, with the largest Black population in the entire country. It is said that Cali is about 40% of the Black population, which in recent years has been displaced by the conflict to all these marginal neighborhoods and that it lives from informal work where young Blacks are targeted by the police, murdered in numbers that do not fall within the official statistics.
It is a city that receives displaced population from all sides: Indigenous, from the Colombian Pacific, from the south, from Putumayo, from Cauca. The concentration was not in one place, but people decided to block the entrances and exits of the city at strategic points. And it must be remembered that Cali is the entrance to the Pacific Ocean, where the most important port that Colombia has is Buenaventura, where more than 60% of the merchandise enters. These strategically placed blockades—because they cause enormous damage to the economy, not only locally but nationally—led to the arrival of the military sent not only by the government but also, we know, by businessmen and agro-industrialists. Because we know that Cali is the epicenter of the sugar cane monoculture agribusiness. The sugarcane growers, who are the ones who exercise power in the city, have also asked the government to come and break the blockades. We have to remain vigilant because what is coming may be worse than what has happened in these days.
The call is not only against the tax reform that puts more taxes on the poorest people and the middle class. It is also against the health reform underway in Congress, along with a set of precarious public policies of life. There are two articulating axes of movement these days. The first is the instant intercommunication that young people have. We of another generation are in the third line and we are above all women carrying water and medicines.
The other element is that young people are those who have directly experienced the economic and emotional consequences of the pandemic: confinement, unemployment of their parents, unemployment of themselves, making protests to attend the university, facing mental health situations due to stress, confinement and poverty.
This takes up again what was experienced in 2019 when, as in Chile, Peru and Ecuador, the population and social movements were awakening to the consequences of the neoliberal model of pauperization and extermination, but which is now deepening with the virus. As one of the slogans said: “We do not care that we may lose our lives because they have already taken so much away from us that they took away our fear.”
HORRIFIC VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN, YOUTH, AND OTHERS
The mobilizations managed to have an instant worldwide resonance, thanks to all these alternative media and networks. The private media are pro-government and nothing is happening according to them, or they speak of vandalism, of terrorist acts, but they do not mention the repression and the violation of human rights that has been carried out even against human rights defenders and against the ombudsmen. There is talk of 31 people killed, but there are more than ninety people missing. It is known that they were murdered and their bodies have not appeared.
Several women have reported sexual violence by the police and hundreds of injuries. These figures are under-reported. We know that there are many more, and the prosecutors refuse to collect all the complaints.
The situation of the pandemic has made all the precariousness visible. All informal work had been like a cushion from the crisis but it has become very difficult to sustain. Domestic workers, for example, cannot go out to work, and employment has been reduced too much. There is a tremendous precariousness of life, to which is added all the corruption of the government.
It is said that the strike was proposed to stop the tax reform, and that is how the National Strike Board raises it. But the people who take to the streets know that it is not enough to stop the tax reform, that there are an enormous number of murders of social leaders, despite the signing of a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas. The war continues especially in rural areas, where the murder of Indigenous and Afro-descendant women leaders is enormous. The number of femicides in the country has increased brutally.
YOUTHS MURDERED AS FALSELY ACCUSED GUERRILLAS
Added to this are the “false positives” during the eight years of Álvaro Uribe’s government: the young people who were kidnapped from their homes or taken through deception, murdered and then dressed as guerrillas and photographed. In other words, Uribe lied to the country, saying that he was winning the war with the FARC by showing a number of murdered guerrillas, when in reality they were young people from popular sectors who had been deceived under the pretext of a job, that they were going to be paid for a football game, or that they were going to be taken to collect coffee in rural areas, and then they never showed up again. All this falsehood has come to light and people know about it.
In addition, this government has been one of the worst in managing the pandemic on the continent. All this discontent is emerging in these days of unemployment and fundamental changes are really being called for.
ESMAD, the anti-riot police, is also operating. They have already gouged out the eyes of several people. They shoot at the electric generators to cut off the light, because it is a police force trained to stop protests. What is also being demanded is that ESMAD be dissolved. In addition, there is a huge amount of undercover police.
It seems that the decision to lift the strike is no longer in the hands of the CUT (Unitary Center of Workers), FECODE (Colombian Federation of Educators) and the National Strike Board. It has taken on a life of its own in all youth mobilizations across the country. And also the Indigenous Minga, which is the form of mobilization that Indigenous organizations have, especially in the Department of Cauca, has been moving around the blockade sites.
They are a very important, highly respected, recognized, and beloved symbolic supporting force. They are only armed with their batons and yet they are authorities who make everyone feel very supported. They have stayed in Cali because of the special situation that exists.
The people remain firm in the streets. We call on the international community to set its eyes on Colombia, to demand that the government take the army off the streets and peacefully resolve the discontent of the majority.
–Interview appeared in Pagina 12, Spain
Posted May 12, 2021