This essay was written back in December 2019 about the massive peaceful and violent protest marches that rocked the Colombian capital of Bogotá in November 2019. It’s quite long so I’ve divided it into several parts and uploaded a PDF if you’d like to read offline: download link here. Enjoy the piece and as always, looking forward to your comments and questions on this wild and crazy couple of weeks in Bogotá.
- Part One: 21st November, 2019
- Part Two: Conservatives and Liberals
- Part Three: Paro Nacional
- Part Four: And The Beat Goes On…
- Update: 23 January 2020
In Colombia, and Latin America in general, everything is just a little bit more extreme. Less gray area or room for nuance. Emotions are high, or they are non-existent. No middle ground. People like their music loud, their conversations long, the lights bright and flashing with spastic energy, and everything amped up just a little bit from ten to ELEVEN from what we’re used to in the U.S.
The same goes for Latin protests.
I’ve heard famous musicians talking about how, whenever they do concerts in Latin America, they are always gigantic affairs. Thousands and thousands of people pack huge stadiums to see big acts. In Bogotá, where I live, you can hear about the Guns & Roses concert in the 2000’s that turned into a riot when all the people waiting outside couldn’t get in. Roger Daltrey of The Who talked about playing a big outdoor show in Rio de Janeiro and having the feeling that something like a million people were out there watching and cheering.
When people protest in Latin America, it’s never a small thing. That’s why you see news reports with hundreds of thousands of people jamming the streets of cities like Santiago de Chile, Caracas or La Paz. Now it’s Bogota’s turn, and they aren’t about to be upstaged by any of their upstart sister republics. For Colombians, it’s time to show the rest of the continent how democracy is done.
Part One: 21st November, 2019
It started with the news of a paro nacional, or national strike, on the 21st of November. Right away it was clear that this wasn’t going to be any ordinary protest. Over the last couple of years that I’ve lived in Colombia, there have been several major protests in the capital, Bogotá. Last year around this time it was university students going out in the streets every Thursday like clockwork to protest cuts to public education funding. That issue is still ongoing.
However, this time it was that and every other social issue you can think of facing the country to come out and protest against the national government all at once. Everything from non-compliance with the FARC peace accords to the killing of social leaders in remote areas by guerrilla, drug gangs and paramilitaries to violence against women. There was no clear agenda to the protest, just a long list of demands, and its initial organizers (though it would ultimately grow far beyond their purvue or control) defined it in a confusingly non-specific way as being “against the government, its inaction, bad decisions, and corruption.”
A week later, the citizens of Bogotá would still be bracing for nightly outbreaks of violence, destruction and looting which marred the weekend from start to finish and have been bursting up in little spurts of terror here and there every night since. Peaceful protests during the day, total anarchy at night. Not too different from the average day in Bogotá the rest of the year.
I’m working on a documentary web series (Gone Native, or @gonenativeshow on social media) about living abroad as an expatriate, starting with a focus on myself in Colombia. When I heard that there were going to be additional protests, my first reaction was one of deep anxiety. Because of the recent tendency of these events to devolve into violent disorder around the edges, I didn’t want to get anywhere near it. But as a documentarian and someone trying to capture the reality of living here, it seemed almost irresponsible to not record what was happening.
The morning of the paro, I was pacing my apartment, nerves high. I knew they would be marching on some of the main avenues, such as Carrera Séptima (seventh avenue) and Avenida El Dorado (Calle 26) which leads from downtown to El Dorado airport. I thought I had read they might be marching near my apartment as well, but wasn’t sure until I heard loud cheers, the banging of drums and blowing of horns and whistles, and the indignant honking of cars and taxis held up by the marchers.
At that moment it became not just irresponsible but foolish not to go out and shoot something, my camera left sitting at the ready for just such an occasion. So I threw on a nondescript jacket and baseball cap, slung the camera over my shoulder with its long black pistol-looking microphone on top, and ran downstairs to shoot what was happening outside.
The bulk of the march passing down Calle 45, half a block from my front door, was what must have been thousands of university students. The vast majority of the faces I saw, just about all of them, were young. In Colombia, many students graduate secondary education and begin university studies as young as sixteen, so universities here are packed with kids even younger than what we’re used to seeing in college today in the United States. The signs and banners of the protesters reflected the diverse nature of the issues which were on display. “No más desaparecidos” (no more disappearances), “Cumplimiento con los acuerdos de paz” (compliance with the peace agreements), “Fondos para la educación publica” (funds for public education) were common themes. The protest was an almost universal display of what could be considered every common grievance against the government, most taking a definitive liberal slant.
But to understand politics in Colombia, at least as an estadounidense gringo like me, is to understand the words “liberal” and “conservative” different than what we typically imagine. These marches give us an opportunity to diverge into a bit of a history lesson about the country which can help us understand what those words, liberal and conservative, really signify here in Colombia, and in the broader context of Latin America.
Part Two: Conservatives & Liberals
“Conservative” has much of the same root connotation that it has in the U.S. Often people from the higher social/income classes who value free markets, business opportunities, and preservation of cultural heritage can check the conservative boxes on this rubric. But in Colombia, and many places in Latin America, conservativism goes all the way back to the Conquista (conquest, of the Americas) and union with the Spanish crown, which was a much deeper and more profound relationship for a much longer period of time than that of the British with North America. The Spanish colonized and plundered and converted the Americas to such an extent and for so many years that the indelible imprint of the experience was left deep and wide in the Latin soul.
For some, that meant privileged positions in their societies. Well-off, landowning criollo (American-born Spaniards) families enjoyed great wealth and position as governors, administrators, and local empresarios of trade, while mestizo (mixed race) and indígeno (indigenous) societies were relegated, especially the Indians, to the rubbish bin of society. Driven off their lands, abused, enslaved, forced into labor on farms and in mines, these people became the lower classes of society, a stratification which exists in varying forms to this day. Now, in 2020, Colombia has a legally-defined system of strato, or social stratus, which classifies people by their income from zero (destitute or penniless campesino farmers) to six, the highest and most wealthy echelons of society.
The stratus system actually classifies your residence, not you personally, so whole urban zones or neighborhoods are blocked off by the general price of real estate and the cost of basic services there. Your utility bills will be defined based on your stratus, or to put in more general terms, what you can afford. Along with what you pay, the government also subsidizes health care based on stratus. Someone living in stratus four, like myself, pays a certain amount of “co-pay” for privately owned but government-mandated health care services. Someone in stratus two will pay even less. Stratus zero receives fully subsidized health care, they don’t pay a peso, and from what I hear the quality of service is outstanding.
