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#Colombia: The week of protest in November 2019

In the following, we analyze the week of national protest that took place in Colombia after the strike from November 21 to November 27. We detailed the development of the days focusing our view on Bogotá and the day to day strikes; we evaluated the meaning of the spontaneous eruption of the movement and outlined some common elements of the protest, while proposing some lines of action to strengthen it.

Originally published by Grupo Via Libre. Translated by Enough 14.

Friday November 22: Curfew and the campaign of fear

After the national strike the previous day, the partial strike of judicial workers grouped in ASONAL and other unions began. Around 7 a.m. there were blockades on the Americas Portal of a hundred young people, to which more people joined later. After an hour of peaceful blockade, the ESMAD (riot cops, Enough 14) intervenes and the confrontations with the police became widespread, events that called many impoverished young people in the city to join the revolt. While these clashes were taking place, in the afternoon, shops and commercial premises in the Patio Bonito area were looted.

At the same time, in the Tunal Portal there were also blockades that were repressed by the Police. The demonstrators move eastward to the Meissen sector, where many spontaneous clashes with the security forces continue throughout the morning. In Ciudad Bolívar the Ara supermarket was looted in the afternoon.

Simultaneously, young people were gathering at Plaza de Bolívar from 9 a.m. and although initially the number of police officers outnumbered the number of protestors, it grew rapidly and was fragmented. Around 10 a.m. and with some 5,000 demonstrators in the area, a minimal tension in front of the Palace of Justice prompted the repression by ESMAD, and the majority of protestors dispersed in the center of the city. While some demonstrators moved away from the center, waves of people continue to arrive at the square that suffered two more crackdowns, until its virtual closure by the Police. In the afternoon, the National Unemployment Committee convened an open meeting, with few conclusions, beyond a reiteration to support the ongoing mobilization, the usual condemnation by the bureaucratic leadership of anarchism and the reiteration of the demands.

The mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, emulating the government warning and the measure taken in Cali the day before, imposes a curfew from 8 p.m. in the areas of Kennedy, Bosa and Ciudad Bolívar, extending it to the neighboring municipality of Soacha and some time later extending the curfew to the rest of the city from 9 p.m. At night, massive rallies took place in Teusaquillo, Chapinero and Usaquén, where a sit-in was held in front of a luxury residential building owned by President Iván Duque, defying the curfew. The protests there continued at least until 11 p.m. Pot banging from windows, balconies, doors and streets occured throughout the city for at least an hour after the start of the curfew.

At the same time, there is a wave of panic over alleged looting of houses and especially medium- and low-income residential complexes, which on the previous day played an important role in the pots and pans protests. Panic became viral since 6:00 p.m. In Soacha and Bogotá, senators from the Democratic Center Party spoke about supposed invasions to residential complexes and social networks were flooded with confusing videos of people screaming and running in the complexes. Neighborhood security groups were formed against alleged looters, armed with sticks, rocks, knives, metal bars and machetes, some in the Kennedy area identified themselves with white shirts and called for intervention by the army and police. However, the invasions did not take place and in the early hours of the morning most of the neighbors returned to their homes.

Shots and burning of objects were reported in the localities of Santa Fe, Usaquén and Barrios Unidos, and Martín Nieto was seriously injured as he participated in a patrol through his neighborhood, the facts of these reports still need to be clarified.

Saturday November 23: Dilan Cruz is seriously injured by ESMAD

A joint press conference with President Duque, Mayor Peñalosa and security forces was held to speak about the curfew. The National Police speaks of 600 calls to the emergency line concentrated in Kennedy, Suba, Usaquén and Barrios Unidos, and affirms that there is no record of the looting of homes. Peñalosa speaks of a well orchestrated and organized terror campaign. He blames, between the lines, the opposition of the left, while the available evidence suggests an instrumentalization on the part of the right-wing Uribe party with which he governs.

There were rallies of young people at the Plaza de Bolívar. They were dispersed by actions of ESMAD, the demonstrators moved away from the center while waves of people continued to arrive at the square, being repeatedly repressed. There were clashes between demonstrators and the ESMAD on Avenida Jiménez and Avenida 19, where a sector of demonstrators moving towards the east was attacked by the police. During these actions, the young Dilan Cruz, 18 years old, was seriously injured on 19th Street while running from the 4th Street. He was taken to the San Ignacio Hospital located on 7th Street and 45th Street.

