Muros Invisibles
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Muros Invisibles

Why I March

As thousands take to the streets in Colombia, public debate over why is dominated by government and elites, not people like me

Riot police in Bogota gas protesters during a National Strike on April 28th (Photo: Joshua Collins)

This essay is written by a citizen journalist who contacted Muros Invisibles asking that we amplify the voices of those least represented in the public debate over ongoing general strikes in Colombia. It is edited only for clarity and English translation

By Jeison Oviedo Mercado

Bogota, Colombia- People tell me I shouldn’t take to the streets. With indignation and dismissiveness they tell me protesters are being manipulated by cynical politicians who channel the country’s frustration into a political opportunity. They call us arsonists, terrorists and vandals who put our lives and the lives of others at risk for joining together in the street in the midst of a pandemic.

Experts, politicians, pundits and the journalists of our state-friendly media companies offer explanations for what we think. They tell their millions of viewers and readers what we stand for. But just like our voice is ignored in the governance of our country, so are our voices in these public debates.

They tell us to stay home, that we are thugs. They ask us to “protest virtually”, and threaten us with violence if we do not.

But the anger, outrage and suffering of the Colombian people are greater than the fear of COVID or our fear of our government. I marched through downtown Bogotá on April 28th despite heavy rain and police attacks, as thousands sang protest chants against the nefarious acts of our government. I did not see ‘terrorists’. I saw countrymen and indigenous communities, people from all ages and walks of life ravaged by the misrule and callousness of our elites. There is no other way to describe the planned increases to the cost of living for Colombians at a moment so fraught with difficulty.

Minimalizing the people in the streets is an affront to their inalienable right to express their discontent, a right critically important as we stand at the gates of a tax reform that aims at ending the ability of our poorest to live with what they have left of their dignity.

The president of this country is so abstracted from reality that he seems convinced his personal TV show is the best weapon against COVID. He acts with inhumane cruelty against the poorest and most vulnerable of our nation. While complaining that the country borders on bankruptcy and the people must be taxed, he spends 14 billion pesos on military aircraft and billions of pesos more on his infuriatingly useless television program. Meanwhile, the death toll from pandemia exceeds 70 thousand people. Seventy-thousand souls that have paid the ultimate price for his failure to confront the unparalleled health crisis.

People march because of the indolence of a government that prefers to be generous with banks and large multinationals, rewarding them with exemptions and subsidies during the pandemic, while punishing the poorest with more taxes and violent repression. This is a government that is not interested in or does not understand its constitutional duty to protect the integrity and dignity of the people.

Their public insistence that people stay home to avoid getting infected has no credibility. This same government encouraged millions to crowd into stores and shopping centers during “tax holidays” at the height of the pandemic last year. Pretending now to be worried about people’s lives is nothing more than crude theater.

“Colombia is driven by two very unequal forces going in opposite directions. While the government possesses congressmen, the media, businessmen, banks, judges, land, wealth, access to education and an army historically unbothered by human rights violations, the people have only the streets and the voices with which they shout.”

The interests of the government are not the same as those of the Colombian people. They are rather impossibly at odds. While the government prioritizes the economy of big business, the people struggle daily amidst lockdowns and a crushed economy to stay afloat. The working class begs for a basic income to merely keep their families fed during an economic crisis caused by COVID. The government’s new tax plan raises the cost of food and basic goods and services- something the wealthy may be able to endure safely ensconced in their gated complexes-but which devastates the poor in a country with a nearly 45% poverty rate, where the minimum wage is roughly $12.50 USD/ day.

While the people ask for vaccines, the government has halted distribution in the cities that protest. While the people demand justice, they seek impunity for those who have massacred innocents and looted the resources of the State. While the people want to live in peace and tranquility, they continue the necro-politics that perpetuate their machinery of war, horror and blood-letting.

Protests on April 28th in Bogota, Colombia (photos: Joshua Collins)

Colombia is driven by two very unequal forces going in opposite directions. While the government possesses congressmen, the media, businessmen, banks, judges, land, wealth, access to education and an army historically unbothered by human rights violations, the people have only the streets and the voices with which they shout. But troubled by this public expression, our leaders want to silence even that last resource via brutal repression and excess force — a strategy which has taken the lives of hundreds of activists, protesters, social leaders and journalists in the last two years.

Before you say marching is pointless, or that people are wrong for putting their lives at risk to protest, ask yourself, “What is so urgent that thousands take to the streets despite the fear of pandemic?” The people struggle against a danger far graver than the virus. They are driven to the streets by impotence and frustration after decades of watching the political class trample their future and dignity, and who then demand the people foot the bill for their callousness. The elites like to talk of “democracy” while they ignore needs and voices of the ‘rabble’.

The insinuation that people march to fulfil the political agendas of politicians who are part of the problem is as insulting to the intelligence of the thousands in the streets as it is dismissive of their suffering.

Our reasons for marching are sacred, indeed integral to fixing our dangerously broken society. We do so because we have no other platform, no other channel for our anguish. Ignoring that reality is a violent dagger-thrust into the heart of the already battered and impoverished of this country. The people suffer from this meanness and disconnection with reality, while the government applauds and celebrates it, because it is the perfect rhetorical cover to mistreat the people and continue to pretend that everything is fine, that nothing bad happens here, and that beyond their own gated and well-fed communities, Colombia is the happiest country in the world. For them it may be. But for the vast majority of the population, nothing could be farther from the truth.

And so I take to the streets.

Edited by Joshua Collins

protesters in Bogota, Colombia (photo: Joshua Collins)

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Joshua Collins

Joshua Collins

A reporter on immigration and world affairs, based in Cucuta, Colombia. Bylines at Al Jazeera, Caracas Chronicles, New Humanitarian and more