I came to Cali in late May, at the end of a month in which all of Colombia had been engulfed in antigovernment protests. No place had been hit harder by violence in the course of the turmoil than this airy, pleasant city of some two million people, traversed by a smooth-flowing river and shaded by enormous trees—ceibas, jacarandas, caracolís. Cali likes to style itself the salsa capital of the world and, more ambitiously, the “Branch Office of Heaven.” Maybe, but on the morning of May 28 a minor government official, enraged because he was not allowed through a roadblock guarded by adamant teenagers, took out a gun and killed two of them point-blank. He was then beaten to death by the others. It was the thirty-ninth known violent death in Colombia since the protests began and hundreds were missing.
May 28 was supposed to have been a peaceful day, even one, perhaps, in which festive marches could mark an end to the weeks of unrest. But hard on those first brutal deaths, demonstrators were attacked again by police and armed civilians, and by dawn the next day five more people lay dead. President Iván Duque, an ineffectual and generally despised conservative in office since 2018, imposed a military occupation on thirteen of the main areas of conflict in Colombia, principally Cali and the surrounding Cauca region. In Bogotá, the capital, there was nervous talk in upper circles about whether former president Álvaro Uribe, the gray eminence of Colombian politics, was seeking to get rid of the man who was elected on the slogan “The One Uribe Wants.” (“I am not a puppet,” Duque told an interviewer recently.) Who would replace him has not been settled in the gossip, and such a violation of the democratic formalities would be unheard of in Colombian politics and is probably impossible. Still, the mood was as tense as anyone could remember.
What amounts to a nationwide state of confrontation started on April 28. A long-seething mood of dissatisfaction and frustration had caught fire a couple of weeks earlier, when Duque’s finance minister presented a sweeping tax bill to Congress. Squinting hard, one could almost see why raising taxes at that particular moment might have seemed like a good idea to the president. Colombia, never a wealthy country, has been poleaxed by the Covid-19 pandemic, with more than 3.6 million reported cases and nearly 95,000 deaths in a population of some 51 million; it has been burdened with medical bills and income supplements for the poor even as the economy shrank by 6.8 percent last year. The government needed money, and Duque decided to get it by increasing taxes, mostly on the poor.
The bill vastly expanded the range of goods and services subject to an existing 19 percent value-added tax—which notoriously devours a far greater portion of the budgets of wage earners than of the wealthy—and promised to impose an income tax by 2023 on people earning as little as $715 a month. Having read its provisions, the novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez noted the obscene irony, in a country with one of the highest Covid mortality rates in the world, of imposing a 19 percent tax on funerals.
There had been large student marches against the Duque administration in 2018, much larger and angrier ones in 2019 to protest a wave of human rights violations, and more demonstrations in September 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. Following this year’s announcement of the tax bill, trade union leaders called for a national strike on April 28. The strike committee members are predominantly old, white, and male: they were not prepared for the spontaneous, ungovernable, overwhelming outpouring onto the streets of citizens whose lives their organizations do not touch.
The demonstrations began first in Cali, where at dawn a small group of Misak native people toppled a ghastly modern statue of Sebastián de Belalcázar, the Spanish conquistador of the region. Within hours, turbulent streams of protesters were flowing through the streets of seemingly every city and town in Colombia, demanding not just the rejection of the tax bill but also a whole new world: one with a working justice system; access to study and jobs for the young; an electoral democracy not corrupted by drug money; real enforcement of a peace treaty signed in 2016 with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s oldest guerrilla group; an end to the systematic assassination of peace activists; a halt to the aerial fumigation of poppy fields that also destroys the food crops campesinos live on—the list was long.
By the following day highways, main streets, and principal roads from the southern state of Cauca to northern Santander were crosshatched with roadblocks set up by the protesters. The strike committee included leaders of the national truckers’ syndicate, but they do not represent the thousands of owners of rattletrap farm trucks who collect milk or onions or mangoes from small producers every day, deliver the goods to market, and park every evening in their backyards. Those were the trucks obstructing traffic on the highways.
It took only four days for President Duque to withdraw his tax bill, but by then no one was paying attention. Kids with perhaps eight years of schooling who would never be able to find a proper job kept marching, alongside youths with college degrees who couldn’t find work either. Schoolteachers marched and so did nuns. It poured rain for days on end and the protests only grew larger. The kids set up roadblocks along city streets, and women organized to feed them and to collect rags and vinegar as a defense against tear gas. Everyone wore the national soccer team’s bright yellow T-shirt or waved Colombia’s yellow, blue, and red flag or painted a map of the country on their faces. In the cities, people who didn’t march leaned out of windows and banged on pots.