At night the spontaneous pots and pans protests continued in the neighborhoods with partial street protests, which now combined community pots and pans. Nightly youth demonstrations take place in the southwest of the city. Scattered calls are made to organize neighborhood assemblies, but several of the calls fail, amid calls for immediate mobilization of the majority of demonstrators.

Sunday November 24: Outrage over Dilan’s case

Relatives, friends and fellow students of the young Dilan Cruz, organize a mobilization from the Colegio Gustavo Restrepo del Ricaurte to the place where he was injured. At 9:00 am some 2,000 people attend, led by their school friends, dressed in white shirts and posters with the slogan #TodosSomosDilan (We Are All Dilan, Enough 14). After the rally there is a spontaneous march to the San Ignacio Hospital where another altar is improvised, which then leads to more improvised marches through the center.

The great night gatherings and pots and pans continue, although tiredness is notorious and several of the usual points of protest are empty. There is a tendency towards a greater unification of the gathering points. Tributes to Dilan continue in the Hospital and city centre.

Monday November 25: Mobilization for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

The teachers’ union ADE calls for one-hour daily pots and pans protests in the morning and afternoon in district schools, with discreet compliance. In the National University, closed since the 22nd, there is a big student assembly that declares an indefinite strike.

Two feminist marches are organized on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, one in the southwest of the city from 3 p.m. to which the Aquelarre meeting calls, and another majority march in the center of the city from 5 p.m. called by the Feminist Coordinating Committee of Bogotá.

The march from the National Park adds up to a block of mostly female students from private universities who mobilized from the center of the city. In total, the march brings together some 10,000 people, mostly high school and university students, although the specifically feminist columns are in the minority. This is the biggest November 25 day in the country’s history, although this time the march of women’s organizations and dissidents represents only a sector of those who mobilize during the day. In this scenario, there is a combination of slogans of the national protest and specifics of the feminist movement with predominance of the former, which does not exclude that many young women are questioned by the specific slogans for legal abortion, sex education, the fight against male violence, among other things. The demonstration ends at the Plaza de la Hoja, with Avenue 30 partially blocked, and the unfolding of a giant rag with a symbol of feminist struggle over one of the residential buildings.

The gathering on 30 continues late into the night, and university students block 26 Avenue near the National University. The death of young Dilan Cruz is confirmed.

Tuesday November 26: Open meeting of the National Strike Committee

A partial blockade of the Portal Suba is carried out, which after the threat of repression turns into a neighbourhood demonstration through the centre of the city. The tributes to Dilan Cruz continue in both the 19 and 4ta as well as at the San Ignacio Hospital. A new wave of popular assemblies is called, with mixed results, with better performances in the poor neighborhoods of the south. At the same time, a new open meeting of the National Strike Committee was organized from which a call arose to broaden the participation of different sectors and coordinate positions regarding the so-called national dialogue proposed by the government.

Some dozens of students from the National University block 26 Avenue during the whole day with soccer and volleyball matches. In the afternoon the ESMAD was present to clear the streets and the rallies continued at the sidewalk. In the evening, there are major confrontations between the students and spontaneous youths with the ESMAD at the entrance of 30th Street and 26th Avenue.

Wednesday November 27: Second general strike

There is a call for a new general strike, although this time without any concrete strike. Some dozens of demonstrators make attempts to block the portals of the South, Americas and Suba, but they are repressed by the Police and continue the demonstrations located above all in Suba which is moving for several hours and in the Banderas station in Kennedy.

The unions carry out a demonstration from the National Park along 10th Street to Plaza de Bolívar, with great protagonism from ADE delegates, SENA workers and students, and state employees. The mobilization is discreet in terms of strength and brings together some 5,000 people. Spontaneous youth groups are added at various points. In the absence of a central act, the concentration is partially dissolved, although thousands of young people continue to arrive in the afternoon and stay overnight.

A student demonstration is marching from the National University to the north of the city, which is initially agreed to end at 100th Street. Students from public and private universities in the city centre joined, and then columns from the Pedagogical and District University also joined. The demonstration that partially blocks the highway continues for hours and at night it arrived at the North Portal and the station at 183rd Street. Around 10 o’clock at night, the demonstrators that continued blocking the portal are harshly repressed by the Police and clashes occur until midnight. During the repression, the young student Cristian Camilo Caicedo falls from a bridge.

Commemorations for Dilan continue at the city centre and the hospital, and afternoon rallies are organised with unplugged music groups in the Hippies Park. The National Strike Committee calls for neighborhood assemblies and a prompt meeting of these organizing bodies at local level and the entire city. Assemblies of community organizations are held in San Cristóbal and there are several calls for Kennedy.

