Week of Action for Colombia (June 28-July 2, 2021)

June 28th, 2021 - by Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective & Christina Noriega / Al Jazeera

Support the Popular Struggle for Justice in Colombia

Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective

Witness for Peace first opened an office in Colombia in 2000, in order to document the human, social, and environmental consequences of US-sponsored Plan Colombia — a multi-billion dollar counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency package for the Colombian armed forces.

Plan Colombia was intended to reduce Colombia’s cocaine production and bring peace and stability to a country experiencing an ongoing armed conflict between state security forces, various guerrilla armies, and paramilitary groups.

Yet Plan Colombia’s overwhelming focus on military aid rather than social aid just made a dire situation even more precarious — fumigation and bombardment of vulnerable communities under the guise of counterinsurgency tactics just further increased mass displacement and human rights violations of especially vulnerable communities, including indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians, and campesinos.

For more than a decade, Witness for Peace has documented one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises — Colombia is currently the country with the second-largest internally displaced population in the world, following Syria. More than 6.9 million Colombians have been internally displaced by right-wing paramilitaries (often working in conjunction with Colombia’s US funded and trained military), left-wing insurgents, indiscriminate aerial fumigations, large-scale extractive industries and agro-fuel production.

At every turn, US corporations have benefited from the violence and mass displacement, including Coca-Cola, Chiquita, Dole and Drummond Coal. 

In 2007, Witness for Peace organizers and allies achieved a major victory: the significant reduction of military aid to Colombia. However, this was a partial victory, and Witness for Peace continues educating US citizens on alternatives to militarization and fumigation, especially as a new wave of US intervention begins under a new US aid package known as Plan Peace Colombia.”

Because sustainable solutions to poverty are a prerequisite for stopping the violence, Witness for Peace and our allies opposed the bilateral Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, implemented on May 15, 2012. This agreement, signed by Presidents Obama and Santos in 2011, was implemented without meaningful completion of the prerequisites in the Labor Action Plan.  It condoned Colombia’s status as the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists as an acceptable standard for US business alliances.

In addition to our on-the-ground documentation work, Witness for Peace organizes speaking tours for Colombian community leaders and activists to meet with people, organizations, and politicians in the US. The visiting speakers share their first-hand experience with US foreign policy and corporate practices in Colombia.

We also bring US citizens to Colombia to witness the effects of these policies and practices on the country. Upon returning to the US, delegates join a network of more than 20,000 activists giving testimony, lobbying Congress and using nonviolent direct action to demand just US foreign policies in Colombia.

Today the Witness for Peace Colombia team continues to monitor the human rights situation in country, especially considering the changing context due to a new peace accord between the Colombian government and the largest insurgent guerrilla force, the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). Despite significant advances toward peace, an alarming trend of attacks and threats against human rights defenders, especially by neo-paramilitary groups, shows that international accompaniment continues to be important in Colombia.

Partners on the ground express concerns about continuing threats in the post-accords period, including the presence of other armed actors (notably paramilitaries and the ELN guerrilla group) and the role of multinational companies exploiting the rich resources of the country, violating the human rights and labor rights of many Colombian communities.

Protesters in Colombia Turn to Town Hall Meetings for Solutions

Lack of progress at the national level has spurred Colombians
to look to local officials to address their concerns.

Soldier, a 25-year-old protest leader in Puerto Resistencia, leads a town hall meeting in Cali.

Christina Noriega / Al Jazeera

CALI, Colombia (June 23, 2021) — When protests first erupted in Colombia in April, masked demonstrators ousted police from the neglected Aguablanca neighbourhood in southern Cali with a barrage of stones and improvised shields.

The six-block area has since been rechristened Puerto Resistencia and transformed into a focal point of culture, community, and democracy. Steps away from an incinerated police station-turned-library, dozens of neighbours meet weekly to discuss causes and solutions to the social crisis. Volunteers teach art classes to local children.

“The people are waking up,” said a 25-year-old protest leader and university student, known as Soldier, during a recent town hall meeting at the Puerto Resistencia blockade. “They know that they need to be heard.”

An unpopular tax reform sparked nationwide protests beginning April 28. Even after the proposal was withdrawn, a mass movement of students, unionists, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian protesters continued to flood the streets with demands for social equality and police reform, fuelled by reports of police violence and rates of unemployment and poverty that have worsened under the pandemic.

