Colombia on Strike: A Lesson in the Similarity of Global Issues

Colombia on Strike: A Lesson in the Similarity of Global Issues November 21, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. Today Colombia is on strike. In the wake of recent protests in other parts of South America, folks here have been rattled. An anonymous video surfaced a couple weeks ago, for instance, of a young man threatening acts of terrorism on the Bogotá and Medellín metro systems on the day of the strike itself. Then, last week, a man was arrested for graffiti’ing strike-related messages on the Medellín Metro.* Some two dozen foreigners from neighbouring Latin-American countries were then deported for arriving with intent to participate in the strike–because outsiders can’t be trusted to respect the local infrastructure.

[*The Metro is a point of pride for this city, as a growth project started in the city’s hardest, most terror-struck years, and still expanding to connect the most impoverished barrios through metrocables, bike routes, tram lines, eco-friendly busses, and more. As such, no one vandalizes or sullies it with food, drink, or other detritus. You wanna be a decent tourist in Medellín? If you eat anywhere within the turnstiles in the Metro you will get the most cutting and distasteful looks from those around you, or a lecture, or the arrival of a police officer. Don’t do it.]

And just yesterday, the military and riot police started gathering in part to deal with a situation at the University of Antioquia, where some black-clad activists tried to stage an early intimidating protest (with weapons displays) while the students shouted them out, insisting these people did not reflect them and their own brand of protest.

It’s now around 9:30am as I polish this, fresh from my first class of the day, and I’m watching feed from the downtown core where rallies are gathering to begin marching up some of the major streets here. Many folks are off work today, to stay far from any chaos that may ensue. (Although, really, everything is so well organized, with clear corridors and a protest schedule–it’s only the aftermath that has folks super worried.)

But what’s got everyone so riled up? Why is Colombia–a country that seems to be relatively stable compared to many of its economic neighbours–also leaving its citizens feeling pushed to the brink?

The story I want to tell today is not one of Colombia’s distinction. Rather, it’s of the haunting resonance between many of Latin America’s socioeconomic breaking points, and similar in other parts of the world today.

My aim is to leave global humanists less interested in the question, “Why is Latin America on strike?” and more in the question, “Why aren’t we all?”

Colombia’s Wide and Widening Rich/Poor Divide

I live in a major Colombian city, Medellín, with one of the lowest levels of informal labour–“only” 41% of the population, more or less tied with Bogotá. The number rises to 70% in Cúcuta, and in the 60s in Santa Marta. Overall, around 48% of the working-age Colombian population earns its living by this means, while formal unemployment (i.e. within the formal labour market) is at 10.8%.

For those who do work in the formal labour market, the monthly minimum salary is 828.116COP (~$240.65USD). The hourly minimum wage is 3.450COP (~$1USD). If these labourers work a set number of weeks within the formal labour market, having paid into a pension in lockstep with their employer, they can retire with a modest sum for their golden years.


But the 45% of the population that even has a path to a pension is now under fire on a few sides. For one, the government is considering legislation that potentially creates a loophole allowing employers to avoid paying into a pension for its employees.

[Side note: I’m already part of one of the existing loopholes; I was made an independent labourer by my company–which, as a foreigner, means that the company doesn’t have to pay into a pension for me even though I’m a strong asset to the company. None of my working weeks to date counts towards a pension, so I might be stuck in this situation until I’m off my work visa in… 3.5 years. This is one of those delightful “immigrant” experiences I’ve heard so much about from immigrants to Canada–but it’s still nothing next to the way Venezuelan refugees are often exploited by employers here.]

The government is also negotiating a shift in pension-fund management that would reap a far lower payout for those who’ve spent their lives paying into the program. And the government has already advanced changes that “up” the number of weeks, significantly, that someone would need to work to earn their pension at all.

On top of it all, the government is considering the sale of major public resources to private companies–a cause for concern to consumers and environmentalists alike.

And it’s creating a third-party financial management system that will eliminate a huge slew of state-finance jobs while also removing direct state control over the country’s financial groups.

And it’s been reticent to fulfill its financial and infrastructural commitments to students, state workers, agricultural workers, and indigenous persons.

And utility costs have surged for people who live in more affluent barrios. (In Colombia, there’s an estrato system that ostensibly allows for people in wealthier neighbourhoods to pay into the infrastructure development of lesser neighbourhoods, ideally until all are at the same elevated quality of life.) This is squeezing a lot of families barely holding onto their middle-class existences as is.

All the while, Colombians know that corruption is costing the government millions in missing dollars on “white-elephant” projects every year.