Getting back to conservatives. After independence, many of the wealthy criollos and some well-to-do mestizos stayed in power, and many of the traditions and practices that had persisted under Spanish rule continued. This had as much to do with the way people lived as the way they treated the population that lived under or worked for them, and abuses were rampant. Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, has explained it as a difference between the “founding mindsets” of North and South America. Galeano sees North America as having been colonized by industrious entrepreneurs, go-getters who were eager to get out there and carve out a little slice of the world for themselves. South America, as he sees it, was founded by more of a pirate mentality. Take what you can, give nothing back.
Today, a vast amount of wealth in gold and precious stones and metals that were extracted from “New Spain,” or today what makes up South and Central America and Mexico, remains in Spanish coffers. Ditto for the Portuguese, British and Dutch for the extent of their holdings. Precious little was ever returned to the Americas. Extraction has always been the name of the game, and it was a game continued by other foreign powers long after the Spanish were gone. Other colonial European nations were active here into the 20th century and many of the same business interests continue today in other forms. One of their old tricks is taking extracted resources and processing them into useful goods, then selling them back to Latin Americans whose countries were originally exploited for an exponentially higher price. Leather from Argentinian cattle hides made into saddles and wallets and other goods in Liverpool and shipped back to South America comes to mind. Or oil, easily extracted from countries like Colombia or Venezuela, but with the raw petroleum processed overseas and sold back to Latin drivers for at least twice the price.
Conservativism represents the highest ideals of this way of life. Extraction. Control. Power over the lives and destinies of the multitudes of the less well-off inhabitants of Latin America. But it also represents stability. A centralized source of authority. Legitimate, recognizable, and accessible authority. Now it means democratic institutions as well, and Colombia is perhaps the most successful democratic republic in all of Latin America, in terms of the stability of its institutions.
Without going on too much of a tangent, after what is now Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Panamá won their independence from Spain and formed the republic of Gran Colombia under Simón Bolivar in the early 1800’s, the ideas that underlay the new constitution and governing institutions that were set up were entirely based on the same principles that formed the early United States and forged the French Republic, at least from a philosophical standpoint. Of course, Bolívar himself turned into a bit of a dictator and was forced into exile in the end. Internal tensions caused the once-unified Gran Colombia to split into the aforementioned neighboring republics. Panamá remained part of Colombia until the beginning of the 20th century, when a national revolution backed by the United States, Teddy Roosevelt and various filibusterers erupted and split the country off from Colombia proper. The U.S., in a not-so-coincidental deal, gained the rights to control the Panamá Canal and its shipping lanes more or less in perpetuity, a situation that was not fully remedied until 1999, almost the 100-year term of the original agreement anyway.
Out of all the countries which have experienced brutal, prolonged periods of military dictatorship in the region, Colombia stands out. The country has been consistent in its democratically-elected leaders and bodies almost since the beginning. Just a brief period in the 1950’s marked the rather peaceful (by comparison) dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, from 1953-1957, which began and ended without a significant amount of bloodshed. Pinilla is actually remembered for many improvements to the country, such as the introduction of television and the creation of large amounts of new infrastructure. Not to mention granting women the right to vote. But Pinilla was ousted in 1957 in a process which led to the full adoption of an 1888 constitution and an eventual return to civilian elected government.
Let’s not mince words: Pinilla was a dictator. He shut down newspapers, harassed and disappeared opposition, and controlled the political and economic discourse of the country. But his dictatorship followed a period of even worse instability. The 1948 assassination of populist leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan led to the Bogotazo, a series of wildly violent riots that left the capital in ruins, and the country entered a period of extended civil conflict between conservatives and liberals which endures in differing forms until the present. The current ongoing internal conflict is traced back even further to 1930 when liberal power began to rise, and can be followed in one way or another all the way back to the founding of Colombia, independence, and Spanish rule from the start. The same conflict exists in other incarnations throughout Latin America, and is useful for understanding the back and forth swing from extreme liberalism to extreme conservatism of politics in the region.
After 1958, Colombia’s internal conflict began to take the form that we would recognize today. Guerrilla groups and splinter movements turned militant and disappeared into the vast and impenetrable wilderness that blankets most of the country. In many ways, the geography of Colombia itself has contributed to division, de-centralization and conflict. The Andes mountains which begin far to the south in Patagonia split into three distinct cordilleras that divide Colombia like walls. The deep, hot valleys and lowland regions alternate with high-mountain plateaus, vast swamps, great hot lowland plains (the eastern llanos that extend into Venezuela) and coastal jungles. The whole southeastern quadrant of Colombia is part of the Amazon basin.
As a result of Colombia’s unique geomorphology, no central government can ever completely control the entire country. It is for this reason that guerrilla movements have had such success operating deep in the monte, any thick jungle or sufficiently wild area. Why the big cocaine cartels were able to become so powerful. Why drug gangs and cartels and guerrilla and paramilitary groups operate today with such seeming impunity. Colombia, with all its wondrous diversity in geography, climate, wildlife and biodiversity, is a very wild place. Much of that wild is magical, beautiful, amazing to visit and experience. But much of it is dark, unknown to most, and full of dangers.
This gets us around, at last, to the word “liberal.” In Colombia, liberal often signifies its most extreme connotation: Marxist. Communist. Militant, revolutionary guerrilla. If you talk to a dyed in the wool conservative here about liberals, you will hear words like communist bandied about. That’s because many of the guerrilla movements that have risen over the last half-century or so have been highly socialist in nature. Colombia IS a democratic socialist republic. The health care system alone evidences that. But there are a thousand other laws and political quirks here that point straight to many efforts made by the government to appease “the people” at large and to give them protections from exploitation, along with communal privileges that extend to everyone.
Much of the privileges Colombians enjoy are the result of legislative efforts to ease the burden on the many millions of people who have been impacted by the internal conflict. Something like seven or eight million people (official tally, reliable numbers are difficult to calculate, not everything that happens here gets documented) have been displaced from their land, their homes, their towns and villages, throughout the countryside of Colombia during the last sixty or seventy years.
And that doesn’t count the rest, all the horrific stories of tragedy that come down to us from places like Montes de María, La Guajira, or any number of remote, difficult-to-enforce areas. Often a remote village will be targeted by a guerrilla group for extortion and recruitment, sweeping through and robbing people of their valuables and fighting-age young boys and often girls. After that, an autodefensa, or paramilitary group, will come in and accuse the people of aiding the guerrilla, and commit even further atrocities against them. The national military itself is not blameless in this, having conducted the same kind of supposed “anti-guerrilla” operations against innocent campesinos and others.
