Yesterday a demonstration passed beneath the windows of my apartment in Bogota along the Carrera 7 and I did not even rouse from my siesta. Yup, I’ve gone local. There are demonstrations and there are demonstrations here and well, I had no forewarning as to what this one was about so I wasn’t going to allow it to break my slumbering. Scarcely a day goes by without a demonstration of some kind or another in Bogota, ordinarily they are kept to the Plaza de Bolivar in the Candelaria and thereabouts and can focus on the seat of power and try and disrupt as much business as possible there. I was a regular observer of such events when I lived downtown.
Now, having moved a couple of kilometers to the north in the city has not changed anything as we now find ourselves residing pretty close to the Universidad Pedagógica located on the Calle 72. So, once again I am no stranger to the militant students there griping about something nor the presence of heavily steel shielded police riot vans and their ubiquitous water cannons parked nearby.
And just looking through the files on my computer dedicated to demonstrations I can easily estimate that I have attended, in my capacity as a journalist, more than 15 over the course of several years. Some have been damp squibs when the rain scared the activists away into the refuge of warm coffee shops and others have been huge such as the Facebook organized “No Mas FARC” in February 2008.
Of late there has been an increase in demonstrations here in the capital perhaps showing as Kevin Howlett has put it in his insightful web-zine Colombia-Politics a change in the political participation in Colombia:Democratic dawn in Colombia?
One hopes that there is change and that Colombians of all ages and backgrounds feel that they can indeed be involved in a political process rather than just onlookers to a situation where 15 families continue to run things the way they see fit. Perhaps I am being naïve, but, everything at the moment points to change, the peace talks between the FARC and the Government currently taking place in Cuba, the election of a former guerrilla Gustavo Petro as Mayor of Bogota and through public protest the fact that the government has had to back down and reassess various policies.
So, back to demonstrations, if you find yourself in Bogota you should actually check a few out since we in the western world don’t really get too worked up about too many things and neither do we take to the streets. A friend of mine visiting from Seattle couldn’t believe the participation and involvement and quantity of students out on the street making their voices heard. Just remember to keep your distance from the core body of the activities, by all means take photos, but ensure you are positioned where there are easily accessible cross streets through which to make a speedy escape.
Points to Consider
• If the students are demonstrating, for the most part they are peaceful and alegre, but you can see some hardcore elements and perhaps these have been planted to create chaos and damage property. Steer clear of this and stay away from the Plaza de Bolivar as this is where confrontations usually take place. Watch the beginning of the May Day demonstration and then return to your digs or head uptown. Generally speaking avoid any demonstration held near to the Universidad Pedagógica on the Calle 72 as the police use tear gas liberally to disperse agitators here.
• By all means attend an Anti-Guerrilla/ FARC rally as you will be amongst the core of Colombian society. This will be vocal and poignant and will give you a real insight into how the people feel about the guerrilla activities of kidnapping, extortion, murder, land grabs and so on.
• On some days a week you can find members of those families who have lost loved ones and family members to the violence and are looking for some sort of compensation and closure and of course answer to their queries and fears. Look out for banners with “Desaparecido” written on them.
• There are some incredibly interesting blockades that are worth attending if you have the time and of course are in the right place at that moment. For example when Mayor Gustavo Petro passed the decree to outlaw zorras (horse-drawn rag and bow types) from the city’s streets, hundreds of these citizens descended complete with their horses and carts and demonstrated in the Plaza de Bolivar creating quite a spectacle!
And finally, please be careful use your initiative and don’t get caught up in the euphoria of this new found liberty of public political expression as at any point these mass gatherings can turn to sadistic dementia and you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of a police baton to the head, a rubber bullet to the solar plexus or coughing up tear gas.