Interview with the Colombian Socialist Workers Group (GTS)

Impulso Socialista, Colombian section of the International Socialist League (ISL), interviewed comrade Juan Sánchez, member of the leadership of the University Professors Trade Union Association (ASPU) and member of the Socialist Workers Group (GTS). We have been carrying out coordinated work with the comrades of the GTS to intervene in the ongoing process in our country and exploring the possibilities of advancing towards a political regroupment of revolutionaries.

Juan Sánchez

A historic change has taken place, how do you characterize the situation that has opened up in Colombia?

Juan Sanchez: Before answering the question, an observation on the introduction to it. I could agree that there has been a historic change, but, immediately after, we would have to specify its context and in relation to what we classify it as historic. If we refer to the extension, depth, radicality of the process of mobilization and protest that began last April 28, with the call for the National Strike, without the slightest doubt there is a qualitative, historic change with respect to the dynamic of struggles of the last five decades. We would have to go back to 1977, to the National Civic Strike of September 14, to find a similar event. But the process that began on April 28 was very different from that of the 1977 strike. It took place in a country that is radically different, in which very deep processes of economic, social and political transformation took place in those five decades. The process that breaks out on April 28, 2021 expresses that new country. The Colombian economy is determined by international economic processes, there are millions of urban dwellers impoverished by the economic crisis that increased to unprecedented levels due to the pandemic. Colombia has the fourth highest youth unemployment rate in the world (33.3%, surpassed only by Costa Rica, Spain and Greece). Unlike the country of 1977, we would have to say that Colombia synchronized itself with the whole political processes of struggle and mobilization of millions in the world and that this, in itself, is a historical change. Now, if we refer to what the mass movement has achieved so far, seen from a “historical” perspective, we would have to say that this change has not yet taken place, it can be glimpsed, there are elements that allow us to foresee it, but it has not yet materialized. To give an example, since 1957 – that is, for 65 years- never in Colombia has the struggle of the mass movement succeeded in overthrowing a government, a quite frequent matter in the neighborhood (Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, to name but a few). Not to mention the political regime. The fundamental elements of the reactionary Colombian political regime -a regime which we should not hesitate to label as murderous- have been maintained for decades. The “historic” task of overthrowing that political regime by means of the struggle and direct mobilization of millions of exploited and oppressed is still pending. The mobilizations since April 28, at a given moment, placed the Duque government against the ropes, the fall of which would have meant a phenomenal (historic) crisis of that regime. However, the unity of the bourgeoisie as a whole and the shameful backing of the forces that claim to be democratic (i.e Petro’s opposition and other so-called alternative parties) led to the fact that not even the task of overthrowing the government could have been accomplished. Petro and those forces, openly and publicly, in the face of the demand that was beginning to gain mass strength of ¡Abajo Duque! (Duque out!), pointed out that Duque should stay until August 7, 2022. Now, your question is how to characterize the situation that has opened up in Colombia. A characterization never accounts for all the elements and dynamics at play in reality, less so in a reality as complex as the Colombian one. But characterizations are important because they provide a framework that allows us to situate ourselves, and I will not go into a disquisition on the +ifferent situations defined by classical Marxist terminology. It is not relevant. For what is of interest, it can be stated that the movement that has developed since April 28 -and that beyond its temporary ups and downs or ebbs will continue to express itself in the future- has sharply modified the correlation of forces between the classes in the country. Although the classic terminology defines the situation on the basis of the correlation of forces between the directly antagonistic classes (bourgeoisie and proletariat) and the Colombian proletariat (from its base organizations, from the factories, with the stoppage of production) was not and still is not a decisive factor in the mobilizations and actions of struggle, it can be stated that, due to the massivity, depth and extension of the movement, a new situation has opened up.

In the strike and its massive mobilizations, huge masses of unorganized workers, hundreds of thousands of unemployed young people from working class families participated in a dispersed form, and it was seen with sympathy by the whole population. A substantial, qualitative change in the balance of forces has, therefore, occurred. We are therefore facing a new situation. We can discuss its name, describe it, specify its elements, but there is a new reality at this level. How long will it last? Will it deepen rapidly? We do not know, that is yet to be seen. Some point to the current situation in Colombia as pre-revolutionary, that is, prior to or on the verge of a revolutionary situation. If we define the revolutionary situation as that in which there are real possibilities for the proletariat (leading millions of exploited and oppressed) to take power at the national level and, from a workers’ and popular government (or whatever it is called) initiates a program of economic and social transformations of a socialist nature, we are still far from that moment. Why? Because for that it is necessary, almost indispensable, that there be a political party that raises that program and that is the effective leadership of the struggle of millions against the capitalist system (national and worldwide). And that party does not exist today in Colombia. The massive, heroic struggles, involving thousands or millions, do not generate such a party by themselves. Those struggles open and broaden the possibility of advancing in building it. But until this happens, then, we will be struggling in the midst of chronic pre-revolutionary situations, with ebbs and flows, advances and setbacks.

A month and a half has passed by after the outburst, how do you see the current situation and the tasks ahead?

