Colombia’s armed strike raises stakes on Lat Am social unrest

Trucks parked on the side road of one of the North entrances to Bogota, as part of the truckers´strike. Feb. 20, 2020. Photo by: Sergio Held

BOGOTA, Colombia. It had not happened in decades, maybe a lifetime. Then, in mid-February, the National Liberation Army (ELN) called for an armed strike across Colombia. 

An armed strike is a unique form of social protest. An armed group, in this case the ELN, threatened to retaliate against any business that opens, any truck that is found on highways, even people on the streets or children who go to school. The idea is to paralyze a region or, in this case, the entire country. Armed strikes have been known to take place in specific areas or regions, but none at the national level have happened in living memory. 

In the first of the three days of the armed strike, five police officers were injured in the north of the country in firefights with armed protesters who had set fire to a truck

In the capital, the army rolled in to ensure security but even with the increased military presence there was a sense of insecurity. Children were kept home from school and workplaces were unstaffed. For many, it was not worth the risk to be outside the home.

The weekend following the armed strike, trucking unions held another protest. This time, their goal was to block any goods going in and out of the capital. 

Colombian unions are taking to the streets at an unprecedented rate. There are significant strikes scheduled throughout the first half of this year by a National Strike Committee. The unions have a long list of demands for the government, including 104 demands focused on economic and peace policy changes.

The government says it is listening and holding an open dialogue. Protestors insist they don’t want dialogue, they want negotiations. 

After years of relative tranquility – or some kind of momentum towards tranquility – the number of street protests in Colombia surged last year. And Colombia was not alone, social unrest characterised by street protest has surged in Latin American countries like Ecuador, Peru and Chile. 

The wave of protests was unprecedented. In some places, most notably Colombia and Chile, the protests have continued into 2020 and show no signs of ending.

In many ways, the protests have become institutionalized. In Colombia, former members of groups that are known as criminal or terrorist organizations have won elections and are backing the protest movements. 

“Our role as a member of Congress will be to become the cornerstone of a movement that will not go home to sleep without mobilizing permanently,” said Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 terrorist group and former candidate to become Colombia’s president during a speech conceding his defeat to current President Ivan Duque (Petro ran for office after receiving amnesty and serving as member of the congress and mayor of Bogota). 

He gave a voice to one of the ultimate goals of the protesters. 

“And that has to be the covenant. To be back in the Senate, to lead the people, people that want to stay active, that need to stay mobilized,” he said. 

And he may have voiced the commitment of left-leaning political movements and politicians to fiercely oppose (his words) the newly elected president of Colombia.

Petro’s words resonated with the more than 8 million voters who supported left leaning parties and the impact has been massive across the population.

Life in Colombia continues, but it seems to be affected and impacted almost daily by one kind of protest or another. 

In Chile, social unrest has hit people living in cities across the country. The catalyst for the current wave of unrest was a government announcement in early October 2019 that it would increase rush hour prices for the metro in the capital of Santiago by 30 pesos (about US$0.04)

Protestors hit the streets en masse, attacking businesses, churches, retail outlets and public facilities for months. Some two dozen people have been killed. 

The social unrest spread to Colombia, where leaders like Petro promoted it and supported it with help from workers’ unions, students and foreign support. Reports of support from regimes in Russia and Venezuela are rampant.

“We know that it is not only because of the unconformity that exists in Colombia, we know that there is an international project, we know that there is an international support network to stimulate this social unrest,” said Colombia’s vice president Lucía Ramírez. “We are sure that there are platforms that, out of Venezuela, out of Russia, have been moving many of these messages on social media.”

In Colombia, the protests seemed to peak in November 2019. A curfew was imposed in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, for the first time years. After the protests, dozens of Venezuelan immigrants were deported for allegedly participating in the violent acts

The role of social media cannot be ignored, not always as a force for good. 

In Chile, Alexis Lopez, a political analyst and journalist, is convinced that there is a coordinated international strategy behind the social unrest that his country and Colombia have seen.

“This is not a spontaneous and casual phenomenon, this process takes decades to execute. This is planned and then executed,” he said during a radio interview in Colombia.