By Fernando Dorado
Alainet, November 27 2019
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The 21N (November 21) emerged in Colombia in a form that was different from political expression and social protest in the heat of a national strike that might be called by workers’ groups, labor unions, and social organizations fighting for what many people call the “middle classes”. Rather, it was really about “Colombian precariousness” and it is starting to be an awakening and a “self-discovery”.
Because of the marked contrast presented by this phenomenon with the marches that the directors of the labor movement programmed almost like a religious tradition—in the style of parades or processions—it seemed almost like a great explosion that some compare to what happened in Chile or in other countries in the region and the world, but, in reality, it is just a particle of what might be accumulating in Colombia continuously in the deepest parts of our society and what is going to explode in the future with an unimaginable force.
Before starting to describe the events and presenting a partial and beginning analysis of the process and developing movement, I will synthesize some of the most notable characteristics of the social and political protest that has built up in Colombia continuously in the last seven days of the month of November, beginning on 21N.
- New urban social sectors, especially women and young people, took advantage of the call for a national strike to turn out in a way that was massive, creative, and festive, and to express their disagreement with an inept government, but also to express another kind of aspiration that you could see reflected in their slogans, their marches on the periphery, their gatherings, the banging of pots, their signs, performances, graffiti, vigils, dance-athons, kissathons, parades of bicycles and motorcycles, roadblocks and other cultural expressions full of joy and rebellion.
- The accumulation of frustrations and needs expressed in these days of protest is related to structural aspects of Colombian society, such as the enormous inequality, injustice, and iniquity, the power of the dominant castes and their political operatives, the structural unemployment, the destruction of our environment, the political-administrative corruption, the frustrated peace process, etc. that up to now—in spite of the efforts that have been made in the institutional framework—have not obtained even the slightest real solutions. The development model is behind that, but few are pointing that out.
- The general clamor that has been expressed every day of the strike has centered on denouncing and confronting the incapacity of a government that has no leadership and, every time it acts, commits grave errors that make it look weak, incompetent, ineffective, and, besides that, a ridiculous puppet, because it’s trying to show strength that it doesn’t have. The majority of the protesters that are mobilized know that this government can’t solve the huge problems of the country, but they show their disagreement by showing up along with their peers and being part of a social mass that only recently has begun to take its first steps toward autonomy and rebellion.
- You notice the enormous disconnect between the leadership of the “Strike” and the new social actors in the protests. While the people in the street are expressing a general interest in politics, the leaders of the Strike Command have been more preoccupied with the dialog and negotiations with the government (which is what they have always done) around the points of the so-called “package”, and they have not been able to connect with the feelings and the evolution of the movement. This disconnect has been a factor in demobilization and frustration, much more when faced with the strategy of material and psychological war (government terrorism) implemented by a government that has no solid answer that responds to the union leaders, who believe that they are at the front of a protest, but in reality have been lagging behind from the beginning.
- Doubtless it is the influence of the social movements and protests going on in the world and in Latin America that has also played an important role in Colombia. Add to this the clumsy attitude of the government and of Uribe, trying to stop the protest with arguments that only they believe (supposed activities of the Sao Paolo forum, the destabilization plot from the “castrochavistas”, etc.), which motivated a lot of people to take an active part, just to show that they disagreed with the government.
- In the case of Bogotá, you can point out five main classes of those who marched and protested: a) the workers and unions (teachers, service employees, etc.) who marched traditionally in order and for one day; b) The students who gathered around the organizations and combos, but beginning on the second day (22N) in the case of those in strata 1 and 2 and who live in the south and west, organized to block bus stations and later marched toward downtown; c) the residents of small cities located around Bogotá (Soacha, Madrid, Mosquera, Cajicá, Chía, etc.) that organized to attend the marches and rallies in the capital on the first day and have continued marches and other activities in the urban parts of their municipalities; d) The professional precariat and other middle classes who marched around their residential neighborhoods and started banging pots and pans (cacerolazo), principally located in the north and west of the city; e) The “radicalized” young people from different social strata; some of them with a political message, others “barras bravas” (hooligans) supporting football teams, and many more that had accumulated major frustrations and are drawn to confrontation with the police and other forms of violence as a way of expressing their desperate shout that they are alive, that they are people, and that society ought to keep them in mind. Other young people have no interest in this.
