Photo credit: “Paro Nacional, Primera Línea Bogotá, May 28” – courtesy of Maria Paula Betancourt García
On April 28, 2021, thousands of Colombians took to the streets to protest a highly ill-timed and unpopular tax reform. The law implemented a 19 percent tax on goods and services, echoing previous tax, labor, and pension reforms of 2019 which had similarly fueled a general strike against austerity and privatization policies.
Colombia’s nationwide strike has lasted for over a month. Blockades have further eroded an already distressed economy, with some cities suffering shortages of consumer goods. At least 43 people have died at the hands of the state, and over 379 protestors are reported missing. More importantly, the strike has induced a social crisis and confirmed the decline of the hegemonic political force of “Uribismo.” The politics of Uribismo has shaped Colombia’s political life since the early 2000s when Álvaro Uribe, a far-right figure with connections to paramilitaries who vowed to pursue the war against rural guerrillas, reshaped politics to his agenda.
But an emergent “anti-Uribista” narrative has now mobilized thousands against the government.
One fundamental aspect of the persistent nationwide and inter-class mobilizations has been its targeting of the state’s practice of what is called “counter-insurgency managerialism.” This tactic emphasizes warfare practices over the welfare policies that might otherwise characterize a functioning social democracy. This legitimizes the transformation of political antagonists into public enemies that must be attacked, disappeared, eliminated. The brunt of the violence of counter-insurgency violence is faced by mostly peasants, afro-Colombians, and indigenous communities in the countryside, but also impoverished populations —especially women— in the cities. This model is just another moment in a historical violence continuum against marginalized groups all across Colombia. What makes it significant now is the scope and the scale of the protests that, among other things, has put into question the state-form that has emerged in Colombia since the 1960s and the very legitimacy of the state monopoly on violence.
This time, therefore, it is having a different outcome. The National Strike has put into relief the decline of the so-called “Centaur state” that embodies Uribismo: the repression of the many that is causally linked to benevolence towards the few.
What is the Centaur state? Following Loïc Wacquant, it serves the interests of the upper classes, disciplines and regulates the lower classes, and is fearful of popular majorities. The parallel to a mythical creature with the head of a man and the body of a horse captures the dissonance of its approach to politics: a liberal state at the top cares for the upper classes, and a “punitive paternalism” at the bottom fearsome contains the popular majority. The Colombian Centaur state was crafted in the 1950s and 1960s through a combination of macroeconomic stability and a counter-insurgent administration.
This Centaur state produced a schizophrenic nation: the rich and powerful experience a social and political reality completely alien to poor and marginalized populations who are historically excluded from the benefits of sustained economic growth and mistreated as potential ‘insurgents’. In order to secure itself and keep the masses docile, symbolic and physical violence, economic exclusion, territorial dispossession, and state repression are everyday weapons. Paradoxically at once democratic and authoritarian, instead of resolving social conflicts, the Centaur state reproduces them. The recent protests in Colombia are important precisely because they aim to dismantle the illiberal state as it is and open up possibilities for a truly democratic alternative.
What began as a strike against economic policies has exploded into a multi-layered uprising against both the state itself and Colombia’s political elites. The movement has also reinvigorated and deepened forms of democratic life that went dormant during the pandemic.
The greater persistence and the enduring strength of the 2021 strike, compared to a similar strike in 2019, is rooted in the fact that economic hardships have increased in Colombia over the last two years. Economic inequality is always a breeding ground for unrest, but this national strike is also partly fueled by the social crisis triggered by the pandemic. Poverty has increased precipitously, with more than 21 million Colombians now living below the poverty line. In 2020 alone, around 3.6 million Colombians were living on less than $95 a month.
Despite sustained rates of economic growth, Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world. According to the World Bank, in 2019 Colombia’s Gini index was 0.53 making it the second most unequal country in the Americas after Honduras. Fabio Echeverri Correa, a leader of an industrial guild and former campaign manager and advisor for Álvaro Uribe, captured the coexistent duality of the Centaur state during the 1980s in a famous phrase: “The country is doing bad, but the economy is doing well.”
In 2019, the government both threatened protesters with violence and called for a “national conversation,” but this year, President Ivan Duque’s administration has abandoned the pretense of negotiation for pure intimidation and coercion. On Monday, May 17, following a meeting with representatives of one striking group, Duque ordered an attack by the police, its anti-riot unit (ESMAD), and the national army.
This is an Uribista script that follows a modality of statal counter-insurgency violence, familiar to Colombians. Back in 2002-2010, Uribe consistently used violence to suppress dissent and marginalize his political opposition. At the peak of the violence, almost 3.5 million people had become victims of multiple forms of violence, associated with state and non-state actors. Uribe, now under investigation by the Supreme Court for corruption, has also been linked to the “false positives” scandal which involved the extra-judicial killing of at least 6,402 people.
Duque’s approach to the strike is simply another version of Uribismo. What is relevant however is that the current policy of using violence to repress dissent contradicts the very narrative upon which the current government’s legitimacy was promoted in the first place. Duque campaigned in 2018 on his embrace of the “extreme center,” and asserted that he wished to bridge the gap between extremists on the left and the right. Duque’s party claimed that the 2016 Peace Accords between the government of former President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) and the FARC rebels was biased in favor of the rebels, and promised to “hacer trizas” (shred) them. Backed by mainstream media that bought into this narrative, Duque defeated the social democratic candidate Petro who he portrayed as an “extreme left” candidate.
