BOGOTA: For the past fortnight in neighborhoods all over Colombia, the sound of chants and wooden spoons hitting metal pans has punctuated the normally quiet nights. The reason is an extended “strike” or paro which began on the 21st of November and simply kept going, fuelled both by the suppressed frustration felt by citizens towards the ruling elite, as well as a newfound sense of possibility, of what the power of social mobilisation is capable of.

Calls for the November 21 paro began the way strikes usually do in Colombia: an alliance of labour unions, leftists, political organisations began to organise it months ago as President Iván Duque Márquez’s intention to deepen the already neoliberal policies became more evident in the form of diverse labour, pension, tax reforms.

The demands of the protest centred on what its organisers called the neoliberal “paquetazo”, the big package of neoliberal policies which promised to increase the inequality which already divided the country. They also called for the government keep to its side of the peace agreements signed with the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016, an agreement that has largely been respected by the FARC, and systematically violated by the Duque government.

Protesters on the first day of the paro, November 21

The “21N”, however, is now in its fifteenth day, taking on a life beyond what the organisers intended or even thought possible. New groups – indigenous organisations, feminist groups, environmental activists and the student movement – have joined the Paro. Many of these protesters are young people who were never particularly politically active and don’t have specific demands, but are joined by a shared sense of frustration and now, possibility.

The government’s response so far has been a combination of riot police violence – whose assassination of an 18-year-old student named Dilan Cruz sparked vigils all over the city – and the refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the protests.

The government seems unable to move beyond the Cold War paradigm of the Colombian armed conflict, in which social mobilisation is treated as a subversive threat to public order, rather than as an expression of democracy.

In a desperate attempt to neutralise the protests, Duque has called for a “Great Conversation”, in which the Strike Committee has refused to participate due to the government’s preconditions. According to sources close to the Strike Committee, different sectors are being called individually to the Presidential Palace, to be informed what the agenda points are, and told that their demands are not up for negotiation, before being sent on their way. A fortnight in, Colombians still have no idea what is being “conversed” in these meetings.

The Duque administration has also offered to create a “Mesa”, a negotiating table where agreements would be reached and their implementation supervised. This tactic is familiar to the indigenous, campesino (“peasant”) and student organisations alike, because it is the same the government has historically used to dissolve their protests, ensuring that the agreements reached there are never implemented. The Committee rejected the offer.

Protesters in Bogotá’s historic city centre

Why now?

A number of factors help explain why these protests have acquired magnitudes and expressions that are unprecedented in Colombia. The first step is to recognise the history and existing context – as some analysts who only stress the “spontaneity” of the protests should.

Although Colombian social movements have not been as strong historically as their Latin American counterparts, there is a long and deep history of political and social struggle which forms the backbone of this strike.

This has taken on the form of traditional sectors of resistance, such as labour unions, the student movement and leftist parties, but also indigenous organisations, feminist collectives and environmental movements.

To the extent that this strike is a primarily urban phenomenon – in a country where the rural social movements have also been strong – some of the organisational capital also comes from urban “tribes” such as anarchist punk collectives, graffiti groups, and soccer club fans.

In this sense, the paro is as much about spontaneity as it is about recognising the diversity of the country and city’s organisational tissue.

A scene from the Plaza Bolívar in the city centre

But these organisations existed before the strike, so their participation does not fully answer the question of why this strike is so different.

One of the primary reasons – which has fuelled populist movements all over Latin America and the world, of both the left and right – is the opening spaces like the paro give, to establish what Ernesto Laclau calls “chains of equivalence”.

In recent years, various moments in Colombian politics have created such chains.

The most important was the signing of the peace agreements with the FARC, which united millions of Colombians under one political agenda, and continues to unite them in diverse mobilisations including this one.

Relatedly, Gustavo Petro’s and his party Colombia Humana’s presidential campaign, which marked the first time a leftist candidate reached the election runoffs, both took up the peace agenda and expanded it.

The first day of protests concluded with cacerolazos all over the city, where protesters went out into the streets clanging pots and pans. These cacerolazos have become a nightly occurrence since

Moving forward

After a week of nightly cacerolazos, the diverse and decentralised paro leadership recognises that it will take more than popular frustration to keep the protests going. So, the Paro Committee has called for the creation of “neighbourhood assemblies”, spaces where the paro’s new 13 demands will be socialised and discussed, calls will be made for a new massive march on the Bogotá city centre, and finally independent neighbourhood agendas may develop.

This is an important step not just for the paro but also for the left. Decades of stigmatisation and persecution in the context of the armed conflict – when leftists were always branded as “guerrilla sympathisers” – have isolated and centralised the left. The Colombia Humana campaign appealed to a broad base, but did not maximise the potential of the campaign to create grassroots political networks among the newly politicised citizenry.

Scenes from one of the vigils to mourn the death of Dilan Cruz, 18, who was murdered by the ESMAD riot police

The challenge will be to interpret the Paro’s diverse demands – which range from calls to implement the Peace Agreements, a rejection of labour, pension and tax reforms, a call for meaningful actions against corruption, and the dissolution of the ESMAD riot police – into forms that are meaningful for the newly mobilised population.

This will not only be an ideological feat, but an organisational one. The Paro must strengthen, formalise and expand the political networks enabled by the protests in order to make them sustainable and coherent beyond the visceral frustrations which brought people out to the street.

This requires balancing national demands with the protesters’ daily lived experiences, and creating a political network that can activate its participants around national agendas, but also connect them in daily and meaningful forms of resistance.

From a neighbourhood cacerolazo on November 24. These neighbourhood concentrations are the most novel element of the paro, and appear to be the nuclei of future organisational efforts

Isabel Peñaranda is an anthropologist from Columbia University with a Master's in History, and an MA candidate in Urban and Regional Planning, based in Bogotá