The events: from 21N to Monday, 27N
- On 21N about two and a half million people were mobilized in more than 500 municipalities in Colombia.
- In Bogotá alone, approximately 350,000 people took part in marches, and during the night more than a million people took part in the pot banging (cacerolazo), especially in “middle class” neighborhoods in the downtown, north, and western parts of the city.
- InMedellín, Cali, Bucaramanga, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Pasto, Popayán, Neiva, Armenia, Manizales, Tunja, Ibagué, Santa Marta, Sincelejo, Buenaventura, and many other cities, multitudes of people were marching, which is a historic record for citizen and popular protest.
- Even though there were confrontations with the Armed Forces Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD in Spanish) in many cities, like those that took place in Bogotá where they attacked a concentrated multitude in the Plaza de Bolivar with tear gas, taking advantage of the actions of some young people wearing masks (Some were Police infiltrators.). What happened in Cali has to be pointed out. That was where the Armed Forces themselves promoted the plunder of businesses and even used groups of “vandals” to generate a climate of panic and terror in housing developments and neighborhood organizations. They used a campaign of media, social networks, and fake attacks on residences and apartments, a situation that was replicated in Bogotá the next day.
- Throughout the following six days, there were multiple protest activities until 27N, when there was a second national strike with fewer participants, but with new actions like the blockade of the Pan-American Highway in Cauca by the indigenous movement.
- The movement’s lack of direction, the strategy of repression and violence manipulated by the government and the nearness to the month of December worked against the strengthening and continuity of the protest, but it showed the potential for new social action in the future.
The Colombian Precariat: A new social actor in the protests
There are some social sectors known as part of the “middle classes”. They live in the big cities in housing developments and residential complexes, and the majority identify as “precarious professionals”. Some of them are salaried in businesses or private or public agencies; others are small and medium “entrepreneurs” that furnish different kinds of services; and some others, who possibly are the sector that took part with the greatest force in the protests, are made up of professionals and technology workers who “get by at a certain level”, subsisting on small contracts or businesses and suffer precarious employment in the midst of family and social pressures. They make great effort to achieve the level of life of the salaried professionals and/or of the “entrepreneurs”, but they are closer to structural unemployment, to permanent informal employment, migration, and social pauperization. This social sub-sector continues to increase in strength with the new professionals that are graduating every year from public and private universities, without any productive apparatus to create the conditions necessary to provide them with formal employment or even the minimal conditions for their small and medium start-ups to prosper and build real stability and a sustainable economy.
In the case of Bogotá, this social sector was seen in August of 2013 in solidarity with the small and medium producers of potatoes, milk, and other products in Cundinamarca and Boyacá who were building an exciting and belligerent struggle in the framework of the Agrarian Strike. They, young people in precarious jobs, crowded the Plaza de Bolivar at night, without any visible leaders, almost without any signs and without flags. But they did show an enormous spirit of struggle, belligerently rejecting the arrogant and haughty attitude of President Santos who had flung out his famous and provocative phrase claiming “that national Agrarian Strike doesn’t exist”.
After 6 p.m. on Thursday, November 21, the youthful precariat joined the national strike, carrying out marches in various neighborhoods and parts of Bogotá, especially in the north and west of the city. They unleashed a riotous “pot banging” (“cacerolazo”) that was replicated in the rest of the capital, in Medellín, Cali, and other cities. Their participation was joyful, peaceful, and with a peripheral sense that did not match the centrality of the marches that were directed from the morning hours toward the city center, the Carrera Séptima (7th Street) and the Bolivar Plaza.
