On April 28th, a National Strike started in Colombia. Since then, there have been massive demonstrations on the streets, spearheaded by women, youth, and Indigenous, peasant, and Black organizations. As president Iván Duque deployed the military to several important cities across the country, this increased the magnitude of the militarization, paramilitarism, and governance by Colombian police and military forces.
On May 11th, Real World Radio interviewed Marylen Serna, a peasant leader from Cauca, Colombia, and the spokesperson for the Peoples’ Congress [Congreso de los Pueblos]. You can listen to the interview at the RWR website (in Spanish)  and read it in Portuguese or French also at Capire .
Marylen, welcome. Please tell us about these recent days of mobilizations in the state of Cauca.
There was a call in November 2019, before the pandemic, when millions of people took to the streets to protest the difficult economic and social situation they were facing, against the resumed armed conflict and the failure to implement the Peace Agreements, a number of very intense issues in several regions across the country.
That was an unprecedented mobilization. This demonstration on November 21st, 2019 is said to have been bigger than the one that happened on September 14th, 1977. Then came the pandemic and outshined all that. There were also many mobilizations during the pandemic, but because of isolation measures, they were not as big. Mobilizations resumed now, on April 28th, very massively and with a particularly special characteristic: many sectors that have taken to the streets are not part of social movements. We are used to taking to the streets—us, from organized sectors, who are part of the large organizing platforms in Colombia; but this time, young people are mobilized on the streets, people from smaller peasant communities and neighborhoods, conducting activities in their villages.
So it all began with a big mobilization on April 28th, which continued overnight, banging pots and pans [cacerolazo], forming barricades, and lighting candles for the victims. Then we started to see that every night there were several activities happening across the country.
Then came May 1st. Even though central unions said it was going to be an online demonstration, people took to the streets. By May 3rd, peasant sectors, the Black movement, and the Indigenous movement joined the large mobilizations and took over cities for good. And that really strengthened the strike. This happened concurrently with brutal repression. Any community action was being repressed by the police: a group of young people around the corner, a group of women cooking and handing out food in community kitchens. Armed squads would come up driving elite police cars, dark window glasses, bearing long-range guns, attacking our spaces. The situation has escalated, but the mobilization continues.
Then the national government called for negotiations. They invited the National Strike Committee, which had originally called the demonstrations, but now no longer represents everyone who is mobilizing, because many people who took to the streets are not part of an organizing process.
As the Peoples’ Congress, we proposed that, in order to listen to all the people who were not organizing but had needs and a great deal of outrage, we would set up grassroots assemblies, which are now being pushed across the country. We expect to have a large national assembly being held soon.
Before asking you about grassroots assemblies, I’d like to mention that, on Sunday, May 9th, president Iván Duque addressed the mobilized sectors directly to say that they should go back to their refuges. His tone basically conveyed a threat, as he has already militarized several areas. After he said that, now he will meet with the National Strike Committee. How are these messages being interpreted?
The government has three mechanisms to end the mobilization. One is claiming that people have to go back to their territories, because they are facing great risk. This is a blatant threat, a warning about their repressive intentions.
Second, trying to demobilize people by having this meeting with this National Strike Committee. If they eventually come to an agreement, some sectors will surely go home, but many others will remain mobilized.
Third, repression. Death, judicialization, incarceration, forced disappearance, and sexual abuse committed by the police, by the ESMAD [Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron—EscuadrónMóvilAntidisturbios, Colombia’s riot police], by the Army, by all military forces the government deployed to the streets.
They intend to put an end to this situation, but they don’t intend to listen to what is being proposed, to learn what people want, why the youth, peasants, homemakers are out on the streets today. Their intention is to demobilize and dismantle the strike by using demagogic tactics, persuasion, threats, but also to create a negotiation table with one group, especially central unions—which, we must say, don’t have so many people out on the streets.
Central unions are taking part in this by holding large mobilizations that last one day. But peasants, Indigenous communities, and the Black movement have been on the streets and bus stations continuously for two weeks. We don’t want to dismiss the potential for conversations that the committee has, but it’s crucial to pursue a mechanism that makes sure other sectors who are mobilized can also access these spaces to have talks with the national government.
In the beginning of the strike, mass media outlets were saying that the strike was about a tax reform. But as soon as Duque withdrew from his tax reform bill, they said, “there, strike over, why would they continue?” But this first step had other demands, like demilitarization, the ban on glyphosate in “illegal” crops. It wasn’t just about the “no tax reform” demand. Why are people struggling and mobilizing on the streets right now?
The tax reform was one of the strongest topics, and it was able to mobilize a lot of people. It was an extremely retrograde bill in terms of people’s rights, and it brought everyone together for the same demand. But we must say that the tax reform has not been completely dropped. The government’s intention is to draft a new bill, and we are alert, because it will definitely try to loosen some aspects, but the essence of this bill will certainly remain.
