Colombia’s Uprising Isn’t About Duque. It’s About Overturning Neoliberalism.

Jennifer Pedraza

A popular protest movement is winning a war of attrition against Colombia’s authoritarian and neoliberal government. We talk to activist leader Jennifer Pedraza about how they're coordinating the upheaval and the challenges ahead.

First line protesters walk during a demonstration against Iván Duque's administration in Cali, Colombia. (Gabriel Aponte / Getty Images)

Interview by
Nicolas Allen

Colombia’s ongoing general strike, which began on April 28 against a regressive tax reform bill, is now entering its second month. Facing down deadly police force and food shortages, protesters across the country have remained in the streets while the right-wing government of Iván Duque continues to dig in its heels, hoping that exhausted and terrorized demonstrators will eventually return home.

As Forrest Hylton recently argues, “La Resistencia” seems to be winning the war of attrition and the Duque government may be headed for a legitimacy crisis with no way back. Meanwhile, with each passing day that protesters hold the streets, the general strike casts a longer shadow over 2022’s general elections.

Organizing the strike and channeling protesters’ demands presents a particular challenge, and the country’s diverse social movements have played a vital role in that sense. But three interrelated aspects of the general strike have proven especially challenging. The largely spontaneous nature of movement numbering in the millions has posed significant organizational questions, and the coordination of diverse demands — long neglected by Colombia’s thirty-year neoliberal order — is a daunting task. Similarly, Colombia’s cause-specific and geographically limited social movements are not always equipped to manage a protest movement whose scope is clearly national.

Third, the protesters are overwhelmingly drawn from the ranks of Colombia’s enormous sub-proletarian youth group, the so-called “ninis” who neither study nor work (“ni estudian ni trabajan”) and therefore lack any connection to organized labor or the student movement. From bearing the brunt of economic stagnation and the fallout from the pandemic to manning the barricades, Colombia’s youth have undergone a process of vertiginous politicization in just a matter of months.

Jennifer Pedraza is one of the leading figures of a new generation of left-wing militants in Colombia. Having recently served as the representative one of the country’s largest student organizations, the Asociación Colombiana de Representantes Estudiantiles de la Educación Superior, she has played an increasingly prominent role as one of the main spokespersons and organizers for the youth-led strike movement.

Pedraza also served as a representative in the National Strike Committee, the body responsible for calling national strike actions and raising demands to the Duque administration. The sheer diversity of grievances and groups involved is a major hurdle that has led some to question the extent to which the strike committee can faithfully represent Colombia’s protest movement; that being the case, the committee can count among its success having contributed to the withdrawal of the original tax reform bill and a contentious health reform proposal that would have further privatized Colombia’s health care system.

Described by Hylton as a much “more radical Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” and a formidable socialist thinker that right-wing opponents fear to engage in public debate, Pedraza has shared the fate of many other social movement leaders and leftists in Colombia: as her star has risen, so too have the number of threats against her. Pedraza takes the intimidation tactics in stride, just like so many other Colombian youths whose militancy reflects a political maturity far beyond their years.

Pedraza spoke with Jacobin contributing editor Nicolas Allen about the challenges involved in coordinating Colombia’s massive and sudden social upheaval, the potential for the protests to converge around a common political program, and the need to push the protest movement beyond the immediate demand for Duque’s resignation and toward an open questioning of the neoliberal system he represents.

Nicolas Allen

Can you tell me a little about how you got involved in left-wing politics and how you became a student leader?

Jennifer Pedraza

I began my activism at a very young age in a city called Bucaramanga, which is near one of the most important páramos in Colombia. At the time that I was finishing high school, I got involved in a growing movement against a large-scale, open air mining project in the nearby Santurbán páramo.

That was in 2011, the same year that a student movement began to emerge not only in Colombia, but also in Chile, Mexico, and almost all of Latin America. My friends and I began to participate in marches and I ended up getting involved in the student movement.

Eventually I went to the National University of Colombia, which is the most important and largest public university in the country. When I arrived, what I found was a university that was completely underfunded and in a sorry state — one winter, the roof fell on me and my classmates while we were attending class. It was then that some friends and I decided that we needed to run for student representation — they nominated me and I ended up winning elections.

In 2018, the same year I was elected as student representative of the National University, there was a huge student strike in Colombia — the very first strike action against Duque and, in a sense, the one that kicked off the wave of protests that came after it. It was actually a very successful strike, but it was also met with heavy government repression and those of us who had a leadership role were persecuted. The tipping point was actually when I went to speak in Congress on behalf of the students: they turned my microphone off while I was addressing Congress, which really set things off.

With my comrades we’ve worked to establish in Colombia something similar to the CONFECH in Chile: a federation bringing together student representatives elected based on their university and region, combined in an organized national student movement. Our association is called the Asociación Colombiana de Representantes Estudiantiles de la Educación Superior (Acrees).