On the next day, 22N, all day the government used an open confrontation strategy with the demonstrators who continued marching in spite of the fact that some members of the Strike Command de-authorized the continuation of the protests. They argued that the national strike had been planned for just one day (24 hours), but they quickly had to correct that because of evidence that the people were going to continue the struggle, not just by marching but with another “cacerolazo” (banging pots) and marches in the suburbs.
Already by afternoon and the early hours of the night, the district and national government carried out the same strategy they had used in Cali to fool the people and generate terror, using the threat of supposed “vandals” that were going to attack housing developments and residential complexes. The Police had hired some criminals and mixed-up young people to start early to destroy the TransMilenio stations, plunder businesses, and film phony attacks on homes to publish on social networks and people’s phones, trying to create a campaign of collective panic. They used the communication media to create confusion and a general alert. They also used the same groups of “vandals” in strategic places to make the farce more realistic and to pantomime the general attack
The district government itself, headed by Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, had to admit at about 11 p.m. at night that there had been a media campaign to generate terror, but he did it by pointing to “political sectors and opportunists that wanted to destroy our city and our democracy”. President Duque repeated his words. They themselves, under lock and key, decreed a curfew that day in the whole city, beginning at 9 p.m., in order to give more credibility to the alleged vandalism that was coordinated from the office of the Chief of Police, as numerous videos, photographs, and witness statements have shown. That made it clear that the whole operation had been planned to weaken and impair the social protest, causing people to demand a tough response, legitimizing the militarization of the city and the country, and defeating the movement.
In spite of that, in the subsequent days, Saturday the 23d and Sunday the 24th, the movement stayed strong in Bogotá and other cities, with big marches, gatherings, vigils, banging of pots (“cacerolazo”) and open air cultural activities where the pots and pans were used in different ways as a symbol of the protest. In the northern part of the capital city more than 3,000 young people surrounded President Duque’s house, shouting slogans like “inept”, “helpless”, and even “murderer” as a reaction to the attack suffered by the young protester Dilan Cruz at the hands of a member of ESMAD, who shot him at les than 10 meters with a deadly projectile that sent him to the hospital immediately and finally caused his death on Tuesday, November 26.
The young people with precarious jobs in Bogotá have forced President Duque to move into the Nariño Palace to avoid the pressure of their daily demonstrations around the house where he lives. It is a small triumph of the social movement, one that the press has minimized but which has great symbolic value. In the end, this social sector has expressed in different ways that it disagrees with the incapacity and ineptitude of a government where everybody knows there is a “sub-president”, that it is not autonomous, that it is managed from Washington and from former President Uribe’s ranch “El Ubérrimo” or from the main office of the Grupo Aval (a holding company engaged in financial services) managed by the biggest multimillionaire in the country, Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo.
The young people with precarious jobs, many of whom are between the ages of 28 and 45, are well aware that Duque cannot solve any problems. They don’t believe in him and they are starting to feel a kind of phobia toward the President, so that the President tries to hide his weakness with phony poses, speeches, and proposals that nobody believes in (“orange economy”, “digitization of public administration”, etc.) and he has tried to be histrionic, falling into ridiculous situations that make him look like a clown. And besides that, the election campaign has not changed its attitude. It keeps proposing projects and solutions to problems that are not well identified, avoiding the real initiatives that have to do with continuing the peace process, carrying out a series of commitments he acquired from diverse social sectors (campesinos, indigenous people, large and small producers, etc.). And above all, freeing himself of the burden of Uribe, who is really the one—from the shadows—who sets the agenda.