Duque’s response to the strike, however, has revealed that he is not a consensus seeker. And unsurprisingly, his aggression towards the protestors has won Uribe’s approval as well. On April 30, Uribe defended “the right of soldiers and police to use their firearms to defend their integrity and to defend people and property from criminal acts of terrorist vandalism.”
This is the bread and butter of uribismo: the government delegitimizes protests by accusing the opposition of “terrorism” or “vandalism,” equating all dissent with “communist terror.” As the minister of defense Diego Molano, declared in early May, government forces were confronting a type of “low-intensity terrorism” across the whole country, a communications strategy that precisely legitimizes state terror.
Not surprisingly, the scale of the human rights crisis during this current national strike has been enormous. At least 43 extrajudicial killings have been reported between April 28 and May 27. Also, the NGO Temblores, which documents human rights abuses, has registered 3.405 cases of police brutality, and 1,445 arbitrary arrests. There are reports of 47 victims of police violence who have injuries to their eyes resulting from ricocheting rubber or real bullets A detailed video analysis published by The Washington Post reveals clearly that the police are responsible for the deaths of at least four protesters.
The Colombian government initially rejected a request from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to send a team of observers to Colombia.
But the double dose of state repression and economic deprivation that are the cornerstones of the Centaur state fuels the determination of protests that are mostly led by young organizers. According to a survey by the Universidad del Rosario, 84% of young adults support the strike, and 74% of them identify unemployment as Colombia’s main problem. Many see the permanent implementation of a basic income for families as a crucial demand.
But this would, of course, undermine the governance strategy of the Centaur state.
The government has responded by portraying the strikers as activists manipulated by the left leader Gustavo Petro, who in 2018 reached the presidential runoffs and who is now leading the polls for next year’s presidential election. The state’s narrative —that the protestors are mere pawns of extremist groups—presents them as evidence of the “failure” of the 2016 Peace Agreements.
There is no evidence that this is true: The protests appear to be self-organized and spontaneous, focused on the objective economic inequalities that plague the nation. Aside from mass protests, in the last month, Colombia has witnessed diverse assemblies of protesters representing taxi and truck drivers, LGBTIQ+ groups, feminist collectives, students, middle-class workers, and unions, among others. Alternative media and analysts have documented these meetings in public spaces, middle and low-income neighborhoods. Places like central bus stations, public parks, or the entrance to popular neighborhoods have been reclaimed as sites for resistance. These spaces have been renamed: “Portal Resistencia” in Bogotá, “Parque de la Resistencia” in Medellín, and “Puerto Resistencia” in Cali.
Street solidarity has fostered the forms of popular democratic citizenship that the Centaur state deplores. Despite being the target of state violence, they are also venues of sociability, listening to and composing music, sharing and reading books, and feasts. Lacking basic amenities and access to education, young protesters in Cali, Pereira, and Bogotá, have been able to improve their living conditions during the national strike by learning and socializing at these protest sites. They eat in the “ollas comunitarias” or community pots, sustained mainly by external support, by neighborhood families, and mostly by women.
Following the example of 2019-2020 protests in Chile, in these “focos” or protest sites, young activists have established the “primera linea” (frontline) of resistance to the regime. Hooded protestors have organized to defend neighborhoods from police brutality and step forward in collective leadership. A group of frontliners in Bogotá named “Escudos Azules” (Blue Shields), declared in a recent interview that their activism is a model for a democratic government steeped in social activism. “This is not about class war, but about general injustice,” one said.
The emergence of these popular assemblages has shed light on the importance of the street and the neighborhood as a vivid location for politics. Instead of occupying the central plazas of cities, activists reclaim and defend their own homes from the police.
Some of these protests have taken the form of popular assemblies, and no previous left wing organizations, or Gustavo Petro, have been able to assume a leadership position in a movement that is not likely to be successful in electoral politics. Nevertheless, the democratic experience of public deliberation, securing sustenance, and experiencing solidarity through street sociability nurtures a grass-roots democratic ethos. Mutually antagonistic groups are working together. For example, barras bravas (hooligans) from multiple football teams across the country protested against the government together, adapting their acerbic chants to march against police brutality aimed at them every weekend.
These initiatives might reveal glimmers of a democratic future for Colombia, a much needed sliver of hope in an otherwise bleak and dark situation. It remains to be seen if this opening is going to fundamentally and durably shape Colombia’s political future.
The movement has laid bare the untenability of the Centaur state: whether it can depose it remains to be seen. But Colombians are holding politicians and técnicos (technocrats) accountable for the regressive fiscal and monetary policies they have enforced. Progressive organizations, feminist collectives, critical study groups are key actors in these mobilizations and they might attempt to consolidate a progressive voting bloc. There are two possibilities: the strike might be an opportunity for the Colombian Left to reassert itself, as Forrest Hylton has explained in an interview; or it might invigorate the far-right.
It is not yet possible to know. But the current social mobilization puts the mechanisms of the Centaur state, and its regime of accumulation and of political (dis)organization, into question. The order of uribismo that has been dominant for about 20 years, and an accompanying myth of economic stability and democracy that supported the longest civil war in the Western Hemisphere has been shaken.
Julián Gómez-Delgado is a sociology and historical studies Ph.D. student at NSSR who studies capitalist development, social conflict, and state formation. Twitter: @juliangomezdel
*Many thanks to Udeepta Chakravarty, Emmanuel Guerisoli and Isabel Peñaranda Currie for their thorough comments, which improved this essay significantly.