Those were the euphoric early days, but even then the dreadful human toll was mounting: tens of thousands of protesters have been teargassed or attacked with giant grenade launchers loaded with flashbangs and stingballs; hundreds have lost an eye or been otherwise wounded by the police—in some cases certainly on purpose.
Nowhere have the marchers been more enthusiastic or suffered more casualties than in Cali. One of the largest strongholds of the protests in the city is a sturdily working-class neighborhood renamed Puerto Resistencia, whose neat streets are lined with two-story apartment buildings with scrubby little front yards and exterior spiral staircases that lead to the second-floor units. It’s a neighborhood of tradespeople and shopkeepers, and I had the tastiest meal of my stay at a storefront diner here—three dollars’ worth of vegetable soup, white rice, fried plantains, grilled chicken, guava juice, all of it good. The road the little restaurant is on has five barricades indifferently guarded by lolling youths, and neighbors continue their lives undisturbed.
Or at least that’s what I saw; stories of extortion are not rare, and the hardship caused by the roadblocks has been enormous. According to the government, looters and vandals, perhaps provocateurs, who operate on the margins of the national protest movement have caused some $3 billion worth of damage. Transportation systems, police stations, government buildings, and ATMs have been set on fire. Trucks carrying food or spare parts have been overturned. There was widespread scarcity and hunger for weeks.
In Puerto Resistencia there are smashed traffic lights and the remains of bonfires everywhere. Nevertheless, polls show that an overwhelming majority of nonwealthy caleños remain emphatic in their support of the protests, as is the city’s archbishop, Monsignor Dario Monsalve, who pointed out that for 50,000 “traditionally excluded” youth in Cali, “the barricades are the only means they have in their territory” to force the state to listen.
“You go into the poorer sectors of Cali and there’s anarchy everywhere,” said Alejandro Eder, heir to one of Colombia’s biggest sugar fortunes and an aspiring politician. He knows his country and his region well, having worked for years in peace and reconciliation programs, but I thought he was only partly right. The traditional order has certainly broken down in places like Puerto Resistencia, and it’s been replaced by strange forms of organization that are largely ungraspable by outsiders and not likely to last, but are a form of order nonetheless. The version in Puerto Resistencia was enforced by dozens of very young men and a few women old enough to be—and who in a few cases probably were—their mothers. One tiny woman grabbed me by the sleeve and marched me over to a house used as movement headquarters and community kitchen, where a bunch of youths were getting hearty bowls of soup for lunch. An extremely large and imposing young man was reclining on a bench as we approached. “Get up,” my guide told him. “Talk to her.”
I asked him if he was a spokesperson, and he answered in a convoluted way that this was far too hierarchical a term, then delivered a discourse so confusing and larded with half-chewed Marxist, New Age, Third World, and identity politics that I found it impossible to take notes. But of course the discourse hardly mattered. He was an obviously bright university student who, like virtually every young person I met in the protests, had never been able to find work and lived in a single-parent home. (“Welcome,” he said, “to the country where men haven’t learned to take responsibility for their actions.”) A slight young man who listened in on our conversation had joined the army in the hope of getting hired as a security guard or a doorman on his release and had never had a job either. They were both twenty-three.
The point was this: they lived in a society that made them feel like trash and offered them no hope at all. Overnight, miraculously, with virtually no guidance except whatever orientation the large young man might conceivably be getting from the equally clueless but dangerous urban and rural guerrillas who are part of Cali’s environment, they had organized a bespoke world for themselves, one where every unemployed or woefully undereducated kid had a part to play, where there was at least one good meal a day for all, thanks to the neighbors’ continuing generosity—with maybe the proceeds of a little extortion thrown in, or maybe not—and where they could shout their loathing for their heartless rulers 24/7, dreaming for once that they were free.
The young man who said he wasn’t a spokesman wouldn’t talk about the late-night gunfire that was keeping people awake in the barrios, although Alejandro Eder, the peace negotiator, had an explanation. “In some of the poorer neighborhoods the small shopowners started to hire youths to guard their businesses overnight from looters,” he said. “And someone”—I took him to mean guerrillas and drug traffickers—“is paying some other kids to go in and vandalize. So these kids are basically now hands for hire, and once this is all done we’re going to have to put in a disarmament and reintegration process.”
