Egypt and Colombia: Lessons for the Social Movement

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Grupo Raíces will be hosting a film screening in Dublin city centre on Thursday April 21st. We will be showing the documentary Toribio: the war in Cauca by Hollman Morris. Hollman is one of the bravest Colombian journalists, whose television documentaries have exposed the reality of the Colombian civil war. He has recently been forced to leave Colombia because of threats from paramilitaries and politicians – including the former president Alvaro Uribe. He visited Ireland in 2009, and we hope to bring him here again as a guest soon.

Toribio … shows how the Colombian conflict affects indigenous communities in the Cauca region. Guest speakers at the screening will include Finian McGrath TD and Cllr. Cian O’Callaghan (Labour).

The film screening will take place in the Exchange Dublin centre on Exchange Street Upper in Templebar at 7.30 pm. We hope you can join us on the night.

The following piece, Egypt and Colombia: Lessons for the Social Movement, was written by Grupo Raíces.


The Arab Spring, as it came to be known the series of mass revolts that have toppled already two seemingly almighty tyrants such as Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, has a number of lessons to teach us in Latin America.

First, is that it reminded us about the power of ordinary people when they stand together -since the cycle of acute struggles against the Neoliberal regimes in the region started running out of steam in 2005, the Latin American social movements got entangled in government offices and thus the placid life of parliamentarianism replaced the mass movement of the streets, quarters and workplaces. These revolts bring back the politics to the realm of the streets and to the language of struggle and people’s power. While important sectors of the Latin American left have responded with caution to the spread of these rebellions, according to cold and cynical political calculations, the social movements should embrace wholeheartedly and without any hesitation based on realpolitik considerations. These are spectacular reminders of what the people can do when they come together, and they are spectacular reminders that rebellion and a deep yearning for freedom and social justice can flourish even in those places where you least expect them.

Secondly, it should help us to reconsider our tendency to prioritise our own petty interests above those of the wider community. Even though in Egypt organised workers were pivotal for the overthrow of the dictatorship, after they declared a general strike, it is unlikely that without mass mobilisations by the bulk of the population weeks in advance, the environment would not have been created for the general strike to be declared, take off and be as effective as it was. This means that no sector alone was able to defeat the dictatorship, in spite of the strategic importance of one or the other. The main implication for Latin America and particularly for Colombia of this remains simple: as long as one sector, whether they are indigenous, trade unions or any other (particularly with the means, organisational structures or resources to overshadow others), thinks that they alone can be a vanguard for the bulk of the people or that their demands alone are important, understanding dialogue merely as a tokenistic exercise, our struggles will never be able to mobilise the whole of society, the whole of the people and the whole of the working class. Dialogue needs to be deep, agreements need to be looked for seriously so we come up with demands that the bulk of society relates to, and a practice of unity in struggle, through political honesty and frank debate, with collective leaderships, is necessary if we are to see again those levels of unity among the Colombian people that we have not seen since the “paros cívicos” of the late ‘70s.

The last lesson remains the most important one, and is that the people together can defeat the might of an army when their cause is strong enough to crack the legitimacy of the regime and when they stick together against despotism. Egypt is the second biggest recipient of military aid of the USA, after Israel. The third, after Egypt, is Colombia. This has been traditionally used to state the difficulties of social change in Colombia. And difficult it is, but we should remember at all times it is not impossible. Sure, the difficulty of the struggle ahead lays on specific differences with the Egyptian situation -an ongoing civil war in the Colombian case, the development of political thuggery into the murdering machine of paramilitarism, and last but not least, that in Colombia, unlike Egypt, you have a formal democracy. But, let us remember, the Colombian “democracy” is ten times bloodier than the Egyptian dictatorship: the paramilitary scourge killed at least 180,000 people according to the General Attorney in less than 20 years; over the last three years of the Uribe administration, at least 40,000 people disappeared. Last year, while the world was delighted with the new “democratic and human rights-friendly” discourse of new president Santos, according to the UN massacres rose up by 40%, The mechanisms of legitimacy of the respective regimes in Colombia and Egypt are different, but other than that, there is no question of one being any more “benign” than the other, at least from the point of view of the ordinary folk and particularly, of the victims.

While most of the right wing intelligentsia of Latin America and the US are displaying their appalling lack of political understanding of what is happening in the world these days, oscillating between caution at the risks of “too much democracy” in the Arab world and hoping, without any sense of reality, that these rebellions (that happen in the Arab backyard of the US) spread to Cuba or Venezuela (!) -the social movements need to get their own lessons. And surely, the lessons of what is happening in the Arab world are more relevant to Colombia than anywhere else in Latin America. If the closest Arab ally of the US was defeated by its own people, sure there is no insurmountable obstacle for the people in Colombia to defeat the chains that keep them in poverty, fear, subjection and oppression.