And there are other problematic issues. The matter of human rights violations is really gaining momentum. What happened with the people who disappeared? More than 500 people disappeared during the strike. Many were wounded and had to be taken to the hospital, they are facing legal charges. So many have died.
Another demand is the healthcare reform. Bill 010 is on the Senate, and it’s a deeply retrograde overhaul that aims to hand over healthcare management to multinationals and big Colombian business owners, as well as to further privatize healthcare. The monthly payments that people are required to make to be entitled to medical care are becoming higher and higher. These restrictions are increasingly turning healthcare into a business, not a right.
There are other topics: the immediate resignation of president Duque and his administration. This is an imminent demand, and we know it’s a complex and difficult one, but it’s definitely there for people, with the slogan “Bad government must fall” [“Que caiga el mal gobierno”], which is being spread nationwide. Another topic is that peasants are taking to the country’s major highways to protest because the government is proposing to solve the issue of illegal crops by using glyphosate, but we know this wouldn’t solve anything.
Many say we are witnessing scenes of war, but Colombia is no longer at war, because there is a Peace Agreement in place, even though it is not being complied with. How would you define Colombia’s situation now?
Historically, in Colombia, there is a social and armed conflict. We talk about a political and economic conflict because of the marginalization and economic inequality, the gap in opportunities, in access to land, services, and rights, such as healthcare, education, food; because the majority of the Colombian population is excluded from decision-making spaces, because there are restrictions to political participation. There is a social conflict that grew into an armed conflict. The armed conflict in Colombia has social and economic roots, and this is why insurgent groups took up arms to wage war for more than sixty years.
The government tried to erase the armed conflict with the Peace Agreement, but it implemented only a small part of it, which is the part about demobilizing and reintegrating fighters into social life. The government actually made many efforts in this sense. Of course, there are also many former fighters who were killed—290 have died. The government wants to put out the fire of the armed conflict with a lot of water, but the social conflict remains intact.
The aspects established in the Peace Agreement (integrated rural reform, political participation, replacement of illegal crops, the rights of victims, among others) have not been resolved. The government did not comply with their part of the commitment. Nearly 100,000 families signed a pact to eradicate illegal crops, in exchange for this government’s economic investment in these areas, and the government did not fulfill its commitment. Lands have not been legalized and distributed, which is what Colombia needs to reach a better balance.
As long as the social conflict is not resolved, the causes of the armed conflict will remain, and the armed conflict will become increasingly complex, as it is happening today. Years ago, we had military forces and paramilitarism in our territories. But now we have three insurgent groups, dissident groups, military forces, paramilitary groups, armed groups who protect big miners in different areas, organized insurgency. This armed conflict is so much worse now than it was years ago.
Amid this situation, the pandemic hit, and with it, instead of passing basic income legislation, the government introduced a tax reform bill that will further suffocate the population. It’s impossible to think about solving the armed conflict while the social conflict has become increasingly complex, and all the government does is suffocate the population.
About the days ahead: there is a continuous mobilization going on, but there is also a new call for new strikes. How are you organizing in Cauca?
The government is saying that the mobilizations are decreasing, but we understand that they are growing, because new sectors are taking to the streets. The government tried to have talks with the National Strike Committee [on May 10th], but there was no deal. The government believes it should respond to the national strike by repressing it, and by repressing it, they think people will go back home. There is a political tug of war right now, to see who is stronger.
We, peasants, are outside the cities, walking from home to home, in every neighborhood, calling people to mobilize. We are confident that Colombia will massively take to the streets and we will have another tug of war, with a national strike beating the government. If we take to the streets hard, we will be able to conduct grassroots assemblies and have spokespeople who come from movement-building efforts that are more democratic, and we will ultimately have enough strength to negotiate and pressure the national government.
On social media, we see different calls for this plural, diverse, broad, inclusive participation, with people directly taking part in it. Whatare thegrassrootsassemblies about?
Grassroots assemblies are the opportunity for us, from social movements with an organizational structure, to be able to open the doors and channels of participation and to listen to sectors of society who are now mobilizing. A new page could emerge.
We can’t go home and then go back to grassroots assemblies. We must hold the assemblies now, wherever we are. There are hundreds of assemblies happening on highways, in neighborhoods, in areas where people go out at night to have a glass of chocolate milk, light candles, and hand out food.
They are there holding grassroots assemblies based on three questions. Why are we mobilizing—that is, what are the issues? What do we propose? Do we agree that we need to negotiate with the government? A lot of people say that you can’t negotiate with the government, because the government doesn’t have the political will and its legitimacy is completely challenged now.
The idea is that bigger assemblies will be held after that, on the city or state level, later leading to a national assembly based on the answers that will emerge. We also want to enrich this space of representation. New spokespeople, young leaders who can be a breath of fresh air in the national leadership that we have had for many years.
We are stigmatized as if this were a right-wing country, but we have historically waged an intense fight against the ruling ultra-right-wing model, which costs too many lives and the freedom of too many people. This strike shows that we are a people who struggles, who is out on the streets, resisting against domination and impoverishment.