Eder and every other observer I talked to about the crisis here believe, with good reason, that different groups are taking advantage of what is a genuine rebellion, including the guerrillas of the left-wing National Liberation Army; dissidents from the FARC, which demobilized in 2016; what someone called “populist politicians pushing forward hate-based political strategies” (that would be former president Uribe, in the view of many); assorted well-armed drug-trafficking gangs; and former paramilitary leaders who live in the fancier parts of the city. There are, in addition, the conservative whites who sit atop a pyramid of the multicolored and dispossessed, and who have supported Duque’s efforts to destroy the hard-won peace accords with the FARC. The collapse of those accords has brought increasing violence, as disillusioned, demobilized guerrillas join the gangs that now plague the countryside around Cali.
In addition, the United States began pushing the War on Drugs on Latin America in 1973 and has maintained it up to now. In the late 1980s three principal figures essentially controlled the export of cocaine to the US and managed its attendant violence: Pablo Escobar in the city of Medellín and the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers in Cali. With US assistance, Escobar was killed in 1993. Under pressure from Washington, the Orejuela brothers were extradited to the US a decade later. As a result, dozens, if not hundreds, of ever more murderous and uncontrollable drug gangs are trying to fill the void. They are fighting one another and the guerrillas, and seeking to increase their foothold in Cali. They too are responsible for the gunshots in the dark.
Jorge Iván Ospina, the mayor of Cali, was in a rueful mood when I talked with him. In Cali, the mayor wears a uniform, and that unexpected fact, along with Ospina’s unpretentious affability, led me to ask, as he ushered me into his office and offered a seat, whether the interview I’d requested with the head of the local government was actually with him. A fifty-five-year-old surgeon, he is the son of one of the many assassinated leaders of the M-19 guerrilla movement, a group long since disbanded and incorporated into the country’s left-of-center politics. Relatively new to public life—he had earlier served one term each as mayor and in the senate—he acknowledged easily that his career had gone up in flames as a result of the strike. “I’ve been dumped on by everyone,” he said.
In truth he hardly figured in the rhetoric of the strikers; what he had earned was the anger and contempt of the Cali establishment, in part for his disastrous mishandling of the budget in the pandemic year but mostly for his failure to bring order to the city early in the protests. It’s fair to ask whether anyone could have, but in his telling he reduced the violence with behind-the-scenes measures that persuaded the government not to end the strike by force. “Otherwise I believe we might be facing a civil war right now,” he said. When the dimensions of the strike and the government’s desire to destroy it became clear, Ospina said, he put a call out to the diplomatic community: on May 4 more than thirty ranking diplomats, mostly from Western Europe and the US, showed up in Cali to express their desire for a peaceful deescalation of the conflict. “That international protection provided some breathing space,” he said.
Later that week, Duque’s defense minister called Ospina to say that a delegation of Misak people traveling from their reserve to Cali should not be allowed into the city. Ospina pointed out that the right of citizens to travel freely anywhere in their country is guaranteed in the constitution and refused to comply. When the Misak arrived in the early afternoon of May 9, fighting broke out between white residents of a wealthy gated community trying to stop them from entering the city and a dozen or so of the younger members of the delegation. Some of the residents then filmed themselves going out on their motorcycles to shoot Misak; two were killed. In response, President Duque called on the Misak to “return to their resguardos [reserves]” in view of the “citizenry’s suffering.”
The mayor felt the need to point out to me Cali’s layers of complexity; it is home to guerrillas, industrialists, indigenous peoples, a shaky middle class, Afro-Colombians—or, as he put it, a multiplicity of agendas. He seemed to think that dialogue was the way out of the city’s present turmoil, but I couldn’t see how the conflict could be the mayor’s to resolve, given that Cali’s gigantic problems are Colombia’s. Nevertheless, Ospina held out hope that the diffuse ideals and dreams behind this moment of rebellion could contribute to a better Colombia. “If we can get through this the right way, it may be transformative,” he said.
On a breezy afternoon I took a taxi to the renamed Puente de las Mil Luchas (Bridge of a Thousand Struggles), avoiding roadblocks and taking in the multiplying protest murals placed theatrically along the city roads, until we reached a viaduct bridge at one of some twelve points in Cali where serious, cop-challenging barricades have been set up. Barely two dozen people were manning the post: one was handing out yo-yos and teaching a scattering of local residents how to use them; two or three women were relaxing next to a tiny, unpromising kitchen garden; half a dozen more had improvised a soup kitchen inside a blue plastic enclosure.
