Colombia's Anti-Imperialists Import Cancel Culture

The rent-seekers' rebellion has achieved little beyond dispelling the Marxist notion of class struggle.


As the January 6 riot unfolded, journalist Jake Tapper told a CNN colleague reporting from Washington, D.C., that he felt as if he was "talking to a correspondent in Bogotá." Now that violent protests once again plague Bogotá and the rest of Colombia, however, the odd thing is that they closely resemble last summer's violent protests in Washington, D.C.

While Colombia certainly has a long history of riots, these seldom featured the toppling of statues. It was only after the 2020 twilight of the statued idols in America's capital and throughout the United States that a group of Guambianos, or Misak, an indigenous people from the southwestern department of Cauca, decided to topple the statue honoring Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, the Spaniard who, allied with certain indigenous tribes, conquered much of central Colombia in the 16th century. The Guambianos tried to "cancel" Jiménez de Quesada last month in Bogotá's colonial center, only days after they had struck in the city of Cali, where they ousted the statue of Sebastián de Belalcázar, another conquistador.

Besides importing cancel culture from the United States, the professed anti-imperialists leading the current protests in Colombia have used roadblocks along major highways to prevent goods, medicine, fuel, and even ambulances from reaching large urban centers. In Cali, the third-largest city in Colombia with 2.2 million inhabitants, the local press reported shortages of rice, meat, chicken, eggs, vegetables, and gasoline on May 5, after several days of blockades and complacency by the local authorities. On May 9, when entrapped residents attempted to liberate the roads themselves, they exchanged fire with the indigenous groups carrying out the blockades. The latter even invaded gated communities and launched projectiles at a security drone as it filmed their onslaught.

The systematic use of roadblocks is not new; saboteurs have perfected this hostile tactic against civil society after several decades of constant practice. In Popayán, a city of 318,000 inhabitants in Cauca some 85 miles south of Cali, tradesmen are used to storing additional supplies of food and water to last about 20 days each year. As journalist Fernán Martínez reports, this is due to annual blockades from indigenous groups, which have besieged the city since the 1980s and left its inhabitants regularly without supplies.

The goal is always to extract public spending pledges or grants of additional land from national authorities; indigenous reservations or resguardos, where the law dictates that all property be held collectively, are among the largest land holdings in the country, comprising 31 million hectares out of a total of 114 million according to a 2011 study by the Colombian Institute of Rural Development. As Martínez notes, the government usually sends its inexperienced, city-dwelling technocrats to capitulate in negotiations with wily indigenous leaders, who are "true Ph.D.s in the art of the blockade."

Other professional rent-seekers are now using the same methods at a national level. The country's largest labor unionscomprised of a minority of mostly public sector workerskick-started the current chaos when they called a national strike on April 28 against a proposed tax reform. They claimed it was an assault on the middle class because it broadened the income tax base, which now consists of a mere 4 percent of working individuals.

The government's tax reform, however, was a quasi-socialist measure that sought to raise the existing wealth tax from 1 to 2 percent, place a 10 percent surcharge on moderately high salaries, and create what one report called "a permanent, unconditional subsidy for 40 percent of the population, a version of the basic income scheme that the left has promoted for years."

Since a majority in Congress was planning to reject the tax bill, President Iván Duque withdrew the measure and fired his finance minister just five days after the beginning of the strike. Nevertheless, the unions are still obstructing the free flow of traffic across Colombia, which proves that their opposition to the tax bill was mere grandstanding. In fact, while the tax reform they opposed sought to raise 14 trillion Colombian pesos (USD $3.79 billion) in revenue, the sum of their demands amounted to more than five times as much in additional spending on free college tuition, basic income payouts, and other statist schemes. Meanwhile, the strike's indiscriminate violence against public infrastructure and private businesses has already cost 10.8 trillion Colombian pesos (USD $2.92 billion) in damages according to one estimate.