Some of the worst stories are of the falsos positivos, when quotas were established for increasing the body count of guerrilla combatants and the army often filled those quotas with the bodies of murdered campesinos. Part of the reason that the country is as relatively stable as it is today is thanks to years of intense (and sometimes excessive, to put it mildly) incursions of the military into conflict areas, putting pressure on the guerrilla and paramilitaries and cartels, forcing them to back down, shut down, sue for peace. The only reason the FARC peace accords of 2017 were finally signed is that Juan Manuel Santos, then-president of Colombia, was able to sit down at the negotiating table in Havana with Rodgrigo Londoño Echeverri, also known as Timoleón Jiménez but most commonly as Timochenko, leader of the FARC. Timochenko was negotiating with Santos because the previous president, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, had unleashed a terrible campaign of violence against the guerrilla with the help of funding, weapons, and training from the U.S.
But liberal doesn’t always mean Marxist guerrilla. It can mean many of the same things that it does in the U.S.: a desire for social justice, community development, programs that bring equal benefit to all strata of society. Forward-thinking progressive ideas that seem very reasonable and appealing, at least on the surface. But liberals in Colombia have a similar problem to those in the U.S., and indeed everywhere. The problem, in my opinion: there are just too damn many issues.
The world is full of injustice. Let’s face it. You can find unfairness and grave social problems almost anywhere you look. The appeal of the liberal banner is one of being able to bring your particular social justice issue underneath it along with all the others. But the problem then becomes one of splintering. Fracturing. One group’s agenda might compete with another. One minority might have a louder voice. One group might hold additional sway over others, or have better publicity, and the others end up feeling jealous, left out or betrayed. The left, more often than not, tends to disintegration from within.
Conservatives have never had that problem. On the whole, being a political conservative has meant being for God, country, and maintaining the status quo. This is an easy, powerful idea to unite under. Even if people have differing individual agendas, the general agreement between everyone is that business as usual is, and has always been, a good thing. This perspective brings many benefits: there are elements of our past and of the way things are that are worth preserving. Worth defending. While I myself might think that forward progress needs to be made on certain issues, I would fight tooth and nail to preserve things like national parks and protected wilderness. Environmentalism is a form of conservatism, whether its adherents want to believe that or not. To give people the ability to engage in entrepreneurship and business freely, albeit with necessary regulations on how that business is done, to protect people and the environment from excess. If we are being honest with ourselves, we will be able to admit that humans are almost always driven to excess unless we are reigned in. Just look at the United States.
The United States has become a land of unbelievable dripping bounties of milk and honey for a few, of the most tacky and lavish lifestyles taken beyond the farthest boundaries of reason, of astronomical net worths of a few individuals while much of the rest of society sinks deeper into degradation and poverty. Our isolation and depravity has led us to come up with all kinds of strange ideas about the way the world works and our place in it. And our society is fracturing in a lot of the same ways that has defined the liberal-conservative conflict in Latin America for so many years.
Myself, I fall somewhere on the spectrum between Marxist and Libertarian. That old chestnut about not having a heart unless you’re a liberal by twenty, and not having a brain unless you’re a conservative by thirty, that has held true for me. When I was a teenager, my friends and I were driving to Seattle to take part in the chaotic WTO protests in 1999 along with a swath of radical social activists, anarchists, and just plain crazy fucks who wanted to show up there and create havoc. Now, at age 36, I can see the benefit of having solid investments, a comfortable roof over my head, and a more stable, predictable way of life.
Speaking of the U.S., we’ve all sat up and taken note of the mounting polarized, often violent nature of political confrontations in our country these days. Leftist groups like Antifa clashing with right-wing extremists like the Proud Boys, fighting each other and attacking lookers-on with bike chains, baseball bats or rocks. Anarchists and vandals have always taken the opportunity of big protests to create a little disorder around the edges, but the scale of it seems to be growing. The lack of dialogue and the quick resort to extreme measures is alarming. As our ability to communicate grows with the pulsing spread of internet technology, our ability to insulate and congeal into conflicting interest groups seems to grow with it. The idea of talking, let alone working with the opposition seems to be trending towards a thing of the past. I look at the upcoming 2020 elections in the U.S. with dread. If the same downward spiral into ruthlessness and unabashed violations of the truth, the same lack of dialogue between competing groups, the continued breakdown of civil discourse continues, I fear for the future of our society.
Looking around me, right now in Bogotá, I feel like I am seeing a vision of the future in store for the United States. But what exactly happened at these protests? Why did a simple “national strike” and big, peaceful marches planned to promote the jigsaw puzzle of issues that make up the liberal agenda, disintegrate so quickly into a complete breakdown of public order across the city, and in many places across the whole country? People have died in the last few days. Three national police officers were killed when someone drove a truck bomb into a police station, dozens more were injured. An eighteen-year-old student in Bogotá was hit in the head with a rubber slug fired at close range from a 12-gauge shotgun and died two days later. Police have been attacked everywhere, public areas vandalized, stores and office buildings smashed and looted.
The first sign of what was to come was a protest against perceived “corruption” in the big national (public and private) universities, most of which have their main campuses in Bogotá. In this city of eight million, something like 20% of those are university students, during school terms. That doesn’t count all the other children in the city, attending primary or secondary schools or still at home, hanging off their mother’s apron strings. To be honest, a vast majority of Latin men end up hanging off their mother’s apron strings their entire lives, unless delicately transferred to those of an attentive and permissive wife.
After an incident where students tried to break in to an administrator’s office at Javeriana University to extract records of supposed corruption, there was a confrontation between police and students which escalated into riot police storming the campus to restore order and pursue the criminals. At this point the rest of the student body became incensed. How were police able to enter their campus by force just to chase a few criminals, who by the way were trying to expose the corruption that they all “knew” was going on? There is no doubt corruption happening at the highest levels of many university administrations in Colombia, skimming off the top of public funds wherever they can (remember the pirate mentality…corruption is rampant here). But the supposed evidence in this case was so ephemeral that it was hard to be sure it even existed, and indeed nothing ever really came to light. But the situation was such that students decided, in late September, to march again protesting corruption in the university system and the cutting of public education funds.
Before that march was over, a loose group of destructive vandals which came to be known as encapuchados, or “hooded ones” wearing face-covering balaclavas, had attacked the ICETEX building in downtown Bogotá close to my mother-in-law’s apartment, smashed out windows, trashed the lobby, and set the bottom floor ablaze before riot police and emergency services could get the situation under control. Employees were barricaded inside their offices, trapped with the sure knowledge that they too would be attacked if the vandals were able to make it all the way inside. My mother-in-law was inside her apartment in a walled conjunto, or apartment complex, in Centro, the downtown financial & business area, with the door triple-locked and the curtains closed, watching on TV as civilization collapsed right outside her living room windows. The situation was alarming, but the attack on ICETEX was on a Friday, and despite some further peaceful marching and light vandalism over the weekend, it blew over. The paro nacional, which Bogotá is still living through at the time of this writing, has been far more dramatic.