Nicolas Allen

You were also, until very recently, a representative for the student movement in the National Strike Committee. What is the situation in the streets of Colombia right now? What is the relationship between the committee and the protests?

Jennifer Pedraza

There are many sectors of Colombian society that have been mobilized, and, it must be said, the protests have in a way overflown the limits of organized social movements. Which is not to say, of course, that the social movements don’t still have any important organizing role to play. But it has been one of the main goals of the National Strike Committee to gather together these newly mobilized sectors and encourage them to get organized and elect representatives to join the National Strike Committee.

Now, why is it important for them to get organized and join the committee? One of the fundamental challenges right now is to articulate and connect these regional, sometimes isolated struggles. From our perspective, this articulation is essential in order to combine forces in the streets, especially because the government is using the tactic of sector-by-sector negotiations. That is to say, it’s using an old playbook to try to fragment and ultimately end a strike.

Now, regarding the role of the committee in the demonstrations, it’s highly unlikely that 100 percent of the protesters’ demands will be reflected in the committee. There is a very clear, you might say, very serious lack of organization, especially among the youth, so it’s a huge task. The protests are so overwhelmingly represented by ninis, which means they don’t have any type of student organization or trade union in which to get organized.

The other difficulty is that the protests did not take shape progressively over time: from one day to the next, ten million people were suddenly marching in the streets. It was a completely uncoordinated social explosion and, literally, the same month that we called the strike we spent all our time trying to organize all of these people and somehow link them with the National Strike Committee.

To give one example: the barras (organized soccer fan clubs) have participated massively in the marches, but they have their own idiosyncrasies. The barras have organized themselves and chosen their own spokespersons, and we are talking with the National Strike Committee to include them. Participating in the barras is one of the most common ways for the youth to join an organization, so we are trying to bring them into the fold.

At the same time though, all of these overwhelming social demands, even the most local ones, are very much in line with the demands promoted by the National Strike Committee. They took a survey and 93 percent of the demands that have come out of local neighborhood groups are represented in what the committee is asking for.

We overturned the tax reform, we forced the minister of finance’s resignation, we shot down the health reform bill, and all those points were precisely the ones that were mobilizing the youth and the protesters as a whole.

In that same survey, we asked the youth and 63 percent of them feel represented by the National Strike Committee. Now, that is not 100 percent support, but imagine how difficult it is to unite students, unions, women, Afro-indigenous, workers, indigenous, etc. But we are making good progress on this issue.

Nicolas Allen

I was just reviewing the committee’s demands, and at first glance they all seem extremely urgent; in other words, it paints a picture of society that’s really on the brink…

Jennifer Pedraza

That’s right, the committee has presented an emergency document which, as its title indicates, is very urgent. What is the nature of this emergency document? A very key point, perhaps the most central one, is a guaranteed basic income equivalent to one minimum wage for ten million Colombian families who are currently in a very critical situation due to the crisis.

The second demand is to guarantee secure conditions and labor formalization for health personnel. The third demand, related to education, is a temporary moratorium on tuition fees for public universities. This point also includes creating conditions in schools so that we can return to face-to-face attendance.

The fourth demand is the defense of national industry, which is in a very critical state. In 2020, the country’s potato producers went on strike and they had to go out in the middle of the pandemic without masks to sell potatoes on the roads. Why? Because the importation of Belgian potatoes was bankrupting the entire sector. Basically, nobody in the Colombian countryside is able to sell what they produce.

So, the demand to defend national industry includes the guarantee of quality employment. In Colombia, 80 percent of formal employment is in micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises, which are also the ones that have been most affected by this crisis.

Also, part of the point of defending national industry is the demand to overturn a labor reform bill decreed by Duque — which we’ve been marching against since 2019 — that would increase labor precarity.

The fifth point has to do with violence against women — a point raised by the feminist movement. In addition to female unemployment, there has been an escalation of gender violence during the quarantine. If we are locked up with the partners on whom we also tend to depend economically, it ends up being a perfect breeding ground for them to mistreat and even kill women.

The feminist movement in Colombia has been asking Duque to declare a national state of emergency against gender violence, but he never even acknowledged the request.

And the last point is to prevent the privatization of public companies. The minister of finance Alberto Carrasquilla, who recently resigned under pressure from the protests, threatened that if the tax reform was not passed, he was going to privatize Ecopetrol S.A., which is a very important publicly owned petroleum company on which the Colombian state is heavily reliant.

Now, Duque did not even want to sign off on a pre-agreement, which would have guaranteed the right to protest and a future negotiation process. I interpret this to mean that Duque’s strategy is simply to drag out this so-called “dialogue” process, avoid negotiating, and place all his bets on wearing down the protesters while giving free rein to violent repressive measures.

