What if you were told that no matter what you do, you won’t have the opportunity to become whomever you wish to be? This is something the youth of Colombia are feeling with full force under the current oppressive social and economic environment. Starting on April 28 of this year, a national strike began against an unpopular tax reform bill, and it continues to this day, growing into a mass protest movement even after the government retracted the legislation. It is, notably, driven almost entirely by the nation’s youth, who spoke to us about their organizing tactics and their lack of trust in the country’s traditional media.
The world is facing a terrible pandemic that has left countries in the middle of economic recessions, and Colombia is no exception. According to the latest national statistics, 21 million people in the country face poverty and 7.4 million are under extreme poverty conditions. The pandemic has hugely affected the development of social and economic programs within the country, so in an attempt to finance an ambitious welfare policy for those in economic need, the government tried to pass a tax reform.
This bill mainly consisted of charging more taxes to the middle class, which is already facing the consequences of the economic crisis. While trying to pass this tax reform, the social and political climate was exacerbated. First by the fact that around 13 billion dollars are lost every year due to corruption, and second, because the Ministry of National Defense was spending 4.5 million dollars on military airplanes — in the middle of this crisis. After days of a national strike, the president decided to withdraw the reform, but the protests persisted.
Despite their abrupt about-face, the government does not act like they know what the protesters are asking for. It could be because neither the president nor his Cabinet members have ever lived in the same circumstances as the current Colombian youth: circumstances underlined by a significant lack of opportunities and access to education or employment. The protesters, who are mostly between the ages of 16 and 28, have confronted the police, who are accused of undermining human rights of the people marching in the streets asking for structural social changes. The violence the protesters face is a complicated combination of excessive use of force by the police and the brutality of criminal factions who have infiltrated the strike. The United Nations and other human rights organizations have expressed their concern about the bloodshed, especially in Cali, where last week, members of the police fired on protesters.
Additionally, the government has failed to give truthful information on the number of victims from the violence of the police and criminal factions. According to Temblores NGO, between April 28 and May 12, 2,110 cases of police violence were reported in Colombia.
The government has failed at giving truthful information on the number of victims from the violence of the Police and criminal factions. According to Temblores NGO, between April 28th and May 12th, 2,110 cases of Police violence were reported in Colombia.
The predominant feeling for those who are marching in major cities is that they are willing to die to make a change. On May 5, Lucas Villa, a young university student, was shot dead by armed individuals while marching in a peaceful protest in Pereira and has become a national symbol for the protesters. The following words were shared by Lucas on May 4, in a voice note sent to his cousin (which we have translated for clarity):
“The worst that can happen is that a lot of us could die, because nowadays here in Colombia, just being young and being on the streets means putting your life at risk. We could all die, but how can you leave your people alone? How can you not go out to march? How can I not protest tomorrow, May 5? I can't, I have to bear. If we have to die, then we will die. There is no other way, and I hope the Holy Spirit will guide us, will protect us, so we can survive and build a new world.”
According to a recent national survey conducted by Universidad del Rosario, Colombian youth deeply trust social media, as opposed to traditional media, which has lost its influence among younger people. The good thing about this shift is that protesters can share what is happening through videos and photos in real-time, which has led to international organizations having more information about the crisis. On the other hand, Laura Herrera, a Colombian expert on political communications, stated that there is an increasing manipulation in social media through troll accounts and fake news to create chaos, outrage, and misinformation about the protests in the country.
Denisse Calderón, a 21-year-old journalism student who actively participates in the national strike, told Highsnobiety that she and other students are aware that to prevent any risk, students choose to go out on the streets with identified groups of people to protect each other. Since students and protesters have stated that traditional media is not sharing accurate information about the strike, Denisse and other journalism students decided to create a social media account (@moviemiento.e.p) to show videos and news about what is happening during the protests.
Despite the riots, these protests are full of pacifist expressions, where people sing and dance as a cheerful way to ask the government for fundamental changes. Another symbol of the marches in Colombia is Susana Boreal, an orchestra director who summoned musicians in Medellin to play during the strike. This and other artistic demonstrations are all around Colombia, showing that peaceful protests are more vital than any violent form of expression.
As another alternative to avoid violence in the streets during the strike, the Mayor of Bogotá, Claudia López, implemented human rights verification committees to accompany the protesters. Lorena Castañeda, lawyer and director of the non-profit organization Fundación Jornal, shared her testimony as a member of a verification committee in Bogotá. According to her, a helpful way to prevent violence between the protesters and the police is to serve as a mediator during the march, asking people to avoid confrontation.
Colombians expect to end this strike after the government agrees to take action on national concerns, such as welfare policies, protection of local farmers, and universal access to education in the nation, but it is difficult to determine when any of these reforms might be realized. The best we can hope for is that a combination of students, human rights defenders, and public opinion influencers can meaningfully sway the government to implement social policies truly benefitting the lives of all Colombians.
If you will like to support this cause you can check the NGO’s list in Colombia, on human rights, access to information and youth support.