The openly socialist teachers union, La Federación Colombiana de Trabajadores de la Educación (FECODE), has been particularly deceitful. While its leaders refused to return to schools and deliver in-person instruction, claiming that their members are vulnerable to COVID-19 infections, they also protested in large crowds and herded closely together during street concerts. Depending on their convenience, they have switched from being COVID bedwetters to nonchalant superspreaders at an astounding velocity. FECODE only announced a return to school after a video surfaced in which one of its leaders, who is planning to run for Congress, openly admitted that the strike was about winning power in the 2022 elections.

Not that the arsonist left is solely responsible for Colombia's turmoil. To the extent that there is legitimate popular discontent, the class of technocratic dirigistes in charge of economic policy is largely to blame. For decades, Colombia's technocracy has pursued a model of low growth, inflexible labor regulations, a weak currency, and high taxes on businesses. While tax revenue has constantly increased, it hasn't kept up with uncontrolled public spending on large welfare programs and a growing bureaucracy. Hence the constant budget deficits and dangerous levels of national debt, which reached 40 percent of GDP even before the pandemic.

Recklessly, national budgets have come to depend on expected oil revenues based on wishful estimates of the following year's price of Brent crude. When the current government prepared its budget for 2020, which Congress approved in 2019, it assumed an average Brent price of USD $67 per barrel. The collapse in oil prices in early 2020, when a barrel of Brent sold for USD $9.12, wreaked havoc on the public finances.

Last April, Colombia's debt stood at 60.4 percent of GDP, as its sovereign bonds sold at junk levels. As expected, Standard & Poors downgraded the country's credit rating and removed its investment grade in May. And although the official unemployment rate reached 15.1 percent in April, the government has shown no willingness to introduce supply-side reforms or relax labor laws, for instance by allowing per-hour work or at-will contracts. In a sense, the labor unions already rule the country.

In its coverage of the protests, the foreign press has centered on police abuse, a real problem that politicians exacerbated with authoritarian COVID-19 restrictions. Just last September in Bogotá, several police officers tased, choked, and then killed a 43-year-old man named Javier Ordoñez, who sought to buy beer while a curfew was in place. On May 17, the Office of the Attorney General announced that it was investigating 278 cases of alleged police abuse during the current wave of protests. It added that 703 officers had been injured since the beginning of the strike, a figure the police itself updated to 1,326 on June 11. Few on polarized social media platforms reject both police brutality and the growing violence against the officers who do their job fairly, but are constant targets of Molotov cocktails and other projectiles.

The country's hard left, led by former guerrilla member and now-Senator Gustavo Petro, wants the world to believe that Colombia is under an illegitimate, authoritarian regime that systematically abuses human rights. Colombia, however, is still a liberal democracy, imperfect and now beleaguered, that is fighting to preserve the republican institutions that its neighbors have either lostas in the case of Venezuelaor may be about to lose, as in the case of Peru. This is hardly surprising since Petro, after losing the presidential election in 2018, announced that "the people" had to be mobilized against the newly elected government.

Nonetheless, the rent-seekers' rebellion has achieved little beyond dispelling the Marxist notion of class struggle. "In the modern state," wrote Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila, "the classes with opposed interests are not the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but rather the class that pays taxes and the one that lives off them."

NEXT: No More Traffic Cops

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  1. Could we please save “launch projectiles” for anything, say, potato cannon or higher? “Throw rocks” at the drones, seems to be the correct word usement in this case. If you could just do that, that’d be great.

    But otherwise great article;

    In the modern state, the classes with opposed interests are not the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but rather the class that pays taxes and the one that lives off them.
    — Nicolás Gómez Dávila

    I am so stealing that.

  2. Did I miss it where the January 6th rally-goers / protesters / rioters toppled any statues?

    I thought that was primarily an antifa / BLM / progressive rioter thing.