Part Three: Paro Nacional
On Thursday, the 21st of November, when the march started and I was running outside with my camera, I already had a good idea what was in store. Everyone did. Before the day was out, something terrible was going to happen. It seemed that all the marchers outside knew it too, because the mood was tense. Many in the crowd were celebratory, shouting their slogans, smiling and walking fast, banging drums and playing horns. Latin America is a musical place, and its protests are no exception. Protest songs are some of the most enduring cultural legacies from the latter part of the twentieth century, when people were living through struggles and revolutions and dictatorships throughout the region. The Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell of Latin America were people like Victor Jára and Ángel Parra in Chile, or Mercedes Sosa in Argentina, names which are rarely heard of and virtually unknown in the United States.
Despite the frivolity of the march, there was a clear expectation of confrontation. The marchers’ expressions were grim, hard set. People were stopping traffic, trapping a bus or taxi in an intersection or outside it, getting right up in the windows with their signs, yelling slogans in drivers’ and riders’ faces. Despite the peaceful intentions of the vast majority of protesters, everyone knew that most of the encapuchados from the previous episode of vandalism remained free, and that many more were like to join them this time. This protest was far wider and more general than the previous, and there would be rich opportunities for those who were spoiling for a little anarchy. The riot police could only stop so many of them, and they knew that political repercussions meant the government would think long and hard before calling in the military to really lock things down.
Lina, my wife, was excused from her office at 12pm along with the rest of the workers. Her company knew that many routes of transportation were going to be impacted, even shut down by the protest, and people had to get out while they could. I didn’t want her to leave the house at all that day, but she was determined to go into work, although many of her colleagues did not. Her attitude, that of her mother, and of many others was one that had been molded by years of displacements and hardships suffered because of enduring conflict in Colombia. Their family had decided to leave their hometown of Neiva because of threats by the guerrilla against the general population in the late 1990s. Many have suffered far worse than that in being displaced, but luckily her family was able to sell off their property and relocate to Bogotá without too much trouble.
She got back to our apartment around 1:00 pm. We turned on the TV to ongoing coverage, and from that moment on watched everything go to pieces.
As usual, the bulk of the march was peaceful, though energetic. A large group of students that came running through the crowd on the live footage scared us at first, like they were running from or toward something serious that was happening. That same group had come running past me in the morning when I was outside with my camera and forced me to duck onto a side street, my heart pounding, thinking they were looking for trouble. After that I decided to go back inside when I walked right past a group of several young men, holding long, jagged, and heavy-looking sticks of wood.
We watched on television as images of the main crowd ran up Avenida El Dorado into the center of the city, towards the Plaza de Bolívar where the Palace of Justice, the Congress and the Casa de Nariño all sit. The Casa de Nariño is the official presidential residence, although the current president, Iván Duque, has chosen to continue living in his fortified residential compound in the north of Bogotá. At the same time, split-screen images showed the first of what would become many confrontations with the police, becoming ever more violent and destructive by degrees.
ESMAD, the Escuadrón móvil anti disturbios, or the riot police, were out in force. After what happened in the last protest, they weren’t taking any chances. It would turn out after the next couple of days that their best still wasn’t going to be good enough. The protests and accompanying riots would continue to build and surge like the tide, ebbing low into the start of the next week and then picking up again mid-week.
The first encounter we saw was between brick-throwing encapuchados and other vandals versus what I will call a water tank. It was a large armored vehicle, like a personnel carrier, but with a heavy water cannon on top near the cab. The tank would drive into a crowd of hooligans, then start blasting them with a high-pressure jet of water to disperse them. In this case, the attackers first backed off, then charged the tank on foot, leaping onto various protrusions and bashing at the reinforced windows with sticks and rocks. The thing retreated backwards out of the side street it was on, then back along a four-lane avenue which was closed in both directions due to the protests. It continued retreating into a walking patrol of ESMAD agents, in full black body armor and shields, who started lobbing tear gas grenades into the pack of vandals, which at last caused them to run the other direction.
The tank seemed fazed, like some enormous black insect which had just gotten swiped on the snout and was trying to figure out what happened. But then it continued forward, accompanied by the ESMAD infantry, into the fray. From then on it was a game of cat and mouse between the ordinary police, ESMAD, determined student protesters, and the groups of destructive vandals. As the days of protest wore on it became easy to distinguish the two groups. They were never in the same place. The massive peaceful concentration of protesters would occur in one area, while terrible violence would break out somewhere else.
The forces of public order were divided, on the run, their initiative lost to the chaos, forced to defensive reaction instead of going on the offensive. In this way, the people on the street seemed to take control of the situation away from the authorities. The state had all the physical power, but the quickness and mobility of the crowds of kept the police running from one place to the next, putting out fires (actual, not metaphorical) instead of keeping them from starting in the first place.
The sun set on Thursday with bonfires of wood and debris starting to spring up in main transit lanes. At least two primary Transmilenio stations had been smashed to pieces, their glass doors bucked and shattered, automated turnstiles turned inside out and ticket dispensing machines battered into scrap for the meager amount of cash inside. The street outside looked like the aftermath of a bomb blast: rubble, bricks, stones, wood, and broken glass everywhere.
It would be easy to focus on the insanity of the vandalism that was occurring in one place as opposed to the important message of the main body of protesters gathered elsewhere. That is, it would be if they HAD a message. I want to be clear: every single peaceful participant of the marches had an issue that they were standing up to protest against, or to stand behind others who were expressing it louder than themselves. But were too many issues on display to get any kind of coherent idea what the protest was really about. Here’s a sampling of what different groups that belong to the overall marches were up in arms for or against (but mostly against):
- Against labor refor
- Against pension reform
- Against privatization of national enterprises like Ecopetrol
- Against corruption
- Against high national taxes
- Against tax cuts for big businesses and increases for the middle class
- For a better minimum wage
- For compliance with the FARC peace accords
- For the defense of social protest
For most of the supporters of the paro, the grievances being aired were a veritable rainbow of progressive social, political, economic and environmental issues. When I worked up the nerve to go outside and do some brief filming on the first day, I saw a group of three girls walking down the street with the main group holding a sign which said, “No more exploitation of our marine wildlife,” just to give you an idea of the diversity of issues on display. One moment of clarity did break through the fog of activist rhetoric on Monday, when the entire march seemed to be diverted to agitate against abuses of women’s rights. The day was set aside to mark a kind of second Women’s Day, although the regular Día de la mujer happened back in March. The rest of the protests were an incoherent blur of “Resistencia!”, “Contra el gobierno!” or “Lucha para la paz y justicia!” The entire 2 million plus student body of Bogotá seemed to be caught in a kind of religious fervor of outrage against the government for perceived crimes and abuses.
