Colombia’s national strike: a mirror of our collective soul

This morning I wept as I was cycling to a meeting. It was the first time I felt deeply emotional despite the collective emotion on the streets of the city over the last five days. I had just come across a young woman with a sign on her backpack that read: “Esmad, I don’t want to die the way Dilan did.” She must have been 18 years old; the same age as Dilan Cruz, a young protestor who died in hospital last night after sustaining a fatal head injury at the hands of Colombia’s anti-riot police unit (called Esmad) while they were shooting tear gas and stun grenades at protestors.

As I was relating what was going on in Bogotá to friends in Cape Town over the weekend, someone asked what had started the national strike in the first place. I regurgitated what I had read on mainstream media: labour laws increasing the retirement age and decreasing minimum wage, the killings of social leaders across the country and the failure to comply with the peace agreement by the government in power… That was the official version as far as I knew, but the origin, as all Colombians know, goes much deeper. It is the trauma of a country at war with itself for far too long.

While it was true that the national strike was convened by some unions, students groups and some opposition parties to express disagreement with particular policies, this quickly turned into a platform for many voices to express collective discontent; cutting across social class and, to some extent, even political lines.

My mother teaches at a public school and she often takes part in teacher strikes. Lack of public funding for education is an on-going battle and it is not surprising to see educators and students at the forefront of such protest action. But this year, university students seem to have reached an important level of public support when a few weeks ago, large numbers of people took to the streets to support their anger at the scandalous levels of corruption, which have meant an enormous cost to public universities.

Then there are indigenous groups who have been under attack for decades and who, because of where they are based, receive little support by the state, let alone by the rest of the citizenry who mostly located in cities, live in a bubble, protected and isolated from the rest of the country where a completely different reality is experienced.

These are just two examples of the variety of issues that moved people to join what has been a virtually unprecedented nation-wide mobilisation in the country. Also extraordinary was the government’s response to close the country’s land borders and to declare city-wide curfews, first in Cali, Colombia’s fourth largest city and on Friday in the capital. It had been over 40 years since something like this had been done.

What followed was worthy of Garcia Marquez’ magical realism, indeed some of his books have been quoted in this ordeal. Protestors and regular citizens alike responded, largely inspired by similar actions in other Latin American cities, by banging pots on the streets and when the curfew was in place, from their windows. Each evening since then, a new ‘cacerolazo’ or call to pot banging has ensued. Images of pots and innovative digital tools for those who do not want to risk breaking their kitchen utensils have come up all over the place.

In classic Colombian style, views on this mobilisation are polarised and hostile. While some support the right to protest and the opportunity to express collective grievances, others demonise protestors and blame those on the streets for creating, what they consider unnecessary havoc.

Deep antagonism notwithstanding, the sense of unity and solidarity is palpable on the streets of Colombia’s capital these days. Led by the young, there seems to be a sense of renaissance for what could be different in this country. I have taken part at the margins, and to be honest it has been difficult to connect with a lot of the emotions; it is particularly difficult to empathise with those who conflate protest with vandalism. But I have also struggled to feel invested in what is happening here. I have been away for most of my adult life, I have observed this country from afar for too long and have seen so little change that a big part of me thinks this will be just another episode which will be shelved and things will simply go back to normal.

But this morning, I thought of this young man who died as a result of the structural violence that mars the past and the present of this country. Nothing, absolutely nothing can justify the loss of a young life in these circumstances. And so I wonder if this might be one of those moments in history when a page is turned and people start to care for each other….

Protestor holds a sign that reads “Is this how you protect me?”

I am passionate about cities, public space & community engagement. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Cape Town is home.

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