by Kayla Blau
The Seattle Globalist was a daily online publication that covered the connections between local and global issues in Seattle. The Emerald is keeping alive its legacy of highlighting our city’s diverse voices by regularly publishing and re-publishing stories aligned with the Globalist‘s mission.
Colombian activists in Seattle are working tirelessly to spread awareness about mass protests in their home country.
Countrywide protests in the South American country were sparked in late April thanks to a tax reform bill proposed by right-wing President Iván Duque, which would have placed extreme taxes on essential items such as eggs, milk, and gasoline. The legislation would have hit working-class and middle-class families hardest, who were already struggling before COVID-19 hit the country.
Colombia is one of the most economically unequal countries in the world. A 2018 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said that it would take 11 generations for a poor Colombian to approach the average income in Colombia, the longest time period out of all 30 countries in the report.
“I shouldn’t be forced to leave my country just for a chance at a better future,” Evelyn Carvajal, a Colombian social worker based in Medellín told the Emerald.
Colombia’s protests have been met with extreme police brutality, including rubber bullets, tear gas, rape, sexual assault, and the murder of social leaders at the hands of the police. Some international journalists and young activists have also been murdered and/or wounded in the protests. Temblores, an organization that tracks police brutality in the country, has documented more than 3,700 cases of police violence between April 28 and May 31, 2021, as well as over 75 deaths. There have been multiple reports of paramilitary groups colluding with the police in violent response to the protests.
Many Colombian activists are demanding attention be given to the complex, ongoing crises in Colombia, such as structural inequality, poverty, corruption, exploitation of natural resources, poor health care, and lack of education and opportunity. They are hoping to expose the connections between the inequalities and corruption in the United States government and the Colombian government and the ways they work together. For example, in 2021, the United States government gave over $322 million in foreign aid to the Colombian government for “peace and security,” providing weaponry and funding for a corrupt national police force.
On July 4, Duque announced that he would ask the Congress of Colombia to pass police reform laws, including the creation of a human rights watch group within the department and the introduction of body cameras for all officers. Similar to police brutality oversight in Seattle, local activists don’t trust the police force to effectively hold themselves accountable for violence against their citizens.
“Our people are tired. After so many years of corruption, violence, and inequality, these frustrations have been brewing for years,” Daniela Cortés Barbosa, a leader in Seattle’s Colombian solidarity group Colombianos en Seattle Tenemos Huevos, told the Emerald in a recent interview.*
Cortés Barbosa, a 24-year-old from Bogota, Colombia, who has been working as an au pair in Seattle for the past year, told the Emerald that she couldn’t stay silent when she saw the extreme violence at protests in Colombia through social media videos.
The movement in Colombia is led by mostly young activists that make up the primera linea, or “first line,” at protests and take the brunt of police violence. Hundreds of young activists have gone missing since the protests started in May, with little hope left for their families as there are little to no efforts to find them.
“We’re the only country that could find the head of a young person in a plastic bag and everyone stays quiet, nothing happens,” Cortés Barbosa said. “More than 100 people have disappeared since the protests started, there have been 28 reported cases of sexual violence by police, at least 82 people lost their eyesight in the protests due to police violence, heads are being found in rivers — and no one is doing anything. Violence is normalized in Colombia [due to our history], but it shouldn’t be ignored.”
Tired of the lack of action and empathy for her home country, Cortés Barbosa reached out to local Colombian restaurants for support during events. The first protest she hosted was in late April at the Space Needle with three of her friends; she expected about 20 people to come, but over 70 people showed up. With the support and energy from Colombians and allies in Seattle, she continued to host monthly caravans, protests, and marches across the city to raise awareness about the realities of what is happening in Colombia. They named their solidarity group “Los Colombianos en Seattle Tenemos Huevos,” a nod to the extreme taxes Duque threatened to place on basic items such as eggs (and a double entendre, which speaks to the courage it takes to speak out against a corrupt government).
Cortés Barbosa says that though the problems Colombians are facing are many, from hospitals closing during climbing cases of COVID-19 to increased poverty, hunger, and violence, she sees a way to help from Seattle. “When we ask the young activists in Colombia what they need, they say they need many things, but above all they need a voice. This is why we say #SOSColombia.”
One of the most impactful protests the group held was at Cal Anderson Park in early June. The group created an artistic demonstration with white shirts covered with red paint to represent the hundreds of activists in Colombia that have been wounded and/or killed by the police for protesting. Fliers with QR codes linked to videos of extreme police brutality occuring in Colombia.
“We rely on social media for the truth of what’s happening, such as Facebook live videos or Instagram live videos during the protests, since there is so little media coverage about what is happening in Colombia,” said Cortés Barbosa. “Many videos are being censored on social media due to ‘violence,’ but of course they will be violent; our government is killing us.”
The solidarity group hopes to have their votes counted in the May 2022 Colombian presidential election by traveling to the Colombian Embassy in San Francisco to vote.
“We stand in solidarity with and have marched alongside the Black Lives Matter movement, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement, and the Free Palestine movement here in Seattle. We stand in solidarity with everyone who is fighting a corrupt government,” Sebastian Diaz, a Colombian activist and youth worker who participated in the protests in Seattle, said.
Cortés Barbosa knows that the current administration is part of a long history of corruption in Colombia, but she doesn’t see giving up any time soon.“This isn’t the type of paramilitaries or narcos we’re used to like Escobar, but we’re still in the same hands as we’ve always been. It’s the same politicians that move money illegally, however they want. The corruption continues. So we will continue to fight it,” she said.
If you would like to support the efforts of Los Colombianos en Seattle Tenemos Huevos, you can find them on social media here, or donate to Temblores, the police accountability organization on the ground in Colombia.
*This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated to English.
Kayla Blau is a Seattle-based writer and youth advocate. She holds a master’s in social work, and more of her work can be found here.
📸 Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Daniela Cortéz Barbosa.
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