Massacre of protesters and economic crisis push Colombia workers to strike
A police officer fires tear gas at protesters in Cali, Colombia, May 3. By evening, police in the city escalated to using bullets, killing an unknown number of demonstrators. | Andres Gonzalez / AP

Colombia is in the midst of another general strike, with unions saying the government has failed to listen to demands for emergency measures to deal with rising poverty and hunger. Monday night’s massacre of protesters by police in the city of Cali have further enraged the democratic and people’s movements in the country and garnered the government international condemnation.

The action was called by the Central Union of Workers (CUT). The trade union federation also demanded that the streets be demilitarized. Even before the bloodshed in Cali, 19 people had already been killed and more than 1,000 injured in anti-government protests over the previous week.

The number of dead in Cali from Monday night’s massacre is not yet known, but police there opened fire on protesters participating in a march against the central government’s efforts to dump the costs of the economic crisis and the pandemic onto the country’s working class.

CUT president Francisco Maltes called on all Colombians to “maintain and increase the mobilizations” despite right-wing President Ivan Duque’s agreement to withdraw a tax reform package that would have disproportionately hit the poorest people.

Though Duque’s government claimed it would also raise wealth taxes on millionaires, the bulk of money raised from its planned “reforms” would have come from the pockets of working families. A nearly 20% hike in utility bills was one part of Duque’s plan; a similar increase in gasoline taxes would also have been imposed. New income taxes would also have been levied on people in lower income brackets, those making $700 per month.

A woman holds a sign that reads in Spanish, “The strike does not stop, because I live in fear of my father being murdered,” during a march by university students joining a national strike in Bogotá, Colombia, May 3. | Fernando Vergara / AP

Duque claimed the plan would raise $6.7 billion to pay Colombia’s debts and social program costs. Trade unions and left-wing parties say it is the rich who should pay the costs of the crisis, not working people who are already struggling to survive.

But the scrapping of Duque’s regressive proposals is no longer enough to satisfy protesters. “The reasons for the strike were not only the tax reform,” the CUT’s Maltes said. “The reasons have to do with the refusals of the government to negotiate the demands of the strike.”

The CUT has sought to negotiate on six points since last November, when the protests began. These include the withdrawal of a health reform bill, the strengthening of the national COVID-19 vaccination program, the creation of a national basic income, and the scrapping of university tuition fees.

The government has been largely uncooperative and has meanwhile sought to blame unrest on dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army.

International public opinion, meanwhile, further shifted against Duque following Monday night’s massacre in Cali. In Washington, the United States government criticized the actions of its ally, Duque, but also reprimanded demonstrators. The Biden administration issued a statement urging both police and protesters to practice restraint. “All over the world citizens in democratic countries have the unquestionable right to protest peacefully,” the statement read. “We urge the utmost restraint by public forces to prevent additional loss of life.”

The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights was more forceful than the White House, opting not to criticize demonstrators at all and instead condemning police actions as the source of violence. The U.N. office said it was “deeply alarmed” that demonstrators were shot down in the streets and stressed its “solidarity with those who have lost their lives, as well as the injured and their families.”

It warned the Colombian military and police to follow the law and reminded the government of its “responsibility to protect human rights” and protect the right to peaceful assembly and protest.

This article combines content from Morning Star and People’s World.