On April 28, Colombia’s largest unions began a strike against tax reforms put forward by the government of right-wing President Iván Duque. The tax reforms, supposedly intended to fund Colombia’s COVID-19 recovery, would have provided massive tax breaks for large corporations while shifting the burden onto the already impoverished working class.
While the president has withdrawn the tax reform, the strike has since expanded with the support of more labour unions, students and social movements from the marginalized Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. The strike’s demands include measures to address corruption, police brutality and inequality.
The Colombian state has responded to the strike with excessive force, killing at least 37 protesters. More than 470 people have been “disappeared,” meaning they’ve been subjected to kidnappings and other secretive means of repression and intimidation by the state.
The Canadian embassy in Bogotá was the first government institution to respond to these events, issuing an extremely sterile tweet stating: “We regret all the deaths, injuries and violence in Colombia. We are concerned about the disproportionate use of force against protesters and we call for all actors to cease the violence and lay the groundwork for a dialogue.” Global Affairs Canada later issued a statement equating window-smashing by strikers with extrajudicial killings by security forces
The passive language and ‘both sides’ condemnation by the Canadian government suggests that Canada is a neutral party seeking calm and for common sense to prevail. The reality is that the Canadian state and businesses are implicated in Colombia’s long history of violent repression, as well as the austerity measures that triggered the current protests.
From arms and tactical training provided to police and military to aggressively promoting private capture of natural resources, Canada is one of the best friends of Duque’s government and the oligarchs behind him.
Making Colombia Safe For Capital
Prominent in many videos of police and military dispersing crowds throughout Colombia are Huron Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC), a Canadian-manufactured light armoured vehicle.
The Huron APC forms a key part of Colombia’s military and national police armaments. The manufacturer, INKAS, describes the Huron APC as a “big Hummer on steroids.” Despite Colombia’s well-documented human rights abuses theoretically excluding it from arms sales by Canadian manufacturers, arms dealers regularly bypass safeguards by shipping armaments and equipment via the United States.
But Canada’s role in militarized repression of popular movements in Colombia goes far beyond that of an arms salesman. The Colombian military — now deployed to the streets of Cali in western Colombia — has received training through Canada’s Military Training and Cooperation Program since 2011.
Canada has also instructed Colombian police through exchanges with the RCMP and the ongoing Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program (ACCBP), which nominally trains the Colombian national police in combating drug trafficking. The ACCBP is Canada’s contribution to Colombia’s long drug war, which provides pretext for security forces and paramilitaries to target leftist guerillas and peasants who produce cocoa.
Killing For Gold
At the same time as Canada arms and trains Colombian security forces to engage in repression, it facilitates the exploitation of workers and the transfer of wealth from Colombia to the bank accounts of large mining and oil conglomerates, many of them registered in Canada for tax reasons.
Colombia’s economic policy has long been geared toward gaining investor confidence through fiscal “stability” and protecting large monopolies, especially in natural resources and commodity crops, an approach encouraged by the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCoFTA).
Firms registered in Canada that invest in Colombia do so overwhelmingly in natural resources, and they are supported by the Canadian state. For example, immediately after the signing of CCoFTA, the Canadian International Development Agency provided $6.7 million to support private mining developments in Colombia, precipitating a gold rush that coincided with increased violence against Indigenous peoples and labour unionists. The Canadian state also indirectly subsidizes private mining interests by acting as a tax haven for three-quarters of the world’s mining companies.
Alongside the Colombian state, private paramilitary forces are the main purveyors of violence against the people of Colombia. Firms directly and indirectly supported by the Canadian state, such as Pacific Exploration & Production (rebranded to Frontera Energy in 2017), have employed private paramilitary forces to displace campesino, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities from areas slated for large-scale oil extraction or mining projects, as well as to discipline and intimidate their workforces.
Women, labour unionists and even local priests have been assaulted or assassinated by private armies on the dime of Canadian mining companies, which are often taxpayer-funded.
Peace For Whom?
Last year, an unarmed lawyer named Javier Ordóñez was killed by Bogotá police, who tasered him repeatedly even as he begged for them to stop. Ten others were killed by police during protests condemning his murder.
While Colombia’s longest-running civil conflict formally ended in 2017 when FARC guerrillas demobilized under a peace agreement, conflict and violence in the country has not gone away but rather transformed.
The Colombian state and paramilitaries continue to treat campesinos, workers, Indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians not as citizens but as potential insurgents. This violence is not an aberration, but rather endemic to the oligarchic capitalist system that dominates Colombia and brooks no dissent. It’s hard to call Colombia’s current predicament “peace” for anyone except the country’s elite, and the oil and mining companies protected from popular pressures by the hard hand of state violence.
While Canada quickly and swiftly responds to alleged human rights abuses by countries that attempt to break out of dependency and capitalism — imposing devastating sanctions on Colombia’s neighbour Venezuela, for example — it remains not just complicit but an active player in the brutal, violent social war against the Colombian people waged by the state and private paramilitaries on behalf of international capital.
Yet although Canada continues to back the old capitalist order, an alternative is possible in Colombia. The current strike is the culmination of a decade of mobilizations and disparate actions, becoming the broadest and most sustained social protest in decades.
Observers describe the Duque government as on the “brink of collapse” after being forced to withdraw the tax reform bill, unions and social movements are growing bolder even in the face of repression, and a left-wing ex-guerilla is polling a strong first place for the upcoming 2022 presidential elections.
The fact that radical change is a possibility in Colombia only underlies the urgency of opposing Canada’s role in the state violence and exploitation that millions of Colombians are mobilizing to resist.