This article is the second in a series titled “Pangs & Pangs in Colombia.” Part 1 can be read here.
On 28 April 2021, nationwide protests sparked in Colombia after the government of Iván Duque proposed a tax reform bill. The bill, which would raise costs for everyday Colombianos, was widely unpopular. As a result, the bill was pulled on 2 May. Nonetheless, the government insists on proposing tax reform and the popular base insists on demonstrating. Latina Republic interviewed Laura on 13 May to get her perspective on this critical moment in Colombia’s history.
Laura lives in Cali, Colombia, the beating heart of the paro nacional. As denizens of Cali, Laura and other Caleños have been directly involved in the front lines of the resistance protests. She has marched alongside fellow protestors, as well as directly aided them in their effort through donations and volunteering her time.
For Laura, the paro nacional represents a turning point in the political and social consciousness of Colombianos. Key among the various points that she makes, Laura emphasizes that the protests have precedent, that Colombianos are as united as ever, and that state actors like Álvaro Uribe and his political party Centro Democrático are behind the violent repression of the paro nacional.
Latina Republic: Thank you Laura for sitting with us and sharing your story. Could you please tell us about yourself.
Laura: My name is Laura, I am from Cali, Colombia, and I am thirty-one years old. I am an environmental administrator and I dedicate myself to being a yoga instructor. I am close to the people in Cali who are the “Primeras Líneas.” They belong to the groups of protesters who are currently resisting through barricades that they have put up in certain sectors of the city.
I got previously involved with them after giving yoga classes to a handful of them. They are out there trying to demand their rights.
LR: Which Colombianos are protesting and why?
Laura: The citizens who are protesting at this time in Colombia—specifically in major cities—are mostly the generation between nineteen and thirty-five years old. They are mainly middle and lower-middle class people, even the poor and extremely poor as is common in Colombia.
The working class and students are protesting. In general terms, a large part of the population. However, the participation of adults older than forty is low because they have a more fearful mentality of protesting in a country like Colombia. So, this is turning out to be more of a fight by the young people.
The reason why we are currently protesting in Colombia is because we have been trying for many years to demand from the government. Demand that Colombians can have a guarantee that corruption will be extinguished, that poverty and extreme poverty will be extinguished, that there be free healthcare, that there be free education, that there be humanitarian aid.
Aid in general for people who, for example, have been in difficult times since the pandemic and before. It started because about a year and a half ago, on 21 November, we also protested against a tax issue where they wanted to impose reforms on education, pension reforms. Especially reforms on the age of retirement.
The 21 November 2019 (21N) protests in Colombia were historic for various reasons, chief among them being that the “cacerolazo” made its debut. The pot-clanging sounds characteristic of the cacerolazo—previously only heard in Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela—could be heard all over the nation.
As is typical throughout the recent history of Colombia, the 21N protests were heavily marked with weapons. Like all protests, they ended in differences between the police and protesters. The national anti-riot squad ESMAD repressed protestors as well. They always appear to put up a disturbance in order to generate chaos that causes people to enter their homes and no longer go out to protest.
More demonstrations, including a national strike, were planned for 2019. Then, the pandemic arrived in 2020 and Colombia went silent. Despite the fact that suffering, scarcity, poverty, corruption, government robberies continued, we Colombianos still did not protest. Recently, the current president Iván Duque came out with the proposal that the congress had made for a tax reform.
They were going to increase the tax on all Colombians by nineteen percent except for many multimillion dollar companies such as the main food producers that are highly sectorized and monopolized by a few in our country—they had several exceptions. But the tax reform would especially affect the lower class and the middle classes in the midst of the pandemic. Because of the proposed tax reform, demonstrations that had already been taking place before the pandemic resumed
LR: In which cities did protests take place?
Laura: There were demonstrations in all of them, including small towns. I say this because a relative of mine works in a local government office. They find out what is happening at the public order and social level. So, through them I know the protests had a wide reach. But we hadn’t protested in a long time, and this was a reform that would affect the middle and lower class, and in Colombia most of the population is middle and lower class. We all knew that we had to go out to protest.
The largest, longest, most attended, and most violent protests took place in Cali, Pereira, Medellín and Bogotá. Demonstrations continue to exist to this day. Buga, which is a city near Cali, had very strong disturbances today. There were also murders (it is not known how many disappeared there are) and all at the hands of the fuerza pública. And it keeps happening, it keeps happening, it keeps happening.
The mayors are egging on “private security forces”—which is their name for thugs with authorized weapons—to intervene. That’s how they killed Lucas Villa, who was a great Pereiran activist. Those supposed good-willed citizens that compose the private security forces killed him with eight bullets, in full view of the police.
Content warning: The following compilation video posted on twitter shows Lucas Villa protesting peacefully on the day when he was murdered. The first 44 seconds show his involvement in the protests. After the 0:44 mark, a video plays where you can hear 8 gunshots. Towards the end of the video, there is a brief flash of bodies lying inert on pavement. The video ends with the symbol of the paro nacional: the flag of Colombia upside down with “SOS Colombia” printed on it.