Nicolas Allen

I guess the follow up question is how much you expect can be negotiated with an authoritarian government like Duque’s.

Jennifer Pedraza

The National Strike Committee was summoned by the government to hold a “round of dialogue.” But we are not here to “dialogue,” we want to negotiate. Duque did the same thing during the protests in 2019: he called for a dialogue and, with no intention of negotiating, he simply used that “dialogue” as a strategy to legitimize the policies that he was going to carry out in any case.

In fact, the national emergency plan that we have presented was given to the government in 2020 — it’s already been eleven months and we have never had any response. This an absolutely undemocratic and arbitrary government, completely incapable of addressing Colombia’s social crisis.

Given the lack of response, the government’s policy seems to be to bide their time while creating a climate of fear where people don’t want to take to the streets. The excessive force we have recently seen is something very new for my generation; you can see the police shooting at people who are not even marching.

The government is engaging in a direct attack on the constitutional right to protest. There is no legitimacy, legality, or proportionality, which are the three principles that should govern the use of force by law officials in Colombia.

So, this is the government’s strategy: to keep stalling and ignoring the national emergency list while wearing down the movement.

That being the case, negotiating with the government is the only avenue the strike has to win some gains in terms of urgent public policy decisions — we need to move to solve the issue of widespread hunger in Colombia, for example.

We have already won a number of victories: thanks to the strike, people do not have to pay VAT on eggs, milk, bread, coffee, and other basic goods. We also won a huge victory by shooting down the health reform bill, which would have concentrated the so-called EPS market — basically, intermediary entities in the health system that make health care prohibitively expensive.

All these victories have a direct impact in people’s lives. But a basic income is now the main sticking point of negotiations, because it would really mean an immediate and necessary improvement in people’s daily lives.

Now, there are a host political changes that are only going to happen in the 2022 general elections: free trade agreements and other deep structural changes require a political transformation of state leadership, and I believe that these more macro demands will have to be raised in the 2022 presidential debate.

There are those people who say that the main goal is to force Duque’s resignation: “Duque still has eleven months left before elections.” But the problem is that if Duque resigns, that leaves Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez in charge, and she is even more conservative than Duque. If we get rid of the vice president, that leaves the president of Congress, who is from one of the parties closest to the government.

All to say, in my opinion, the debate should be focused on the economic model that today has Duque at the helm, but which has been upheld by seven consecutive administrations, leaving Colombia in the critical state it’s now in.

Nicolas Allen

What is your outlook on the 2022 elections? Do you think the protests will be able to dictate or influence the terms of the presidential debate?

Jennifer Pedraza

The first thing to say is that the Centro Democrático [CD] — the party of Duque and [Alvaro] Uribe — is going to lose the elections. That much I know, because the government has simply lost its legitimacy.

Beyond the defeat of the CD, the trend that will be decisive in 2022’s elections is the politicization of voters. Colombia has long been a very apolitical society; the attitude was that all politicians are all the same, and being all the same, why vote? Or, better, why not sell your vote? I hope that this idea has changed a lot, because the youth have undergone a very profound process of politicization (although not only the youth) in these protests and I think it will be expressed at the ballot box.

I am optimistic about the elections of 2022, because of the political changes we are seeing in Colombia. But the social movements still have a lot of work to do to express their struggles in the electoral arena; the social movements need to develop have a clearer link with electoral and institutional politics.

I believe that the struggle for national sovereignty and a different economic model is the big banner that we are going to have to carry in 2022. One of the underlying problems in Colombia is that there are international powers that systematically violate our sovereignty, dictating public policy behind the back of the masses and in favor of banks and foreign multinationals.

Remember, the tax reform bill was full of tax exemptions for these sectors of capital. What’s more, that reform — which put a freeze public spending in the midst of the pandemic — was drafted by the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] in 2019, in a document called Public Policy Recommendations for Colombia. It was a commission of experts led by the OECD, with economists who have worked at the Inter-American Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

All this to say that people are protesting against a reform package that is not even made in-house. It is simply unbelievable: the Colombian government wants to send the army against its own people in order to defend a policy agenda of foreign intervention.

Nicolas Allen

You make special emphasis on the leadership of the Colombian youth in the protests. If we look at the student sector, what is the situation they are protesting against?

Jennifer Pedraza

If there is a country whose fiscal policy has been overwhelming shaped by neoliberalism in Latin America, it is Colombia (along with Chile, of course). Although the latest measures to privatize education date back to the government of Manuel Santos, the background for those policies go back to 1991, during the period known as “economic liberalization.” This included the signing of free trade agreements, the complete abandonment of national industry, the privatization of goods and services that were previously considered fundamental rights — that is, the whole orthodox economic package.

