Colombia’s highly restricted democracy got a good slap in the face two weeks ago when 100,000 protesters entered the capital city and filled to overflowing the giant plaza that spreads out before the Congress and the Palace of Justice. In fact, just looking at the hurried reactions of president Juan Manuel Santos – new cabinet appointments, launching a populist housing project, and buying more arms from the US – one would know something serious is afoot.
But what, precisely, is it? The protesters call themselves the Patriotic March and were born with a more or less spontaneous celebration of the Colombian bicentennial two years ago. At that moment, in 2010, there was an earlier and likewise massive march to Bogotá plus the formation of cabildos (open councils) to treat questions of urgency in Colombian politics and life (such as human rights).
Today the marchers’ two principal slogans are innocuous enough: one the one hand, the effort to bring about a second and definitive independence and on the other hand peace; that is, a political and negotiated solution to the country’s 50-year conflict, a peace with of social justice. So what is all the fuss?
In fact, only in Colombia are the search for peace and sovereignty themes to which the state generally responds with massive repression, even approaching genocide. Some twenty-five years ago Colombia’s longest lasting guerrilla, the FARC-EP, opted for a peaceful rather than armed expression of its non-conformity. This led to the systematic assassination of something like 4,000 of the unfortunate cadres of the Patriotic Union who thought there might be a space for a strictly political opposition in Colombia’s much touted democracy, which seems to have durability rather than authenticity as its principal characteristic.
Though strictly speaking it may not be a world that has lived 100 years of solitude, Colombia’s politics has its very specific and even archaic qualities. For example, one of the principal struggles still seems to be that which takes place between city and country. Superficially at least, most of the patriotic marchers are people of rural origin: small or displaced farmers. Likewise there is an obvious racial or color element; the marchers tend toward brown and black while Power in Colombia tends to be white – except of course for the sepoy police and armed forces.
The marchers are clearly that group or class which Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano called “the nobodies… who don’t speak language but dialects… who don’t have culture but folklore” (and “cost less than the bullet that kills them”). But that doesn’t keep them from being very clear about what they want and need. “We’re being displaced by transnationals and the national government,” said one small-scale miner from the Bolivar department, “and participating in the march is the only way we will be heard”. Almost to a man, they are clear that their government is a puppet, militarist regimen in which the White House, if it doesn’t call all the shots, is at least consulted on most of them.
The march, patriotic and gutsy given the conditions in which it must operate, is one of those events that show that class struggle cannot be eliminated from any context, even by the most aggressive and totalitarian state tactics. There comes a point in which – as Martin Luther King said – one cannot not go on. The marchers have reached that point. They cannot be willed or dispelled away by even the most powerful mediatic wands (the mass media seems to insist contradictorily both that they don’t really exist and that they are very dangerous).
One of their repeated claims – that passes from the mouth of the inimitable ex-senator Piedad Córdoba to almost every spokesperson – is that the March, come what may, will go forward. That means that it will and has taken the form of a political movement and that it will try to take state power, as every responsible political movement tries to do. That claim, when it comes from the mouth of someone with Córdoba’s mettle, and when backed up by such conscious and committed social bases, is enough to make even the most ruthless politician of the establishment tremble. And some of us, one must say, tremble with delight.
Chris Gilbert, professor of Political Science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela, formed part of the international delegation that accompanied the Patriotic March, between April 21 and 23, in the formation of the National Patriotic Council.