    1. used roadblocks along major highways to prevent goods, medicine, fuel, and even ambulances from reaching large urban centers.

      Totally not antifa. They only do peaceful protests.

    2. He’s talking about the summer protests mostly, not the jan 6 thing.

  3. “Depending on their convenience, they have switched from being COVID bedwetters to nonchalant superspreaders at an astounding velocity.”

    That sounds terribly familiar, like I have heard this story before, but in another place and time.

    1. “The openly socialist teachers union, La Federación Colombiana de Trabajadores de la Educación (FECODE)”

      Thank goodness they’re only in Colombia. No teachers union in the USA would even think of adopting socialist doctrines.

      /Paid for by the American Federation of Teachers

  4. or Misak, an indigenous people from the southwestern department of Cauca

    So that’s where he’s from!

    1. Different spelling. I’m sure Misek would consider Misak to be “mud people.”

  5. I realized you wanted to tie-in the Jan 6 DC protestors as an allusion, but it sounds like the only tie-in to cancel culture is the toppling of statues. The DC statue toppling was from the previous June by a different group of DC protestors. Some other notable statue topples. Statues of Lenin in the Ukraine in the 1990s. Statue of Saddam in 2003. Statue of King George III in Bowling Green in 1776. So these are all cancel culture before cancel culture was a thing in the U.S.? Or maybe it’s just a long standing tactic targeting symbols of recent regimes. Also here are some other notable examples that aren’t precisely statue toppling but probably could be called cancel culture. FARC blowing up a Bolero statue in Colombia in 1995. Taliban destroying Buddhas in 2001.

    Not especially knowledgeable about the Misak but the Zapatistas came to mind.

    It sounds like the union is sending a message, as they sometimes do. Withdrawing a measure is not the same thing as passing a law in the opposite direction. With ease you could keep resubmitting measures and withdrawing them, wasting the opposition’s money.

    1. If I were a libertarian in revolt against a tyrannical regime, I would merely want statues sold off to pay off the previous tyrant’s debts, preferably to private curators and museums to preserve the memory of the tyrannical previous regime. Destruction for it’s own sake is just nihilism and invites another tyrant to fill the power void.

      And, of course, I would want the new libertarian regime to renounce government monument-building in general and tell private artists: “Buy your own clay, Papiér-Maché, ice, Play-Doh, or any other medium you want and roll your own!”

    2. Talk about toppling statues. When the “insurrectionists” were passing through the rotunda of the Capital Building, they stayed politely inside the rope lines. They could have trashed and burned so many paintings and busts of oppressors. Damn.

  6. “The systematic use of roadblocks is not new; saboteurs have perfected this hostile tactic against civil society after several decades of constant practice.”

    Like farmers in France, who block highways, especially around Paris, every time anyone dares to propose cutting farm subsidies or tariffs?

    1. The very term Sabotage is French in origin. It came from French striking workers throwing their wooden shoes (sabots) into the gears of factory machinery, paralyzing the machines and factory operations (and probably overwhelming anyone near the smelly Frenchman.)

      Straight-Edge street thugs also do a small-scale version of blockades by bullying people and the enterances of clubs and bars that serve their hated nemeses of alcohol and tobacco. Anti-Abortionists used the tactic of blockading so much, there had to be safe zones established between anti-abortionists and clinic entrances.

      All I know is blockades better not become a popular tactic in the U.S.A.

      Peacefully protest or strike anything you want, that is your natural human and Constitutional right. But if you block others’ natural human and Constitutional right to freedom of movement along public thoroughfares for which you have paid, that is very legitimate grounds under the libertarian NAP/NIFF principle for a serious ass-kicking on the sidewalk or getting ran over in the streets and highways!

      Blockades are not just an inconvenience for motorists, but threaten lives by blocking commerce of survival goods and blocking life-saving First-Responders such as police, fire fighters, and paramedics!

