Things That Matter

Protesters In Colombia Are The Latest To Tear Down Statues Of Spanish Conquistadors

In recent weeks, in cities and towns across Colombia, statues of historical figures like Simón Bolivar, Christopher Columbus, and Spain’s Queen Isabella I have been torn down from their perches. Protesters in the country are part of a growing movement hoping to reeducate the public and their leaders on what these figures actually mean to many of the country’s minorities and the oppressed.

It’s part of a growing movement around the world, from the United States to Australia and across Latin America, to remove monuments to men (and, in some cases, women) who terrorized, pillaged, and murdered Indigenous communities on their quest towards world domination.

Several high-profile statues in Colombia have been toppled by emotional protesters.

From the statue of Simón Bolivar at the Monumento a Los Héroes to the statue of Christopher Columbus in the capital of Bogotá, statues are falling across Colombia. Names of major streets are also being changed to better reflect today’s understanding of these figure’s true place in our history. The protests in Colombia have left a string of empty pedestals and an urban landscape attempting to redefine itself.

Following repeated attempts – some of them successful – by protesters and Indigenous communities to knock down statues of Spanish conquistadors, among other historical figures, the government of President Iván Duque has removed some and announced a review into other monuments that have stood in the country since 1920.

“Our priority is to protect our patrimony. In view of potential incidents, we have decided to move them on a temporary basis to the La Sabana [railway] station,” said Culture Minister Angélica Mayolo.

The government is starting to understand the reason behind protester’s demands.

Credit: Mauricio Dueñas Castañeda / Getty Images

The government’s new minister of culture, Angélica Mayolo, represents a major shift in official government positions. Her two predecessors in the ministry had described the pulling down of statues as vandalism. But Mayolo recently said, “The country must respect different viewpoints and listen to indigenous communities who today feel discriminated against by symbols of national heritage, but without condoning violence and destruction,” while announcing the decision of the National Heritage Council to review the presence of several monuments.

It was in the wake of the toppling of the Belalcázar statue that the government began talks with a focus on building consensus on what the future of these controversial monuments should be. According to the Bogotá District Institute of Cultural Heritage (IDPC), one of the conclusions drawn from the talks is that there is consensus “even among those who have a traditional point of view that it is necessary to broaden the scope of the patrimonial narrative,” and that there should be “no closed-door debates or ones that involve only experts.”

The movement to tear down these monuments is rightfully being led largely by Indigenous leaders.

When the protests first erupted at the end of April, Indigenous groups were really at the forefront of the calls to topple statues of Spanish conquistadors. At the toppling of the state of Sebastián de Belalcázar in Cali, Indigenous leaders said, “We have knocked down Sebastián de Belalcázar in memory of our chief Petecuy, who fought against the Spanish crown, so that today we, his grandchildren carry on the fight to change this system of criminal government that does not respect the rights of mother earth.”

The Avenida Jiménez, one of Bogotá’s busiest thoroughfares, is now known – at least informally – as Avenida Misak, in homage to the indigenous protesters who pulled down the statue.

The Misak community has been at the forefront of the tumbling of statues during the protests. On June 10 they gathered around the monuments to Columbus and Queen Isabella I. When they tried to pull the figures down, a squadron of riot police quickly intervened, forming a cordon around the statues and clashing with protesters leaving ten people injured.

What do you think should be done with the remaining historical statues and monuments around the U.S. and Latin America that glorify Spanish conquistadores?

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