The current president, Ivan Duque, has had something of a controversial term in office. To begin with, he had to follow up the administration of Juan Manuel Santos, the two-term president who negotiated and signed the peace accords with the FARC, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, and set the country square on the path to economic recovery and success following decades of violent internal conflict and drug wars. Not to say he eliminated those things; the country is still beset with lower-level conflicts, there remain many no-go red zones, and more cocaine is being exported from Colombia, by volume, than ever before.
Nonetheless, it was a big improvement. Many people, including myself, were encouraged to come to Colombia around 2016 and 2017 because of the relaxing and opening of the country in terms of security and freedom to travel. Even today, when traveling the shiny new asphalt highways of Colombia, military patrols watch the roads and toll booths, throwing a big enthusiastic thumbs up to passing motorists to indicate that the road ahead is clear of guerrilla or anything else that might want to rob, attack, or snatch them up and carry them off into the jungle. Kidnappings, or secuestros, have always been a major issue for the country, and still are to this day, but nowhere near the levels they reached in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.
Lina has many stories of kidnapping. Relatives, friends, friends of friends. A friend of her father was held for several years, forced to live like an animal and literally locked in a cage, before they finally let him go. Her father himself was stopped on the road between Bogotá and Neiva by an armed gang, and his car taken at gunpoint. In Neiva itself, a famous group of bandits was the Motosierristas, or “Chainsawers,” because they would take their victims out into the monte and cut them into pieces with the selfsame power tool.
These are the kind of stories you hear all the time in Colombia. You can be visiting a friend or eating dinner with someone, and a story will come out that freezes your blood. A recent yarn I heard was the charming tale of a ranch which belongs to a friend’s father, and how two of his workers had been killed and decapitated and left in one of his barns to be found the next day by the other ranch hands. This wasn’t even personal. It was meant to send a message to my friend’s father that it was dangerous for him to continue to own that land. A day or two later a strange man called offering to buy the ranch and making veiled references to the fate of the two workers. Her father gave the man a firm but polite no, hired more workers, and increased security. The incident is currently under investigation by the Fiscalía, or prosecutor’s office, but in the meantime there isn’t much else he can do. That’s not to say that this kind of thing happens all the time, but often this is still the way business is done in some of the more remote and ungovernable areas of the country.
Although these and similar troubles continue, the country is a very different place than it was around the end of the last century. People are, on the whole, becoming more optimistic. The economic climate is improving, and despite many ongoing issues, the country is in about the most positive political shape in South America. Which is what makes these protests even more puzzling. Because there is no centralized issue for people to unite around, and yet they all still feel a kind of general unease. A malaise, a vague sense of doom hangs around the future for many people, especially young people, throughout the world in these strange modern times.
It’s not just the other protest movements happening in other countries. Hong Kong is teetering at the precipice of being ground under the bootheel of Communist China, and their situation seems far more hopeless and desperate than that of Colombia. Yet people continue to protest non-violently in the face of brutal repression by the police and government forces, knowing full well that there is nothing to be done about their eventual swallowing by the great red Chinese dragon. They say it themselves: we know our situation is hopeless, but we want the world and history to hear us, no matter what.
In Chile, extreme conservative reforms have forced people there into the streets against very real economic realities. Prices and inflation are skyrocketing, privatization is snatching national companies from the public interest, and inequality is ever widening the income gap, a situation which might ring true to people in the United States. We have no nationalized industries in the sense that many countries have in Latin America. But cost of living increases and growing disparities between rich and poor have created a similar economic malaise in our people. I believe that a major component of the growing tension and political polarization in the U.S. is driven by this. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Throughout human history, no other civilization has ever survived this situation without major reforms or significant changes that would make its previous political state almost unrecognizable. The more common response to extreme wealth inequality seems to be revolution, anarchy, and collapse.
Thursday night. Around and after sunset, something else starts to take place. Something which almost overshadows the rioting and looting happening in other parts of the city. Everywhere, people start to take out pots and pans, to walk down the street or hang out the windows of their houses or apartments, and bang on them with spoons, forks, wood and metal, whatever they can get their hands on to pound out a rhythm with. This is the infamous cacerolazo, or the banging of pots, a Latin tradition if there ever was one. This kind of universal ringing support has long been the underpinning of popular movements in the region. Political noisemaking is not limited to the banging of pots either. For example, during the dictatorship of Rojas Pinilla, a particular three-toot honk of a car horn was meant to signify a popular slogan that meant, in short, “Pinilla out!”
The cacerolazo may have been planned and the idea of it seeded to spread far and wide before the protest started. But however the idea took hold, it came on strong. At the time of this writing, a full week after the protests began, there has been a cacerolazo every night. The first few nights it was the strongest, but now wherever marchers gather there is sure to be an accompaniment of banging pots, beating out disparate rhythms in rising and falling cadence. Now, days later, I will often hear a lone cacerola player leaning out their window or walking down the street, maybe a bike rider passing will beat out the familiar rhythm with a carabiner against his metal water bottle. “Viva el paro nacional!” is the cry heard from these brave individuals, marking the hours of the ongoing protest like town criers.
The government acceded to the demands for conversation, if nothing else, and starting on Sunday the 24th of November convened a series of dialogues with the “leaders” of the initial protest organizing committee. In a stunning show of insensitivity to the myriad demands of protesters, or perhaps a deliberate show of indifference (depends who you ask), President Ivan Duque and other officials met with business and industry leaders before anyone from the protest. But the question had to be asked, how much control did the people who were the initial organizers of the paro have over its outcome? The thing had taken on a life of its own, and even if the government can even agree on a list of talking points with organizers, the craziness in the streets would continue until it runs out of steam on its own, and whoever was meeting with the president certainly didn’t represent all those people, or even a majority.
