by Alan Macleod and Whitney Webb, MintPress News:
Despite protests of historic proportions fueled by anger over corruption and a brutal right-wing crackdown, the unrest in Colombia has garnered remarkably little international media attention compared to Venezuela.
Many of the massive anti-neoliberal protest movements that exploded across the globe last year have pressed on into 2020, especially those that rose up throughout Latin America. Many of those demonstrations — clearly newsworthy due to their enormous size, composition, and motives — were and continue to be ignored by prominent English language news outlets, essentially creating a media blackout of these movements.
This trend has been particularly magnified in Latin American countries whose current governments are closely allied with the United States, with Colombia, in particular, standing out. Despite being faced with protests from hundreds of thousands of people fueled by anger over state corruption, proposed neoliberal reforms and a spike in murders of social leaders, the unrest in Colombia has garnered remarkably little international media attention.
In contrast, U.S.-supported right-wing movements attempting to topple socialist governments like those in Venezuela and Bolivia have received a great deal of coverage and open support from both the media and the political class.
It is certainly telling that international media outlets largely ignored the protests of Colombia’s teachers, who were motivated to act largely due to a dangerous wave of violence targeting them incited by the government itself, leading to several murders and hundreds of death threats in the span of just a few months. Colombia’s President Iván Duque’s political mentor Álvaro Uribe, himself president between 2002 and 2010, accused the country’s teachers of brainwashing the youth: “Teachers only teach them to yell and to insult, not how to debate, warping their minds,” he said.
That story was overlooked in the media, likely due to the close ties between the country’s conservative government and the United States. Colombia remains the continent’s top recipient of American military aid, despite the fact that the U.S. government itself has disclosed ties between Colombia’s military, former President Uribe and the illegal drug trade.
Colombian teachers protest to defend their lives
Of the recent protests that have taken place in Colombia, the strikes led by Colombian teachers and one of the main teachers’ unions in the country — the Colombian Federation of Education Workers (Fecode) — have received almost no coverage in English-language media. The Fecode-led strikes revolve not around demands for better wages or increased funding for public education but around the slew of death threats and recent murders that have targeted Colombia’s education workers.
“Our teachers continue to be threatened and attacked,” said Fecode head Nelson Alcaron, “This government is indolent. It isn’t taking measures to protect their lives,” he added, noting that 240 have been threatened this year alone. “We live in a country that kills children, that kills social leaders, with a government that is against peace…That is why we have to change something. We cannot continue to live like this,” another protester said.
Though the fact that Colombian teachers are protesting in defense of their very lives is clearly newsworthy, adding to the importance of the demonstrations is the fact that these murders and death threats are closely tied to Colombia’s current government led by President Iván Duque. Duque and his political allies have incited violence against the country’s teachers, and those affiliated with Fecode in particular. The president’s political party, the Democratic Center, have stepped up their rhetoric towards education workers, asserting that teachers’ unions, namely Fecode, “must disappear” while some Democratic Center politicians have moved to criminalize teacher protests and strikes and fire any teachers who make political statements deemed non-essential to the subject they teach.
As these verbal attacks have grown, teachers in Colombia have been increasingly targeted, especially after Fecode-led strikes and demonstrations took place during the latter half of last year denouncing a new wave of threats towards teachers which they assert are linked to Duque’s political base. One demonstration in August was partially spurred by the brutal murder of school principal Orlando Gómez, who was abducted from the school where he worked and then murdered after having received numerous death threats for his educational work in the violence-plagued Cauca region.
As noted by Fecode during a 24-hour teacher strike “in defense of the lives of teachers” that took place last September, 10 teachers were murdered and another 700 received death threats during Duque’s first year in office. Fecode claimed the murders and death threats were directly related to “a systematic social media campaign of harassment and outright lies against educators and their students” led by Democratic Center activists and leaders.
Yet, since 2020 began, the wave in violence against teachers has continued to grow. In the first two weeks of February alone, one teacher was murdered, a regional coordinator of Fecode survived an assassination attempt, an entire school was forced to close down due to death threats made against teachers, and 15 Fecode-linked teachers were forced to flee the town where they lived and worked. Last week, death threats were sent to an additional 25 teachers ahead of their school’s plan to commemorate a massacre committed by a paramilitary group 25 years ago. In response to the wave of violence and threats, Fecode announced another strike to take place in coming weeks to both highlight and denounce the dangerous situation faced by Colombian teachers.
Western media ignore largest strike in over 40 years
One reason for the jump in violence targeting Fecode and Colombian teachers may be due to the fact that their demonstrations helped to spur much larger protests that have united diverse factions and groups in Colombian society in their opposition to various right-wing policies of the Colombian government. Following the Fecode-led demonstrations in August and September of last year, a massive national strike and anti-government protests saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets last November amid a backdrop of anti-government demonstrations in several other Latin American countries, including Chile and Ecuador. Today, seven million Colombian students have been left without teachers amid a massive strike.
The national strike was joined, not just by Fecode, but by the country’s labor unions, student groups, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities and farmers, among others. It was the largest national strike to take place in Colombia since the late 1970s and was met by the Duque government with curfews, border closures, rubber bullets and teargas, with at least one person killed by a police projectile.
Since November, however, the national strikes and general anti-government sentiment have continued, with national strikes and related demonstrations taking place in December and January. Another strike is planned for Friday and a separate strike is scheduled to take place in March. Protest organizers asserted last month that these actions will continue “until something changes,” with the high rate of murders targeting social leaders remaining one of the main complaints of those demonstrating.
While the protests have gripped Colombia, they have barely been reported in the Western press, with coverage of the monthslong rebellion garnering barely a few, disinterested mentions. CNN, for example, appears not to have discussed the events for over two months. When mentioned at all, the idea that the protests are largely the result of “foreign meddling” (CNN) from Venezuela or “Russian trolls” (New York Times) is often floated.