      Both Columbians and U.S. Citizens need to get the fight back in them and stand against blockade thuggery! Remember: You have the 2000+ pound bullet of plastic, glass, and steel and they don’t!

  7. The openly socialist teachers union

    By that you mean “teacher’s union”.

  8. Now that violent protests once again plague Bogotá and the rest of Colombia, however, the odd thing is that they closely resemble last summer’s violent protests in Washington, D.C.

    My only nitpick here is that I see it as the opposite.

    Bogota hasn’t “imported American cancel culture”, we imported the language and methodology of third world communism, and yes, I include Mao’s Great Leap Forward (progressive) and Pol Pot (who fought for “social justice”) into that.

    1. Particular tactics and particular names for ideologies have origins in particular nations, but thuggery as an ideology and practice is sadly universal.

      (Pop-Up Video Factiod: Father Charles Coughlin in the era of The Great Depression referred to his Anti-Semitic, Populist flavor of Welfare Statism as “Social Justice.” Something you may want to bring up if you encounter SJWs and have ear-plugs for their “REEEEEs.”) 🙂

  9. Wow, this magazine has gone full violent. Blaming teachers and unions. Omg, gated communities those poor folks, scum.

    1. Looney Lefties are enough to make working class folks want their own gated communities. It’s sad when an apartment complex or RV Park has to fence up to keep out ideological riff-raff!

  10. I need to check out that philosopher Davila; he sounds based and his class analysis is identical to that of classical liberals and libertarians.

  11. This is a very biased article.

    Some things the author conveniently left out:

    First. The government is said to be right-wing but it’s actually left wing, economically speaking. It favours a large Estate and more taxes. The Congress just passed a government backed-up bill that increased the size of the Procurators office.
    Second: The author forgot to mention that the tax reform included a ‘death tax’ on funerals in the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
    Third: IVA (or VAT) is paid not by just 4% of the Colombian population.
    Fourth: The money for the poor that the government is supposedly going to transfer from the tax reform is just another mechanism to keep them voting for the same corrupt politicians. The strategy is very clear: you give money to the poor, they don’t see the need to work, and keep voting for the same politicians to get subsidies, while they stay poor, and the politicians get more power to be corrupt.
    Fifth: it is absolutely ridiculous to pay more taxes in one of the most corrupt countries in the world. What the country needs is to CUT taxes and a smaller government.
    Sixth: police officers were escorting civilians that shot indigenous people and other protesters. Remember it is illegal for civilians to carry guns in Colombia.
    Seventh: police attacked the protesters with guns and rockets (excessive force). Some peaceful protesters were taken and forced to plead guilty to vandalism when they did nothing.
    Eighth: there are more than 100 missing persons after the May protests.
    Ninth: the ties of the government to convicted drug traffickers. Check out the families of the vicepresident and the new embassador to the U.S.
    Tenth: government has control of the Attorney’s, Procurators’ and the Ombudman’s office.
    Eleventh: the government is not complying to previous agreements with the people and with the peace accords. Violence has returned to Colombia, which is good for a fearmongering government.
    Twelfth: Who gives a rats xxx about statues.

    Colombia is most definitely NOT a ‘liberal democracy’ with some ‘flaws’.

    Evidence is everywhere. Look it up. This is all documented.

    And yes, road blocks are a major hassle and shouldn’t be a form of protest. But what should people do in this situation, write letters to their congressmen?

    REASON, it doesn’t hurt to open your eyes. You’re supposed to be libertarian and freethinking. And now you’re backing up a government that is increasing taxes. What the hell happened to you?

    By the way, I belong to that ‘4%’ that works and, unluckily, pays taxes.

  12. hope they come back strongly for the peace

  13. lets promote peace. this is great news with much details

  14. Nice to see Reason carrying water for the US State Dept.

    It’s another, sovereign country – if they want to be socialist and fuck everything up, then let them – it’s NONE of our fucking business.

    Or does libertarian thinking end at the border?

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