Uribe’s the one who copromised Duque with a campaign to overthrow Maduro and “liberate” Venezuela from “castro-chavismo”, an operation in which he wasted more than six months of his term, journeying to the United States, Europe, and Latin America to carry out his “diplomatic fence” that would lead him to obtaining an international triumph to cover up his internal weaknesses and failures. It was Uribe who got him to put Guillermo Botero in as Defense Minister; a dark and reactionary person who was obsessed with limiting and regulating social protest; a man who was used to revive the spirit of Uribism inside the Armed Forces. He chose cowboy generals and assigned them to revisit the policy of “false positives” (murdering civilians and making it look as if they were guerrillas killed in combat) and sabotaged from within the little that remained of the so-called “peace process”. After the discovery that 18 children who had been recruited by illegal armed groups were murdered in an indiscriminate bombing attack that was covered up and was denounced in the Congress, and after a debate about political control, the Defense Minister had to resign. That left Duque even weaker, after his party (Democratic Center) had suffered a resounding defeat in the October 27 elections.
The professional precariat, especially the young people recently graduated from the universities and that could not find jobs, increased the forces in the popular struggle. They may be a very dynamic and influential sector in the coming mobilizations. The most important factor is that they are realizing that they are among those who are being exploited and oppressed, and they are in the process of understanding that their real enemy is not even national or governmental, but rather that the companies or entities where they work are in the power of the Great Global Financial Bourgeoisie. In Colombia it is represented by the banks and financial institutions, the big transnationals and the powerful economic groups that subordinate all of the “start-ups” (pymes) to their capitalistic interests by means of burdensome loans, monopoly of intellectual and technological property, and in many other ways. They are the real cause of their always worsening situation. As soon as they understand that, their contribution to the popular struggles will be fundamental, because they are people with better intellectual preparation, worldwide connections, and access to information. They will be able to help the rest of the people to advance on new and more creative and transformational ways to find the new reality.
To state that a sector of the “middle classes” in Colombia, especially in the big cities, is beginning to mobilize in the setting of social protest, must force us to reflect on why in countries with progressive governments these sectors were channeled into political purposes known as the “right”, as has happened in Brazil, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Don’t leftists and progressive governments make any effort to pull in those social sectors? And after they are defeated in elections (including Petro in Bogotá) they plagiarize the theory of the “Doña Florinda complex or syndrome” to call out the people as “arriviste” or “ungrateful”, trying to justify their mistakes.
The problem is that those “middle classes” are made up of new social sectors, including those with “21st century precarious jobs”. They are critical participants in assistance and in investing the better part of government resources in unproductive subsidies, many of which—as Uribe did in Colombia—are used for a new kind of patronage instead of investing in the industrialization of raw materials, relying on those “start-ups” and small and medium-sized producers (“middle classes”) who would be part of the solution to the structural problems of dependency in our countries that have hyper-industrialized economies. This is a subject that ought to be explored and developed.
- The citizen and social protest that is still being developed went beyond the objectives initially proposed by the National Strike Command.
- That happened because some points on labor and pension reform were conceded by the government even before the national strike was carried out (or so we were told) and the directors didn’t react to restructure their demands by calling in other sectors, feelings, and needs of the people that were mobilized and those who were not mobilized.
- The citizen mobilization focused its principal demands on the achievement of substantial and effective changes in the government’s attitude toward the right way to administer collective interests. “Listen, Mr. President”, “Break free from Uribe”, “Duque has to change”, were the demands before the protest, but in the midst of the protest, they were transformed into, “Duque, step down”.
- The Strike Command leadership was not ready for the challenge by the newly mobilized sectors. While the people wanted to strengthen the movement and broaden its political impact (not party impact) the leaders at the workers’ centers begged the government to sit down to negotiate with them, thus flatly claiming that they are a cross-section of protesters.
- The militarized and warlike aggression against the social protests created new priorities for the movement. Demanding the discharge or resignation of the Police commanders and delegitimizing Duque as a credible and trustworthy negotiator was the attitude that the leadership of the “Strike” ought to have shown in order to strengthen the movement.
- Because of all of the foregoing, we need to start and develop a process for organization and participation that corresponds to the spirit of democratic concurrence that broad sectors of Colombian society are demanding. They don’t feel included or represented in the traditional forms of political action and they don’t have confidence in existing institutions.