#SOSColombiaDDH #SOSColombia5M #LucasVilla "we are being killed," he said yesterday, and today he is no longer among us. @VP @JMVivancoHRW @POTUS @TheGardianNews @CNN @bbcmundo @big_picture @time @theonion @mashable pic.twitter.com/JFc6tEwxLh
— Milt Gem (@MiltGem) May 6, 2021
LR: What has been the role of marginalized communities in the protests, such as Black, queer, and women?
Laura: Marginalized communities have played a very important role. Indigenous groups have played an important role, especially those in the Guardia Indígena del Cauca such as the Nasa, U’wa, and Misak. They came to protest at the Universidad del Valle, which has a huge campus. The campus should be free of all police due to the fact that there are agreements that make it a neutral territory.
Nonetheless, there are always confrontations there: the students and indigenous mingas are united against the repressions of the ESMAD and government forces. What the indigenous minga accomplished was moving the ground enough to make the government tremble and concede to have dialogue. In fact, indigenous groups had called an assembly. No representative of any type of government entity arrived.
Despite the fact that they had already been protesting there for many days, supporting the resistance, no one came to talk. However, dialogue was not achieved due to the fact that private security forces began to shoot at indigenous people, who left the next day.
The black community is influential. They have a lot of civic participation in terms of going out to demonstrate and walk together with the rest of the people of Cali. They also have artistic exhibitions. Additionally, there is a political party, a community of Afro people led by Francia Márquez.
I recommend that you learn about her. Many people of my generation who are quite awake on a social, humanitarian, and spiritual level have realized that she would be a great presidential candidate And she wants to run for president. Still, many of us think that she is not yet ready. But she is a very important character and very very influential here in Cali at the political level and throughout the Cauca Valley. She has given the Afro population a lot of dignity.
For LGBT Colombianos, they have been active in the paro nacional, both in the virtual and ground movements. You can always see them in community protesting, as well as holding protests among themselves.
The protests have been complex for the women’s movement. Obviously, we all go out to demonstrate together, especially against machismo, femicide, and misogyny. So far, state agents have sexually assaulted two women during protests. One was here in Cali, and the other happened yesterday if I’m not mistaken in Pereira or in the coffee region. There is a lot of indignation with respect to this.
The communities that have generated an important role, are the ones that always complain and the ones that have always been protesting. Now, we are all at the forefront aware that this pertains to all of us. As always, there is an intention on the part of the government to divide, to classify, to generate inequality—it’s very evident.
Fortunately now the people are very united; This is the social reality. What the media shows is not at all what is happening here. Truly, there is a lot of unity among the citizenry right now.
LR: Can you tell me more about the narrative that the protests have turned violent?
Laura: Protests have led to violence in Colombia since a long time ago. Protests in Colombia have always ended in violence and riots. The difference this time around is that we could prove—thanks to cameras and digital platforms—that riots are always, always started and caused by the ESMAD, the police, and the army.
State actors in the government, who have inherited their position since generations back, have always been the ones to give the orders. In Colombia, power is always held by certain families who install the president through electoral fraud; Such is the case now. President Iván Duque, for example, is the result of an electoral fraud.
Additionally, the national supreme court was investigating former president Álvaro Uribe, but he unfortunately has them bought. What I am telling you is real, we all know it, and it has been demonstrated. Uribe has been brought to court. In 2020, he was under investigation for procedural fraud and he was put under house arrest. But there was no stir about it, because he really is the most powerful drug trafficker that this country has ever produced. That is a reality.
There has always been violence in Colombia, especially linked to Pablo Escobar’s doing. There was much violence before, but he left it very marked. In Colombia, you kill to achieve a task. If the government needs to keep a plot of land, then the government kills. If the government needs to keep a contract, then the government kills. If the government needs to disperse a demonstration that affects it, then the government kills.
This is what the government has always done with protests. Not only in Colombia, but also in Ecuador. I was living there in 2019 when protests very similar to the one here took off. The protests weren’t repressed as much as in Colombia, but there were also deaths and repression. I have also witnessed it in Peru, where I lived for many years. Because of this, I think there is a network that is beyond the Colombian government composed of the elite. They want to loot our country and need us to be poor to be able to do it.
Colombia is violent. The Colombiano is a flame. Our culture, our idiosyncrasies, our genetics come from warrior ancestors. As the statistics show, we are happy people. And, as we say here, we are also screwed. The Colombiano who has grown up amid violence is violent. It is not surprising, then, that this is happening. The most violent of all have always been the government and its institutions.
LR: How does Colombia get back to peace?
Laura: Firstly, I think the entire congress needs to be changed. Colombia’s problem lies in the fact that our congress is composed of the far-right. They are not interested in seeing the poor get out of poverty. Then, the ending of hunger and lack of access to education will achieve peace. That is what would achieve a total change in the people from surviving to living. A change in the congress, education, and good would bring peace to Colombia.
LR: The international community has stood in solidarity—both virtually and in the streets—with Colombianos. What does international solidarity mean to you?
