An Open Letter to Colombia's President Santos

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Common Dreams

An Open Letter to Colombia's President Santos

Two weeks ago in Bogotá, in the very same Plaza de Bolivar that turned into a melee on Frday, thousands of people squeezed into that very plaza to dance and enjoy free salsa concerts. They were completely open to the public…. and nothing bad happened.

So here’s the question: “If you can secure the Plaza de Bolivar as a space for thousands of people to dance salsa, why can’t you secure it as a space for thousands of people to peacefully demonstrate?”

“Salsa Dancing is Different, and Dangerous”

Of course, two weeks ago the situation was different because it was a musical event, not a social protest. So — naturally — to manage the risk of dancing, you closed off the plaza with security fences and created controlled entrances at which we had to be scanned and frisked to enter.

In order to dance.

And you did this because (one assumes) you perceive the threat of salsa dancing to be potentially more dangerous than the threat of social protesting?

I’m not sure if the concert’s headliner, Ruben Blades, would know whether take that as an insult or a complement.

“Sure, it will be fine.” As the History of Social Protest in Colombia Has Shown?

Somehow it didn’t occur to you to use the same security measures under the pressure cooker of current social unrest that you used for a salsa concert. Not even close.

I was there yesterday at the Plaza de Bolivar. Or should I say, I was two blocks away from the Plaza de Bolivar because the plaza was too dangerous to enter with your ESMAD (anti-riot) squads there.

Let’s be clear: what I and thousands of people around me were afraid of was not the punks with stones in their hands. We were afraid of the Colombian government.

And being that we were in the shadow of the Palace of Justice which, just on a side note, had to be rebuilt after the Colombian government burned it to the ground, with the kitchen staff and the Supreme Court, inside, I am sure you can understand why we felt that way.

Indiscriminate Use of Violence by the Colombian Police

Somehow it didn’t occur to you to use the same security measures under the pressure cooker of current social unrest that you used for a salsa concert. Not even close.

I was there yesterday at the Plaza de Bolivar. Or should I say, I was two blocks away from the Plaza de Bolivar because the plaza was too dangerous to enter with your ESMAD (anti-riot) squads there.

Let’s be clear: what I and thousands of people around me were afraid of was not the punks with stones in their hands. We were afraid of the Colombian government.

And being that we were in the shadow of the Palace of Justice which, just on a side note, had to be rebuilt after the Colombian government burned it to the ground, with the kitchen staff and the Supreme Court, inside, I am sure you can understand why we felt that way.

Indiscriminate Use of Violence by the Colombian Police

And even though we stayed – what we thought was — a safe distance away from the disturbances, we were nevertheless shot at by your hopped-up motorcycle police, who took the time to leave the plaza to make high speed drive-bys, tear gassing me and a thousand other people while we waited, peacefully, to re-enter the Plaza.

Let’s set the record straight: your goons didn’t just do it once. They sprayed us again when we had moved even further away from the plaza. They sprayed children, elderly people, people with their pets, and even merchants who had stepped out of their stores into the street.

To be clear, we were nowhere near the disturbances. Your police officers left the disturbances to ride up the streets on their motorcycles and gas people who were doing nothing. People who had no stones in their hands.

The “Dark Actors”

Yep, the “violent types” were there yesterday. I saw them, pulling up bricks from the sidewalks, hiding stones in their pockets. And yep, we all know that it was them to whom the ESMAD was responding.

But that doesn’t give the police the right — or the excuse — to gas the rest of Bogotá.

It could not have been a surprise to you that the troublemakers showed up. The Colombian Army and the ESMAD were waiting in the plaza, and not, I assume, to take pictures with the tourists.

So since it wasn’t a surprise to you that the troublemakers were there, then what on earth were you thinking?

– That you would leave peaceful protesters to their own luck –both with the troublemakers and your police? And later you would check back to “see how it all came out in the wash”?

– Or did you pretty much know it wasn’t going to end good, but figured that might just be what would do the trick to “put an end to all this protest stuff”?

You have a lot of people wondering.

Labels Aren’t Going to Work

I am not a “violenta,” nor am I a “guerrillera,” nor an “fellow traveler” of the FARC or the ELN. I am also not one of the “dark forces” that your spin doctors referred to in the media last night. I’m not even “a Dupe of (Venezuela’s) Telesur.”

Those labels didn’t stick to the protesting farmers, and they aren’t going to stick to peaceful demonstrators either.

Let’s Talk Security

Ok, so now you have announced that you are going to secure Bogotá.

But how about securing your citizens’ right to protest?

If you really wanted to guarantee Colombians’ rights — if you’re not just saying it because it “sounds good on the piano” — you would secure the Plaza de Bolivar for the next previously-announced-well-in-advance demonstration so that protesters could safely assemble and exercise those rights.

Just like you secured their right to dance salsa, which of course is really important too.

Maryanne Schiffman

Maryanne Schiffman is an independent journalist living in Colombia. You can find her at http://chancucos.wordpress.com/.

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