- We urgently need new and broader channels for participation in order to develop a real Social Dialog that is sweeping, inclusive, diverse, and with full participation. It cannot just include social sectors and trade associations, but must open wide and open spaces for the new generations, the women, and the new gender identities. It must develop intercultural and multiethnic processes and practices connected to concern for life and for nature.
- The dynamic of the social and citizen mobilization that has been unleashed in Colombia requires new social and political coordination that has more reach and coverage, so as to harmonize three basic objectives:
a. Strengthen and broaden the mobilization and social protest, to generate processes of self-organization and broad and democratic representation in localities and regions and at the national level all over Colombia.
b. Identify precisely the principal demands of the mobilized citizens that respond to general interests, but at the same time with concrete and feasible proposals, both short-term and long-term proposals.
c. Build the necessary and effective mechanisms and ways to develop a Social Dialog, without omitting conditions for governmental dynamics. On the one hand those dynamics try to stretch out the time in order to tire out the movement, and on the other hand, they try to reduce the dialog and the negotiation to exclusionary leaders, and then finally, they don’t carry out the commitments they have signed. That was demonstrated in the negotiations and phony procedures of participation that were carried out by this government and prior governments.
It’s possible to promote and organize “Self-organized Assemblies” in towns and neighborhoods and municipalities, and to organize through them: “Citizens’ Councils and Popular Councils” that meet in permanent form like a constituent assembly.
What has gone on up to now is the beginning of the awakening. In Colombia the armed conflict, manipulated by the dominant castes for six decades, interfered with the full development of the social and popular struggles. Furthermore, a caste of bureaucratic leaders took over the leadership of the social organizations and turned them into an obstacle to political development. Besides that, we have to consider the factors that have kept the economic situation from becoming even worse: on one hand, the injection of resources coming from the illegal economies (drug trafficking, illegal mining, etc.) represent 2.5% of the Gross National Product, and the remittances arriving from foreign countries total 1.9% of the Gross National Product. They alleviate the need for material necessities for important sectors of society and are a very important factor in sustaining economic growth and avoiding the recessions that almost all of the Latin American countries suffer.
It looks as if the Colombian people want to honor the Independence Bicentennial with greater and more consistent efforts for social emancipation, for democratic transformation that would build autonomy and political sovereignty, which are the real base and material for the achievement of social justice, for economic welfare, and for the cultural growth of the great majority in the nation.
Popayán, November 28, 2019
- La Silla Vacía (2019) “Crónica en vivo: Así se vivió el 21N en 10 ciudades del pais. Crónica del 21 de Noviembre. Ver: https://lasillavacia.com/cronica-vivo-asi-se-vivio-21n-10-ciudades-del-pais-74606
- Precariado: Término inventado por Guy Standing para definir lo que es una nueva clase social, similar al proletariado, pero que tiene nuevas características. Ver: http://www.scielo.org.co/pdf/rcs/v38n1a11.pdf
 Alai.net (2013). “Paro nacional agrario: saltos cualitativos en el movimiento social. Ver: https://www.alainet.org/es/active/66829
 This borderline sentiment seems to reject the traditional symbolism of “power”, concentrated around the Plaza de Bolivar where the Capitol, the Supreme Court of Justice, the Main Cathedral, and the City Hall are located. The young people from the northern part of Bogotá prefer to challenge Duque directly, protesting several times in front of his house. See: https://wwwpulzo.com/nacion/videos-cacerolazo-frente-casa-ivan-duque-PP804285
 El Tiempo (2019) Alcalde denunció un complot para generar terror en Bogotá y el pais. Articulo de 23 noviembre de 2019. https://www.eltiempo.com/bogota/el-complot-que-descubrio-la-alcaldia-para-desatar-el-caos-y-el-vandalismo-en-bogota-436614
 Video of the “cacerolazo” in front of Duque’s house: https://twitter.com/i/status/119784140225688064