At the national level, the indigenous Nasa organize two blockades on the Pan-American highway in the northern part of the Cauca, where there are clashes with ESMAD.

The spontaneous irruption of the movement

The general strike of November 21, with weaknesses in terms of strikes and more power in terms of blocking roads, had a partial continuity in the neighborhood call of November 22. This was a day much longer than the partial strikes of recent years, and is more similar to the nationwide civic strikes of September 14, 1977, October 21, 1981, or June 20, 1985, the northeast regional civic strike of June 7, 1987, which lasted a week, or the September 1, 1999 civic strike.

Since the eruption of November 21, the country and the city have experienced a spontaneous day of nationwide protest, which, although identified as a strike, is not in fact a movement to cease productive work or services. However, it does maintain important elements of popular mobilization, and abnormality in transport and functioning of the economy. The nationwide protest focused on spontaneous pots and pans banging protests with street blockades and, to a lesser extent, blockades of avenues, is an unprecedented and unknown element in the history of the country.

On the other hand, and as a partial balance of the second day of strike called for November 27 by the National Strike Committee and the CUT, it was a partial failure as a general strike, achieving only a modest union mobilization in the main cities of the country. Once again, the day had important levels of neighborhood, student and popular mobilization, combining the strongest elements of last November 28, 2018 or the previous April 25 of this year, with the new dynamics of the current national day of protest.

Today it is clear that no political or social force is leading the huge nationwide protest and there is a predominant spontaneity in this social mobilization. The contradictory National Strike Command of union leadership and, to a lesser extent, other social and political organizations, have launched a set of demands and some general lines of action, which have been very partially welcomed by a part of the demonstrators.

The nationwide protest has had several consequences for the Duque government. On the one hand, although it continues its clear intention to promote its agenda of neoliberal reforms, the administration continues to deny the implementation of a legislative package like Ecuador, and distances itself from the labor reform project filed by the Democratic Center in the Senate to reduce the minimum wage in different ways. On the other hand, anticipating and seeking to prevent a situation like Chile’s, the government called for a national dialogue with different sectors and proposed a series of limited reforms to alleviate poverty, refusing to discuss the economic decisions that justify the protest and the main condition of the organizations of the National Strike Committee.

Finally, it has increased Duque’s break with the hardest wing of his own party, represented by María Fernanda Cabal or José Obdulio Gaviria, who are crying out for a state of emergency; it has strengthened the weight of the new Defence Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo within the government, who continues and defends a line of stronger repression; and it has weakened the contradictory alliance of the pro-Uribe-conservative coalition and the independent parties such as Cambio Radical, Liberal and sectors of the U, which negotiate each legislative vote with the government.

Common elements of the protest

The key elements of this nationwide protest are several. First, the movement is so vast that it is valid to assume that there have been pots and pans protests in most of the city’s 998 neighborhoods and at least two gatherings in at least each of the city’s 117 Zonal Planning Units (UPZ). There is a phenomenon of thousands of young people who roam during the day and especially in the evening, loosely coordinated by social networks, seeking to participate in the rallies and pots and pans protests. However, it is also clear that the elements of popular organization are weak, most of the calls for open assemblies to group the forces of the movement at a local level have failed and most of the demonstrators are still not very receptive to the calls for organization.

At this point, improvised groups of street agitators have been formed, many of whom are on bicycle, some on motorbikes or skateboards, who whistle or shout slogans in favour of the strike on various roads in the city, especially at night. They are not human couriers that link the fragmented protests, but sometimes they maintain a minimum of agitation between one place of protest and another. Also, groups of people known and friends mobilize while walking through the main streets, cackling and agitating, without much echo among passers-by or neighbors, although there is usually some support in at least one apartment in the buildings or a vehicle at each traffic light stop.

In the demonstrations there has been a strong presence of artists and great receptiveness towards their especially musical manifestations and, to a lesser extent, dance, paintings or theatre. Several scenes of hundreds and even thousands of people singing, applauding and following the rhythm of bands, batucadas [1] and improvised groups have been presented. On most occasions the artists have replaced the political slogans, in some cases they have accompanied them and even proposed new elements of agitation like different versions of the song bella ciao.