On Friday, I cross the city with my laptop and notebook in my backpack, and a large bag of dirty laundry over my shoulder to wash at my mother-in-law’s apartment in Centro. I’ve been having washer issues lately, but with the protests, every laundromat, store, and anything else along the main protest routes (such as Calle 45 behind my apartment), has shuttered and closed for business until the instability blows over. With my heavy bags, I walk up the street to see if there are any buses running. A few go by, not the ones I need, and far fewer than normal. The protest has shut down several major thoroughfares and the already godawful traffic of Bogotá is going through a process of total collapse. I start to wonder if I will even make it across the couple of barrios between here and Centro. The Transmilenio station is closed and shuttered, a huge number of stations closed down and buses taken out of commission to avoid damage and traffic blockages. The main avenues seem to be open at this hour, before everyone starts to get out of work, but I can’t get a bus or taxi to save my life. The few taxis that do go by are taken, and the bus I need, the 97, just won’t appear. As I start to get desperate and entertain thoughts of walking or going back for my bicycle, a 97 appears. By some miracle it’s not even crowded. This bus is headed into Centro, which has been the main arrival and concentration point of the marches, so people aren’t lining up to get on. Many do, though, and together we watch the tall buildings of Bogota’s central district get closer and closer. We pass Colpatria, the office tower owned by ScotiaBank/Colpatria which dominates the skyline, huge graphic LED displays marking important dates or events on its sides, 50 stories high.
I get down from the bus in front of the Torres de Fenicia, the building of Lina’s mother’s apartment, facing the Universidades station of Transmilenio. As I walk past, a few desperate commuters stand before the rolled shutter door, perhaps hoping it will open and let them catch a much-needed ride out of there. They will not have that luck today, and a few blocks away the station at the Museo del Oro, or Gold Museum, will be torn apart within hours by marauding vandals. Today there is a planned cacerolazo in the Plaza de Bolívar in the late afternoon, and marchers are streaming up Séptima and Décima avenues toward the symbolic center of the city in order to mark it by banging out their wild rhythms on pots and pans.
Chaos erupts in another part of the city, Fontibon, outside a Transmilenio station at Patio Bonito. The crowds rush the station, battering down doors and smashing everything in sight. Debris fires erupt in the transit lanes. Later that night, a related mob will attack Supercade, an administrative company building which provides services for paying bills and utilities. They will sack the parking garage, and security camera images appear on the news showing people running out of the building carrying bicycles abandoned by Supercade workers, who with luck are all at home. ESMAD has its hands full managing other situations which are erupting throughout the city, and it’s a long time before they can reach the building and drive the looters out.
Around this time, ESMAD decides enough is enough, and moves in to disperse the crowd in the Plaza de Bolívar before things get out of hand and government buildings are attacked. People have already broken the barricade around the statue of Simón Bolívar in the middle of the wide sloping plaza and the monument appears to be in danger of total vandalism. ESMAD starts to maneuver the crowd back onto side streets with shields, truncheons, and gas grenades.
Up until this point, there have been injuries. Police and ESMAD have been attacked, and the well-equipped riot police have been measured in returning the favor. But tensions are high, and the longer this goes on, the more animosity seems to be developing on both sides. News footage has appeared of regular national police being pulled off their motorcycles and beaten by attackers. We’ve seen an ESMAD agent kicking a student on the ground. We’ve seen news footage of medical personnel attending to protestors, rioters, and police officers alike.
But when ESMAD decides to clear the Plaza de Bolívar, an errant rubber bullet hits an eighteen-year-old student, Dylan Cruz, in the head. He will be taken to the hospital in critical condition and die two days later on Sunday night. This will not help matters. His name will become a rallying cry and lead to even more fervent protests, this time against supposed excesses of the ESMAD. But the situation is dangerous. Public order is being wantonly violated across the city, and the state is reacting in kind. People are going to get hurt no matter what.
Another police officer loses an eye after getting hit by a rock. His statement appears on the news alongside Dylan Cruz’s sister, appealing for calm and an end to the violence. The violence continues. It’s worth noting that, even days later, the main protest is still, for the large part, peaceful. Among the praiseworthy achievements of the Colombian government is guaranteeing the right to protest, a right exercised with vigor by the Colombian people. But it seems that with any march of any real size these days, the anarchists come right along with it. The troublemakers. Angry, disenfranchised people out looking for a fight, or robbers and muggers looking for opportunities to exploit.
In the end they victimize only themselves. The bus stations destroyed, public infrastructure attacked, streets torn up, stores looted and buildings smashed. Not only are these the services that cater to ordinary people like them every day, but all of that damage will have to be paid for. The outgoing mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, gets on TV and tells the people that the damages are coming out of the city’s taxes. The very issues that started the protests in the first place, that transit fares, taxes, inflation and the cost of living are too damn high, become even more impacted. Those who see themselves as victims in their rage create ever more victims, and in the end, everyone pays.
Part Four: And the Beat Goes On…
Saturday morning, we wake up to the news that a police station in Cauca, a department in the southwest of Colombia, someone drove a truck bomb into a police station, killing three officers and injuring dozens more. Two of the explosive canisters rolled off the incoming kamikaze vehicle and into two houses next to the station, detonating and leveling them. Gangs and guerrillas which are already in conflict with the state are taking advantage of the public disorder to carry out attacks of their own. To me, this is the moment of highest tension. What is going to happen now? Is it going to be war in the streets?
The stress is starting to get to me. I demand that we get out of the city. This is when I come face to face with that hard facet of the Colombian mindset that refuses to be driven out again. Lina’s family is no exception to the vast numbers of people, millions actually, that have been displaced in one way or another by the internal conflict, within living memory. I insist that we need to get out of the city and head to their country house. In the end, Lina agrees to come with me to their finca just outside Bogotá, but her mother stays. “We won’t be driven out,” they both say. “No matter what.”
That morning, we go to one of the few open stores for some much-needed parts for our washing machine. The city is eerily quiet and empty of cars and pedestrians. That afternoon, we drive out of Bogotá through what should be bumper-to-bumper traffic, only to find the route more or less wide open. The quietness is the most unsettling part. Bogotá is a noisy place, and when it gets quiet, something is very wrong. A police curfew (toque de queda) was declared the night before, first at 8pm in the worst affected barrios, then at 9pm city-wide. The normally bustling streets in front of the Centro apartment were dead silent, so quiet that it woke me in the middle of the night. I’m accustomed to sleeping with earplugs here, the noise sometimes gets so bad, and I grew up in the woods of northern California where the nights are so quiet that the silence itself seems to make a sound. Any noise at all means that something is about to happen. I went to bed the night before with no ear protection, sinking into the blessed silence and giving thanks that it was quiet for once. But late at night I came fully awake, though nothing at all had happened. The fact that there was no noise at all, in a place like Bogotá, was so unusual that I couldn’t even sleep through the silence.