Laura: For me, international solidarity is related to the empathy generated by seeing another nation different from mine suffering. I think that the purpose of international solidarity is for one to help from their possibilities. One can help to visibilize what is happening, or they can intervene directly from various aspects.
There is international solidarity in the form of prayer, for example. There is also supporting humanitarian aid with strong investments. All of these serve to unite humanity. At this moment, however, it is risky for any non-governmental or non-official institution to intervene in a direct way. For example, the roads are closed.
The sentiment behind international solidarity is nice. But honestly there are no guarantees for anyone in Colombia—it is risky and complex. I doubt very much that anyone wants to come and risk their skin in Colombia, and do for example peace brigades or bring volunteers or any type of intervention that is not financial to feed mouths for a few days. The root of change sincerely seems to lie with the elites who have us so oppressed.
LR: What do Colombianos want the world to know?
Laura: That the government here kills us. That there are direct orders from the presidency and the people who run the presidency, like former senator former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, to recover something that they call citizen order. There is no citizen disorder other than that caused by themselves. They seek to recover it through violence and the extreme use of the fuerza pública.
That events have happened like murders at night where they have entered the houses of the protesters to kill them. Where the police at an exaggerated violent level riddled young boys with bullets. Where too many people have disappeared in Cali. We want you to know that here they do not listen to us. President Iván Duque has not sat down to dialogue with the direct actors and leaders of the protests in Cali.
Even though he came to Cali, he had a private meeting with no press. He did not want anyone to see the mayor. That is undemocratic. In Cali the voice of the people is not being heard. They are killing us to keep quiet. We all know that we will not see guarantees soon.
We believe that the world needs to know that it is important to directly pressure ex-president Álvaro Uribe and his ties. To investigate him and understand why he is the one who has us plunged into this wave of violence. It is important that people in the international community understand who he is so that they understand what the problem in Colombia is. That’s what we want the world to know.
LR: How will you remember the paro nacional?
Laura: Well, I’m going to remember the national strike as a moment that I already knew: as a strong armed conflict. Armed conflicts have happened for a long time. The past 50 years of armed conflict have been marked by narcotrafficking, guerillas, and subtle dictatorship. Truly, it is something that we the majority of Colombianos already know and have already lived. This time around, however, I am left with something new, which is the connection to resistance.
Colombia is a country that has always resisted. We all have to put up with the corrupt government. We have to put up with hunger. We have to tolerate that there is a very evident inequality. We have to tolerate that we have no right to anything. We have to tolerate that we pay from where we do not have. We tolerate various injustices.
So, the paro nacional leaves me with a feeling of liberation from what they have always wanted to impose on us via fear, hunger, and injustice. I say liberation because it is evident that this is no longer going to be the same. As the majority of Colombians, we are determined that this time there will be a noticeable change.
Fortunately, next year is the election in Colombia. There is a lot of unity in not letting us put in a president again who has Álvaro Uribe Vélez and his party the Centro Democrático behind them. At this moment there is a social unity that I noticed did not previously exist. Most of us agree that our government is corrupt, that we can no longer trust the police or the army, that we have to change the high levels of violence.
We have a lot of enthusiasm to start educating people who do not have access. I have seen it and I tell you from my own experience, many of us are donating a large part of our money. Instead of giving that 19% that the government wants to steal from us, we are donating it to help feed the people on the front lines who are in the resistance.
To help the families that are being affected in these neighborhoods where the resistance is. To bring medical supplies because no hospital wanted to receive the injured from the demonstrations. To bring volunteer doctors. To create social groups through social media like Telegram where people are very collaborative.
Personally, I am going to remember this as one of the most difficult events I have ever experienced. There’s a feeling of helplessness in talking as we are right now. I live in one of the places most affected by this wave of violence. One night, I was here in my house at a meeting on the computer.
I heard shooting from helicopters. I hear motorcycles. I heard how people shouted for help. I heard all of this while not being able to do anything, because leaving was tantamount to suicide. So I will never forget the feeling of helplessness. I think that is what many Colombians felt.
I think that that same feeling of helplessness is what is now driving us to unite. To recognize that we really are on two sides: all of Colombia against the government. I would dare to say that more than 80% of Colombians now recognize what happened thanks to the visibility of the paro.
It is like a double feeling. One of enthusiasm because the people are united. And at the same time of helplessness for all the dead and disappeared. We still don’t know what happened to them. This is not over yet. We are still a long time away. We are aware that this is a war, that they are trying to bring in a dictatorship, and that there are very dark powers behind all this.
But we also have a strong conviction that conscience and education will never be weaker than bullets. They want to have the majority uneducated, hungry, and at the point of bullets because they know that if the people wake up, nobody will stop us. And that is what is happening right now in Colombia. I want to remain with the idea that this is how I will remember the paro nacional.
Alfredo Eladio Moreno was born and raised in Houston, Texas. He considers himself a first generation Mexican living in the United States, or a U.S.-Latino. Alfredo will enter his senior year at Pomona College in Fall 2021, where he is majoring in Latin American Studies. He studies the intersection of history, memory, violence, and healing in the Western Hemisphere.