One of the hallmarks of this protest is the relative absence of partisan political symbols and the large number of Colombian flags, people who carry the shirts of the men’s soccer team, paint the colors of the state flag and sing, sometimes repeatedly, solemn and improvised songs of the national anthem. This level of street patriotism was unknown to the popular movement, although there were nationalist elements present in the union demonstrations and more recently the mobilizations against the assassination of social leaders, these were rare in the neighborhood protests and almost non-existent in the student protests. This massive patriotism shows the enormous number of people who were not organized during these days.

Two major population phenomena have been recorded in this protest. On the one hand, the indisputable role of young women, high school students, workers, female workers and technical and technological students, of whom Dilan Cruz is a powerful symbol. In a country with such a weak secondary student movement and technical education, the overwhelming number of teenagers in activities and references to memes, digital culture and rebellion against their families is surprising. Also, it has been the precarious young people of the poor neighborhoods, mainly men, who have participated in the clashes with the police, often with minority or even non-existent presence of more politicized young university women. However, after daytime, this youth rebellion has been accompanied by a more nocturnal wave of participation in pots and pans of children, adults and the elderly, a wide and moving diversity.

We have seen that as night falls many of the gathering points have become recreational spaces, where groups of dispersed young people who blocked a road until late at night talk with eventual intonation of political slogans. Since November 22nd and 23rd, there are common ways of “patching” in the middle of the pots and pans with high consumption of alcohol and marijuana, especially in the most spontaneous groups, although these practices of consumption in political activities have always been present, for better or for worse, in the student marches. The idea of the pots and pans as a party is positive, although the excessive use of psychoactive substances can generate risky behaviors, as shown by the image of groups of demonstrators who at midnight are unable to walk and are, therefore, easy victims of repression.

Our proposal

The current days of grassroots protest represents a great explosion of social indignation. Hundreds of thousands of people in Bogota and the rest of the country have been mobilized and infected by a climate of political rebellion and social solidarity, never seen by our generation at this level of massiveness, something that has turned out to be moving for themselves and for outsiders. Per se, this is a great gain for the popular movement, however it is important that we manage to join in the struggle against the government and the bourgeoisie with specific and immediate social demands, in the perspective of a path for medium-term struggles.

Faced with the spontaneous wave of street patriotism, let us think that always with empathy and understanding, we can start questioning and replacing the symbols of nationalist identity with new and more beautiful forms of rebellious and class identity, strengthening the symbolic and political presence of internationalism, strengthening the demands and proposals for freedom, workers and feminists.

At the end of the great day of November 21 with union participation, the majority of the employed workers have had a minor participation in the protest, either suffering the alterations of transport and joining the long marches towards the working class neighborhoods, or supporting in their neighborhoods the nocturnal actions of pots and pans and mobilization in their neighborhoods. The task of organizing this social sector, the main one affected by the Duque government’s wage and pension reform agenda, continues to show its urgency today.

The popular youth who have taken the streets this week with energy and rage, affected by unemployment and precarious work, insecurity in health, benefits and pensions, macho violence and police repression, are going through an interesting process of collective eruption and politicization in the struggle. However, from now on, it is clear that we must aim to build a student movement with active union processes in all public schools and technical and technological institutions, unionism with a commitment and interest in organizing precarious youth, neighborhood, educational and social movements to build alternatives to the short future prospects that capitalism imposes on young workers.

The poor districts of the whole city have had an extraordinary role in this period. It is our task to strengthen the processes of neighborhood organization, and the combination of social demands to the upper class and the local and national authorities in matters of work, education or culture with the extension of the processes of self-management and territorial self-organization.

Women and sexual dissidents have actively participated in this extraordinary situation, with levels of visibility and mobilization that were hard to find in the past. However, the new and old sectors that have come out to protest continue to reproduce a rancidly patriarchal culture that it is necessary to begin to modify immediately by proposing new slogans, ways to behave and organize, promoting activities and encouraging programmatic debate on gender, in order to continue to break with male and heterosexual domination in practice.

The week of protest has shown the seeds of anarchy, i.e. a form of egalitarian organisation and solidarity without domination or principle of authority, which invites and needs the participation of people in the big decisions of their lives. Spreading and strengthening these germs implies above all building organizational leaps, grouping together in an assembly of direct and deliberative democracy in the sectors that have gathered in the pots and pans protest and blockades, building a new culture of political participation, daily and from below.

Today more than ever ¡Long live the fighters!

Grupo Libertario Vía Libre, November 29, 2019

Translation notes

[1] Batucada is a substyle of samba and refers to an African-influenced Brazilian percussive style, usually performed by an ensemble, known as a bateria. Batucada is characterized by its repetitive style and fast pace.

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