A strike committee, headed by national trade unions, led talks with the government over a list of demands that include a universal basic income and a free tuition plan. The negotiations, and weekly protests, were temporarily called off on June 15 after protest leaders blamed the government for delaying progress and refusing to take up key talking points.

Masked protesters hurl rocks at a water cannon in Bogota [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

Frustrated by national negotiations, some communities are taking dialogues to the local level, where they hope their grievances will be listened to directly by city officials.

“What needs to happen is more regionalised and local negotiations that involve these neighbourhood committees that have sprung up across the country,” said Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, Andes director at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“They are focused on the immediate issues in the specific area that they are in and not so much tied to the national agenda. Any negotiation would still require regional and local negotiations,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Colombia’s democracy is extremely centralized, and so there aren’t, on a daily basis, a lot of opportunities for citizens to engage in the future direction of their country,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior Colombia analyst for the International Crisis Group. “This is one of those rare instances where there’s a sense that it might be possible.”

In the span of a few weeks, town hall meetings have materialised in several cities, many of them in neighbourhoods heavily afflicted by poverty, unemployment, and violence, where citizens have often been left on their own to deal with structural problems.

Nationwide, heavy police backlash against the initial protests inspired many to take to the streets. The death toll is disputed: Human Rights Watch reported 21 deaths during protests, the local NGO Temblores found 43 deaths allegedly committed by police and the attorney general’s office verified 20 homicides.

Many others joined because of the economic fallout of the pandemic, which pushed 3.5 million Colombians into poverty and sent the unemployment rate soaring to 15 percent, as of April.

But neighbourhoods like Puerto Resistencia also face a particular set of problems they want resolved. Many residents in Cali, the city with the second-largest Black population in Latin America, are victims of forced displacement from nearby conflict zones, and small-scale drugs and arms trafficking has lured scores of youth into a life of crime and violence.

Children in a free art class offered by volunteers at Puerto Resistencia, Cali. [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

“The strike committee ending negotiations with the government doesn’t affect us at all because we don’t feel represented by them,” said Soldier. “We’ll continue to resist until our demands are resolved.”

At a recent town hall meeting in Puerto Resistencia, a group of about 80 residents met for hours. Throughout the night, people voiced the urgent needs of their community: better educational opportunities and cultural activities that could engage at-risk youth. Speakers also set their sights on the 2022 presidential and congressional elections, with talks of launching campaigns for independent candidates and forming a new political party.

In Cali, the epicentre of unrest and police violence, communities have set up blockades and created autonomous zones called “points of resistance”, where disenfranchised youth, their faces hidden by ski masks and bandanas, have emerged spontaneously as leaders.

Earlier this month, a preliminary agreement was reached between Cali Mayor Jorge Ospina and Union of Resistances Cali, a group representing 26 “points of resistance” throughout the city. Mayor Ospina pledged new measures to prevent protester deaths and institutional support for town hall meetings and cultural events — in return the protesters promised to end 21 blockades.

Similar talks are taking place throughout the country.

The Colombian capital, Bogota, in early June provided a space where social organisations and protesters who do not feel represented by the strike committee could voice their grievances directly to officials.

“The strike committee doesn’t represent all of Colombia. They don’t go to our neighbourhoods. They don’t know what’s going on here,” said Laura, a 26-year-old protest leader in Bogota, who withheld her last name out of security concerns.

The strike committee, representing leading unions, such as the Central Union of Workers and the Colombian Federation of Education Workers, has been criticised by some who claim that union leaders have taken ownership of a movement led by a cross-section of society.

A police station burned in the protests has been repurposed into a public library. [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

“They don’t listen to us,” Laura continued. “That’s why we’re strengthening our community and listening to each other so that we can create a list of demands.”

Yet, reaching a consensus within communities and finalising a deal with local officials still presents challenges.

“When it comes to how you resolve systemic problems, there will be a lot of differences in terms of priorities,” said Sanchez-Garzoli. “We’re not talking about something simple here. We’re talking about people in desperate situations facing tremendous security and humanitarian issues due to the pandemic.”

Benkos, a 26-year-old protest leader in Puerto Resistencia who fled his hometown in the conflict-ridden province of Nariño nine months ago, said he wants to see improved education opportunities. Specifically, he would want the government to help him obtain a high school diploma after having dropped out in the seventh grade in order to support his family financially.

But after weeks of fighting off police at Puerto Resistencia, he said he has witnessed too many deaths and hopes the dialogue will bring about the change his neighbourhood desperately needs. “We can’t beat them with rocks,” said Benkos. “We have to win with democracy and unity.”

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