On the roadway behind them, a scene from an early Fellini or Kusturica movie: a cluster of actors in makeup and costumes clearly improvised from flea-market findings. Theater in Re-Existence was their name, they said more or less in chorus, and they had come together to bring theater to the barrios during the strike. “All of us [Colombians] were tired and exhausted by the pandemic,” one actor said—there were too many talking at once to keep track of who. “And then the movement just exploded,” another added. “So we said, ‘we’re not going to stop striking!’” a third said happily. A professional theater director took on the role of a people’s newscaster; an established actor impersonated a famous right-wing anchorwoman; an acting teacher of great natural majesty played the Motherland. Soon the troupe was out on the main road under the bridge, clowning and making an audience of twenty-five or so, who in all probability had never been able to afford a theater ticket, laugh and hoot and applaud wholeheartedly.
These are unpredictable and often frightening days, and there is no denying the tension, but I was considerably cheered by the joyous performance. The media most often show the anti-riot squads in their Darth Vader getups, the beatings and the shootings and the tear gas bursting into the air in great clouds. What appear less often are the ecstatic marches that are also celebrations of being alive after a year of Covid fear and loss. Colombia has a great tradition of protest parades, and it has been on display for weeks. In Bogotá, open-air concerts are offered by the Revolucionaria Orquesta Sinfónica, conducted by Susana Boreal and made up of student musicians and members of the city’s several symphony orchestras. Women’s batucadas, or drumming collectives, are common, and stilt dancers always show up. The rebellion has lasted weeks and access to a phone camera is now universal; one result is a rich harvest of music videos for la resistencia.
Take, for example, the video “Policía No Me Mates” (Cop Don’t Kill Me), a modest local hit by the seven or so siblings and cousins who call themselves Cronic Gang, whose oldest member is seventeen. The group lives three hours from Cali in Colombia’s principal port, Buenaventura, a predominantly Black and overwhelmingly poor city on the Pacific coast. Roadblocks would not have allowed me to travel there, so we talked on Zoom, and I was startled by how vulnerable they seemed, how Black and young and polite and innocently patriotic.
The poverty of their surroundings was apparent even in their music video, in which the group stands in front of a concrete wall wearing yellow T-shirts and black facemasks. Jean Pier Valencia, aka JMenny, seventeen, Elián González (TFP), fifteen, Junior Arley Medina (JWEIT), fourteen, and a friend, Julian Woodcock, eighteen, take turns imploring a policeman to remember that he is the same race as they are and suffers the same discrimination. “I kept seeing on social media how police kill innocent people who just come out to protest and I was filled with indignation,” JMenny said, explaining the song’s origins. “If the police were created to keep us safe, who will keep us safe from them?”
Like the singers, the song is hopeful even though the realities are bleak. Roadblocks have kept another group member, David Villegas, trapped in the countryside where he had gone to visit his grandmother. On the screen, I saw that she lives in a small bare-brick building. During the worst of the strike the family went hungry, David said; they could hardly find any food and it was too expensive. Still, he felt that the strike was an overwhelmingly positive thing: “It shows the world how we fight for our rights. We need health care, we want a better education. How is it that we are the main port and we can’t even have running water twenty-four hours a day?”
Cronic Gang wants to be famous, but they can’t get reliable access to water, much less a minimally adequate education. And a month’s worth of strenuous effort by the protesters to change their unjust nation, to make it at least pay attention to them, is not likely to provide a remedy. The strikers have had monumental triumphs of sorts: they’ve forced the removal of the finance minister and overturned his tax bill. The use of grenade launchers against peaceful protesters is now forbidden. Duque announced that registration fees would be suspended for the fall term in public universities. A chastened private sector is busily inventing job programs for the young. Most importantly, the protests may have put an end to the Uribe era: his formerly unassailable standing in the polls is now 73 percent negative, while Duque’s approval ratings have bottomed at 18 percent. Yet the government’s grand indifference to the suffering of its citizens remains unchanged. Violence, a miserable education system, and an economy now doubly ruined by the pandemic and the weeks of protest are still the lot of most Colombians, and realistically not much can be changed in the landscape of a disaster it has taken years to create.
But the possibility of failure was evidently the last thing on the mind of thousands of caleños who gathered on the morning of May 28 at the foot of Siloé, the city’s largest favela, in preparation for the march to celebrate the one-month anniversary of the protests. It was clear that the country needed normalcy, and that the energy for mass street demonstrations couldn’t last much longer, but those thoughts could wait until tomorrow. For now there were papier-mâché figures of politicians that would be joyfully smashed to pieces later on, and salsa-protesta music to be danced and flirted to. There was an ecumenical delegation of evangelical pastors and Catholic priests, a group of mothers demanding safety for their offspring, a hundred or so Misak, and thousands of skinny kids, impossibly young, yelling and leaping about, hooting cheerful insults at their rulers and preparing to set off once more across the city, full of hope. We have not seen the last of them.
—May 29, 2021