JS: Today I have no hesitation in saying that the cycle of massive mobilizations, of radical confrontations with the repressive forces of the regime, of blockades of highways and urban roads, with decisive participation of popular youth groups, has temporarily ended, although sporadic clashes continue to occur. We cannot rule out the possibility of a sudden outburst of another protest, sooner or later, with a national or local character. The overall economic and social situation has all the elements necessary for the mobilization to be revived very quickly. Any policy of the government, any abuse by the repressive forces can unleash new and radical outbursts. But let’s look at this closer, why did the cycle conclude, without us being able to say that the process has been closed? In the first place, and decisively, because of the absence of a leadership with the capability and effective interest in giving continuity to the movement and developing a plan to deepen it. I have already pointed out the position of the parliamentary opposition parties. These parties are politically dominant in the highest ranks of the trade union leadership of the National Strike Committee (CNP). This leadership, although it did not represent the whole movement, had a decisive influence. It set the days of mass demonstrations (generally on Wednesdays), although it was not the plan of this leadership to unleash a movement of the dimensions that occurred. They only wanted a controlled mobilization on April 28, a mobilization that “got out of hand”. They quickly began to beg the government to set up a negotiating table. The government initially resisted but then, in an action that combined intense repression (with dozens of deaths, hundreds of wounded and disappeared people, sexual aggressions against demonstrators, etc.) with separate negotiations, began to wear down and weaken the movement. A few days ago, the National Strike Committee announced that it will not call for new demonstrations and that the list of demands presented to the government will be converted into bills to be taken to Parliament as of July 20. The Colombian Federation of Educators (Fecode), which was the only union organization that maintained a strike declaration during the month of May, has oriented its bases to return to normal academic activity. In the meantime, it intends to negotiate its own list of demands with the government separately. What tasks do we face? I would say that the decisive and fundamental one is to ensure that the energy, combativeness and radicalism demonstrated by thousands of young people, who were the “front line” of the movement, is translated, at this moment of temporary decrease in the level of mobilization, into a deep and massive process of political reflection.

This process could lay the foundations so that the new episodes of struggle and generalized mobilization, which will surely take place, will have greater clarity in their objectives, democratic and representative leadership structures of the different sectors in struggle and, if possible, which would be an enormous achievement, a national centralization of a leadership which, with representativeness, would appear as an alternative leadership to the current bureaucratic leadership and force it to modify its orientations. It is equally urgent to openly raise the struggle for a new political and trade union leadership for the workers. The class-oriented and revolutionary sectors, a minority at this moment, must consequently face the battle to defeat, from the rank and file, the bureaucratic leadership that dominates the trade union apparatus. But that battle can only be fought with possibilities of success, by breaking with the reformist line of conciliation and capitulation to the regime and the government that dominates within those leaderships.

What has the process of mass organization been like and what is your opinion of the National People’s Assembly?

JS: As a whole, the Colombian working and popular masses do not have solid levels of organization. Among the workers only a small fraction (4.5% approximately) is unionized. In the industrial working class the percentage is minimal. The vast majority of workers are hired on a temporary basis and, out of fear that their contracts will not be renewed, do not join unions. The mobilization process that developed with the strike of November 21, 2019 – less strong and less extensive than the current one – showed some embryos of organization in popular sectors, fundamentally among the youth. As of April 28, 2021, in different cities (Cali in a very special way), the so-called Popular Assemblies began to be formed. If this process, still incipient, is developed, an organizational structure could be achieved that would give greater capacity and strength to future movements. But all of this, I insist, is determined by the political orientation that wins the majority there. Without a political perspective, any organizational process, valuable and important without a doubt, can end up even slowing down the movement. For an understanding of the process of the National Popular Assembly, developed between June 6 and 8, I refer to two texts that are published in website of the Socialist Workers Group. The first, a common Declaration of three Trotskyist organizations (the GTS, Democracia Directa and Impulso Socialista), the second, an analysis of the results of the Assembly, an article written by Armando Barrera. Synthetically, one could point out: the National Popular Assembly was a valid effort, already at a moment of decline of the movement (more than a month after its beginning) to bring together forces that questioned the bureaucratic leadership of the National Strike Committee and have tried to present themselves as an alternative leadership.

How do you see the possibilities of a strong pole of the revolutionary Left?

JS: If we understand by “revolutionary Left” those of us who defend an anti-capitalist program, we have to point out that we are, on the whole, quite weak in Colombia. Achieving a “pole” between them, at least a unified action in some areas, could be a step forward. Reality presses in the sense of uniting the forces of the revolutionaries. That would be a step forward as long as that unity is achieved on solid bases of principles and with correct methods in the internal life of the organizations. There is a relatively wide range of organizations, with important influence in some sectors, which are not totally integrated to the openly reformist parliamentary opposition, which differ somewhat from it, but do not advance to raise a program for the seizure of power by the workers, against capitalism, for socialism.

They are organizations that only go as far as proposing the struggle against the neo-liberal model, for a model of “humane capitalism” such as that defended by Gustavo Petro, main representative of the reformist parliamentary opposition. With these organizations what can be done is to act in common to promote the struggle and mobilization of the workers, achieving that in the mass organizations the decisions are adopted in a democratic way. The reality and the process of struggle can lead individuals (or sectors) of these organizations to understand that the struggle to reform capitalism is in vain. Only a set of radical anti-capitalist measures, applied by a government of the workers, can begin to solve the problems and needs that day after day overwhelm millions and millions of exploited and oppressed, in the country and the world.

Do you want to add anything else?

JS: I would like to highlight the decisive importance that international solidarity had and has had to somewhat contain the brutal repressive onslaught of the regime and the government of Ivan Duque against the Colombian people. Those demonstrations in front of embassies and consulates, the declarations of human rights defenders, the demand for the repression to stop, are not only a moral support: they are an objective political force in the battle to contain the hand of a murderous regime and government. I call for this attitude of solidarity to be maintained in all countries, for the struggle continues.