Lina and I drive to Subachoque, the small town about an hour outside Bogotá where the family’s country house sits on a blustery ridge overlooking a sweeping valley of wetlands, other hills and ridgelines, the glittering lights of Bogotá in the distance blotting out the stars at night. Outside the city, you wouldn’t know that anything at all was happening. We buy a few supplies and drive up the hill to the house, where we find the place decked out for Christmas, nobody around, and the power out. All the other houses around, mostly brick-and-tin-roof campesino huts, still have power. Of course. It never rains but it pours. Later, we find out that her mother hadn’t paid back dues on the electricity bill that had been piling up for several months, due to an inaccurate commercial classification by the utility on the property. Lina’s brother used to operate a cheese factory here, which meant they had to pay the industrial power rates.
I’m so relieved to be outside the city, away from whatever is going on there, that I couldn’t care less. Lina and I sit and read to each other in the last of the daylight, then light a fire in the upstairs fireplace and sit playing Magic: the Gathering by candlelight. We drink wine and laugh and it’s a wonderful, peaceful night. Sometime well after dark, I walk out on the balcony and look back towards Bogotá, its lights shimmering in the atmospheric distortion across the distance between us. From here it looks almost serene, peaceful, like there’s nothing out of the ordinary happening at all. Planes land and take off from El Dorado without a care in the world.
The next day we will have to drive back to Bogotá. Lina’s office will be open on Monday morning, and she will be expected there. Rather, she will expect to be there. We have her mother’s SUV, and the only other way for her to get back would be to take the bus and Transmilenio home, both of which are partially shut down and very exposed to the ongoing disorder. Recent news highlights have been of looters breaking in and sacking a large Ara store, a discount supermarket, and of a city bus getting bus-jacked, its windows smashed out, then taken for a joyride by a couple dozen exultant vandals leaning out the windows, holding onto the top and sides and hooting and hollering like howler monkeys. Quite a feat for a bus built with rounded corners on all edges, hard to grab onto without first smashing out all the windows and tearing the hatch of the sunroof off to get a better handhold. No, we have to go back into Bogotá, and I have to drive.
As we re-enter the city, we survey the devastation like a pair of somber diplomats appraising the scene of a natural disaster. We comment on the issues at stake, listen to the news reports for the latest updates, and pray that nothing stops us between the outskirts and the center of Bogotá. We pass a couple of Transmilenio stations with the glass boarding doors smashed and hanging off, big protest slogans tagged across the outside. The ride home is incident-free, even relaxing compared to the typical re-entry into Bogotá. Any rolo (slang for a person from Bogotá) with a finca likes to get out of the city of a weekend and relax in the countryside, so most weekends, especially holiday weekends, are a nightmare of snarled traffic getting in and out of the city anywhere near peak hours.
That night, and every night since, have seen yet another cacerolazo. The people organize marches and bang their pots. They gather in parks and plazas to bang their pots. They walk down random streets, like in front of my apartment, alone or in small groups, banging their pots. Viva el paro nacional! As I write this, I can hear this afternoon’s march ramping up on Calle 45 on the other side of the Petrobras station behind my apartment. Whistles, horns, drums, people cheering. The protest chants have been shifting daily, now it’s, Justicia por Dylan!” (justice for Dylan) along with everything else. I don’t even want to go to the back window and look at them anymore, take pictures or video from my secure and undisclosed compound on the fifth floor above the street. It’s just more of the same. Their energy has not abated, but perhaps that’s the point. Wear down the populace and, by extension, the government by crippling the city, paralyzing mobility, keeping the business of the day from going on. These are the strategies utilized by any protest movement, to keep their message alive, to force dialogue, pressure those in power to sit down at the negotiating table.
But what is the message? What is the point? We can understand their frustration, understand their feeling of being victims of…what? The state? The rich and powerful? Life itself? The majority of protesters themselves are students and young people, another common facet of most of these kinds of movements. I get it. I’ve been that age. You are powerless in almost every sense of the word. You can’t legislate, can’t make important decisions. Hell, you barely have control over what happens in your daily life. In 2020, unimaginable scenarios like global warming and climate change loom over us like slow-breaking tidal waves. It’s hard not to feel a sense of existential dread, in some cases bordering on panic, if you’re even half paying attention to the state of the world. The United States has an angry, narcissistic man-child high on diet pills at the helm of the nation, with his finger on the nuclear trigger. China looks like it’s poised to take over the world, or at least the world economy, and everywhere we look, nationalism and polarized conflict seem to be the norm rather than the exception.
Now imagine that pervasive dread and malaise channeled into one outcome: a huge protest march. Whatever your cause du jour, whatever issue drives or scares or upsets you the most, well now you can come out and wear it on your sleeve along with a bunch of like-minded individuals. It’s almost irresistible. All the energy of youth plus a good measure of pent-up rage and frustration at the state of the world, especially in a country like Colombia, where daily struggles far outweigh those of most fully-developed western countries. Sprinkle on a dash of corruption, always a staple in any Latin country, no exceptions made here. Don’t forget recent protests in Chile and Bolivia as well, which resulted in the ousting of the populist president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, now in exile in Argentina by way of Mexico. Now add more than a million Venezuelans, fleeing the utter collapse of the economy and society at large in their own country.
Colombia has led the way in the last couple of years with supporting the Venezuelan exodus, an example that the United States would do well to learn from in these days of xenophobia, blatant racism, and anti-immigrant rhetoric. But the end result of giving so many people from their sister republic a chance is that Colombians have saddled themselves with an additional burden of a huge number of desperate, displaced people, when the country was already struggling with low employment and providing enough economic opportunities for everyone. Many Venezuelans have passed through to other countries, Ecuador, Peru, and many have stayed. Some have turned to criminality or brought it with them; my own neighborhood has suffered a sharp uptick in robberies and muggings since the exodus began. A few Venezuelans have jumped right in to the destructive anarchy that has trailed the paro nacional, and a few of them have been captured and deported. Not to give the good ones a bad name, but any mass migration of people is going to bring a few bad apples along with everyone else who is just trying to get by.
Any of these issues could prompt a whole other essay on their own. Especially the problem of Venezuela; Colombia living with that particular dumpster fire burning away on its doorstep creates a mountain of concerns that we could spend several books on. But it’s difficult to think about that when there is a massive and potentially violent protest manifesting right outside your front door. At 2:30 in the afternoon there is little cause for alarm. But once the sun starts to go down…well, I guess we’ll just see, won’t we?
I don’t know how much more of this I can take. Last time I was this close to a big protest was 2008 in Oakland, California, when the more energetic Occupy Wall Street protests and police confrontations were taking place. I lived about fifty blocks away from downtown, in North Oakland, but I could hear the distant rumblings and see the floodlights and almost make out the clouds of smoke and tear gas then. Right now, in Bogotá, the tear gas attacks (gases lacrimogenas) have been close enough, the wind blowing the right direction a couple of times that my eyes have started to water and my throat to burn just from a distant whiff of the fumes.