This went hand in hand, for example, with the freezing of public resources for higher education in Law 30 of 1992. What this law did was to freeze in real terms the budget allocated by the government for public universities. And this is very critical, because the costs of education are increasing at the same time that there is pressure from the national and regional governments to increase tuition. So, the government’s solution was to triple the number of students but with the same fixed budget each year.

At the same time that public universities in Colombia were weakening, the role of ICETEX was growing. ICETEX is a semipublic lending agency for educational loans, but at the end of the day it is a commercial bank. That is to say, what it promotes is the capitalization of interests, providing student loans that comes from our own taxes. At the same time that the budget for public universities was cut, the ICETEX budget increased 1,300 percent in the last fifteen years.

Demonstrators take part in protests in Bogota. (Juan Barreto / AFP via Getty Images)

So, for students who can’t get into a public university, we ended up with a highly indebted generation; and, those who did go to public universities ended up with an education system that is completely dilapidated.

Colombia’s higher education system is very similar to the Chilean model: you take forty thousand students, give them student loans at a high interest rate, put them in the most elitist private universities, then you announce that you are solving the education for an entire generation. All this while the public universities are going bankrupt. They allocated 3.6 billion Colombian pesos to a private system that serves forty thousand students, the same amount of money that is given to the country’s thirty-two public universities throughout the entire year.

This is not a budgetary issue though; it is about a neoliberal conception of education. Milton Friedman wrote a text called “The Role of Government in Education,” and what Friedman says is that the state should not be in the business of providing education — unless of course that means giving vouchers or credits. That was the model implemented by the Santos government that we marched against in 2018.

Nicolas Allen

Maybe also similar to what we have seen in Chile, one gets the sense that Colombian youth are simply fed up with the whole neoliberal system — that they’re not just protesting around education issues.

Jennifer Pedraza

I believe that there is an economic underpinning to this crisis that has pushed the youth into the streets. It’s not necessarily that they are rebellious or that their interests are exclusively linked to education.

The economic dimension of the crisis is something that has been measured and statistically proven. Colombia has the highest levels of poverty in the last fifteen years. Forty-two percent of the population is living below the poverty line, which represents one-third of the minimum wage. This is important to point out: one-third of the minimum wage is nothing. That is not enough money to live on and we have twenty-one million people living in that situation.

But it is even worse if we focus on the youth, because there we find that 50.4 percent of households headed by young people are below the poverty line. It is a very particular phenomenon: younger generations are much poorer, even though they are supposed to be in the most productive phase of their lives. And when I say young people, I am including those who are thirty-four years old, who in theory should already have jobs or higher incomes.

On the contrary, 33 percent of the youth are what we call “ninis” — youth who neither study nor work. And if we look closer, we find that young women represent 72 percent of these ninis. In other words, the crisis disproportionately affects the youth and particularly young women.

Now, what caused this crisis? It is not only the pandemic; that is an absolutely false account that the government is trying to peddle. We had already had structural unemployment rates in the double digits before the pandemic.

With the economic liberalization and free trade agreements of the 1990s, our industrial and agricultural apparatus was completely decimated. We have begun to import textiles, milk, rice, potatoes, even coffee, which is simply incredible because Colombia is supposed to be a coffee-growing country. All those goods that in theory we could supply with national production, are being swept away by foreign production.

Where before labor markets were concentrated in the coffee, rice, textile, and agricultural sectors, these enterprises are now going bankrupt and being replaced with cheaper labor in other countries. That is what economic liberalization has brought us. That is why, when the pandemic hit, our productive apparatus was so weak that it could not withstand even a month of closure. The government does not give unemployment insurance and there is no basic income. There is no guaranteed minimum income, which causes demand to decline as well.

So, the pandemic was the literal breaking point, but it was the result of many conditions that came before. This would not have happened if we had consolidated industries and a formal labor market. The labor unions report that 63 percent of employment in Colombia is informal. And this informal sector is the first to be laid off and is the hardest hit by the crisis.

So, it is this accumulation of political decisions that leaves the youth in this situation. To be honest, to achieve the living conditions that my parents had, I have to work infinitely more. My generation is much more impoverished than the previous one, and all this went hand in hand with the economic opening of the 1990s. Again, I think that the big political challenge in Colombia is to rewrite existing free trade agreements.

To reiterate, the student and youth movement is not only in the streets fighting for higher education demands. We were in the streets against the tax reform, for decent employment, against the health reform, and lots of other issues. This is a very politicized strike, in the best sense, and the youth understand that what is happening to us is the result of a political and economic model that has been ruling Colombia for twenty-seven years.

In recent survey, 83 percent of young people reported that the issues I’ve been talking about are going to have a strong influence in the way they vote in 2022. And, well, in that sense, I am optimistic about what is to come.