It’s enough, in other words, to leave younger working professionals and students soon to enter the marketplace despair. What sort of socioeconomic playing field lies before them? What future can they imagine for themselves?

Oh, and FARC, the Indigenous, social-leader assassinations…

To be clear, any reporting you’re going to hear about today will probably go for the easy, lazy references to FARC. And yes, there are some frustrations about how the peace process has continued to develop, with dissident FARC still causing mayhem–but even when looking at that slice of the local equation, FARC issues are not nearly as troubling as those surrounding the ELN or a Mexican cartel that has been terrorizing regions where a FARC vacuum emerged after the peace process.

FARC is shorthand for so many international newspapers when it comes to Colombian internal affairs, but it’s insidiously wrong to place FARC at the head of today’s events.

It’s not.

Yes, students will have protest signs about the murder of social leaders and the abandonment of indigenous communities post-peace deal. But a) again, dissident FARC are by no means the sole or even most prominent threat in both issues right now, and b) for average Colombians in major cities where the strikes will take place, those murders and neglected communities are far from sight and mind. In whole other departments (territories) of the country! And so, c) for average Colombians in major cities where the strikes will take place, the most critical issues are those closest to home. The ones that directly affect students, pensioners, and working-age persons alike. The socioeconomic pressure-keg of neoliberal government policy.

I even tried writing to The Guardian offering information to amend an article about this impending strike, using sources from local media to illustrate that FARC is not at all the main focus of debate for those seeking to protest today. Alack, I haven’t heard back. I am still a long way from getting the ins I need to be able to change the Western world’s tried-and-true narratives about this country, and others in South America.

But here’s why it matters so much:

We Are Fighting the Same Fight, All the World ‘Round

“FARC” in Colombia, “socialism” in Venezuela and Bolivia, “corruption” in Chile… these are quick shorthands that let us treat people from other countries as generic two-thirds-world populations battling abstracts. They let us imagine, conversely, that our own problems in the upper-Western world are far more “developed” and nuanced in contrast to these sweeping destabilization pressures in other corners of the globe.

But the issues that Colombian families struggle with are not so different from the issues of families in much of the U.S., and Canada, and Britain. The massive and still-growing rich/poor divide, in conjunction with the burgeoning prominence of multinational corporations as the real powerbrokers across antiquated nation-state paradigms, has individual families struggling just to protect their own. Even as environmental pressures increase the number of displaced persons (a trend that will continue to grow in the coming years), we cleave to these old notions of institutional power as the last bastion of stability and security in an increasingly uncertain world.

The situation gets worse, too, when we think about how we live day-by-day within those bewildering nation-state paradigms, wherein we elect people (more or less democratically) whom we know will favour people with deep pockets, and will act in office as if economic contract law is more important than human rights. What are average persons supposed to do about any of this, if our vote can only change so much?

On the day-to-day level, then, we go about our lives using specific goods and services within a social contract that we’re supposed to be proud of, even as we see that the funding models for them are becoming more and more tenuous. We see politicians clearly gutting these programs or privatizing them to pour money into donors’ pockets, and we despair of how we’re supposed to follow the steps given to us by that same social contract to achieve a “good” life within it.

And from that despair? We turn on each other. We attack subgroups with specific political issues, accusing them of siphoning off what few resources seem to remain. We let ourselves be led, too, into xenophobia and other fears of the “other” from similar scarcity myths. Some of us also entrench ourselves in dogmatic support of systems that are clearly failing–like trickle-down economics–because it’s harder to bear up to the idea that what we might have believed in for so long was fundamentally wrong.

A Strike for Completely Familiar Causes

Change is scary. So many of us cling to what we have, even if it’s not great, because the alternative must surely be worse.

Except that, in some parts of the world, the breaking point eventually arises. In Chile, a fare increase in a strained economy. In Bolivia, a politician who for many years did good work for poor people but then tried to bend rule of law and risk destabilizing hard-won democracy. (NB: What happened after surely shows that right-wing naysayers are no less corrupt, but many on the left were distraught by Morales giving them the opportunity by being corrupt first.)

And in Colombia? It’s pensions. It’s taxation. It’s the impending job market with an increasingly privatized financial and social-services sector.

Yes, FARC, and indigenous welfare, and the assassination of social leaders are all other issues arising as extensions of feelings of betrayal from and frustration with the government. Yes, there will be outcry about all three today, too.

But global humanists need to remember that at the end of the day the Western world shares far more in the way of daily struggle with the Colombian people, and the peoples of other Latin American countries, than much of the news would have you believe.

We all want a fair chance at being able to work our way into a decent life.

Today Colombia just happens to be the part of that “we” now on strike.

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