It’s Wednesday the 27th of November. Tomorrow will mark one week since the first protests started. They show no signs of stopping. I’m drinking too much and smoking too much pot in the meantime just to cope. The power is still out in Subachoque but I might make my way back there just the same. It’s a far sight calmer than here. Farmers in the countryside don’t protest. They tend to solve their problems between themselves, with knives and machetes. Recently a gang of a dozen or so Venezuelans was attacking and robbing people in the small flower-growing community of El Rosal, near Subachoque. Some locals got together and gave them the Mano Negra, or Black Hand, which basically means vigilante justice, sometimes the only kind of justice that can be relied on here. They tracked down the bandits and murdered them all. You can live in peace side by side with country people here, so long as you don’t piss them off. All told, more straightforward and easier to understand than strange political machinations, senseless vandalism, and indecipherable social justice agendas.
For now, today’s march seems to have passed me by, much like the weather. In fact, it has been so consistent from day to day that we might as well mount a “protest report” right along the weather report on the nightly news. I can hear the headlines now.
“Well Marcela, we’ve got the usual protests sweeping down from the universities in the afternoon, with a strong possibility of cacerolas in the evening, and a 20% chance of anarchistic violence in your neighborhood later tonight.”
“Thanks Juan. Here’s Pablo with sports.”
Cut to commercial. We’ll be right back.
The newscasts have presented coverage of the protests in such a matter-of-fact tone that it could indeed be a weather report. Straight faces on the presenters while an over-the-shoulder graphic shows live shots of masked bandits smashing up a Dollar King store. Even the reporters close to the action, the ones who have sucked up some tear gas themselves, keep reporting, describing what they’re seeing, playing it straight even under threat of violence.
One reporter, Sergio, coughing from tear gas fumes, explained in a calm, measured voice that they had just been threatened by the mob they were filming as it destroyed a Transmilenio station, and they had to find somewhere else to report from. The next thing we heard was loud static as audio communication was suddenly cut. The announcer explained in a calm, deadpan voice that they were attempting to reestablish communication. A few minutes later, Sergio’s voice reappeared, breathing hard, and the image cut to a shot from a nearby pedestrian bridge of what looked like hundreds of people streaming in and out of the bus station as they smashed it to pieces and tore out whatever they could carry away.
“We will continue reporting,” said Sergio, in his unassailable zen-like calm, “as long as we are able.”
Update: 23 January 2020
Well the city is still standing. And life going on more or less as it usually does. Since November the country settled into the month or so of festivities that accompany Christmas and the New Year in Colombia and throughout Latin America. Christmas being the festivity of the birth of our lord and savior Jesus Christ by his holy and sacred mother the Virgin Mary, Latin Americans like to really get down and jam on the parties. From about mid-December until mid-January, it’s nonstop music and drinks and family time and fireworks and out with old year and in with the new. Then everyone drags themselves back into their offices and classrooms around the end of January and get back to the daily grind.
Universities don’t start up again until near the end of January, so we’ve been enjoying how quiet the city has been the last couple of weeks. We did some traveling over the holidays proper, but have been back in Bogotá since early January. With all the students back with their families and a significant chunk of the population still on long-term vacation, this city reaches peak calmness around this time. We can walk down to the Parkway, a long strip of park-like grass and benches with restaurants and stores and some of the city district’s more upscale apartments, and not have our conversation drowned out by the roar of a dozen passing colectivo buses belching diesel fumes and grinding their brakes, taxis honking and personal cars jostling to get around each other. I comment to Lina that it’s the most peaceful I’ve ever seen this city, and she agrees.
Two days ago was the 21st, marking two months since the start of the paro, and they were at it again. Before the students even got back into classes, they mounted a large protest centered on the National University, focused on government support for education along with the usual slurry of other demands. The marchers went up and down some of the major avenues, snarling traffic anew, but there were no widespread outbreaks of looting and violence. Mostly it was a quiet affair. My assessment was that everyone was still a bit hung over from a month of partying and didn’t have the energy to get out there and really start wrecking things. Give them a month or two, they’ll be back at it. Towards the end of the year when the school sessions start winding down is peak protest season in Colombia, when the students are agitated and restless and ready for some action.
It might seem unfair that I keep focusing attention on the questionable activities of students and young people, but for the most part that’s who you see in the street. There have been some associated women’s marches and an ongoing indigenous march across the country called the Minga Indígena, but the Minga is certainly not connected with the paro, though they seem to consider each other fellow travelers. Social justice is, after all, an umbrella flung far and wide for all comers, they just might not be the best groups to have rubbing up against each other when it comes time to set an agenda.
Colombia is beset with social, economic, political and environmental issues. Its population, landmass, and GDP are all small compared to many countries. Poverty is rampant, inequality of opportunity is an incredible challenge, as much political as it is geographical. A violent past has given birth to a tumultuous present, and many old and troublesome ghosts still haunt the countryside and long corridors of the cities. But there are a lot of things Colombia gets right compared to other countries in the region. The health care system, unbalanced and disarrayed it might be, works for everyone. You can get medical care if you need it. Might not be the best, but someone will see you eventually and you won’t lose your house over it. That’s more than we can say in the United States. There is a system of obligatory national pension for all citizens, and other government initiatives to help people with property ownership and improvements. Land ownership is a major issue in Colombia, especially the returning of lands expropriated by guerrillas or the government, and ownership levels are high even among the poorest classes of society. They might not have much else, but they have a home which belongs to them.
It remains to be seen what kind of major protests, social movements, or political changes await us in 2020. A new mayor, Claudia López, just took over for Enrique Peñalosa, outgoing alcalde of Bogotá. Already hashtags are trending for #ClaudiaRenuncie (Claudia renounce, or step down), which are usually among the demands of any protest. They always seem to want the mayor or the president or the minister or whoever is at the top of whatever institution they see as being behind a particular problem to just quit. Wonder what would happen if they got their demands and the whole government just quit at once? Corruption would be gone, but so would everything else. Social services would stop functioning. Cities would shut down. The police would disappear and anarchy would rule the streets. On second thought, that might be what a lot of them want in the first place.
I believe that common dialogue and working together are always the solution. Even if the person you think or know is responsible seems downright evil to you. Very few people are truly evil, and in my experience, most of us just want the best for everyone. Here’s hoping that 2020 will bring more cooperation and less confrontation, although everything I see in Colombia, the U.S. and around the world seems to be tipping the other direction.
But hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?