Alejandro Gaviria, 54, former health minister of Juan Manuel Santos and current dean of the Universidad de los Andes, one of the most prestigious in Colombia, sees the current protests, triggered by a tax reform bill , the symptom of a cultural and generational change begins to emerge in the country.
For him, President Iván Duque has trouble reading the complexity of the protests and responding to actions. On the other hand, he maintains that there has been infiltration of organized crime on more violent occasions.
Born in Chile to Colombian parents, Gaviria has been named as a possible pre-candidate for the 2022 election – although he officially denies this assumption.
An engineering graduate from the University of Antioquia (Medellín) and a master’s degree in economics from the University of California, he is a staunch liberal, atheist and advocate for minority rights.
Before returning to Colombia from the United States, he worked at the Inter-American Development Bank.
Author of books on health (“Hoy Siempre Es However”) and social changes in Colombia (“Alguien Tiene que Llevar la Contraria”), Gaviria spoke with Folha by e-mail and then by telephone.
What is the main difference between the current crisis and the protests of 2019? There is a common thread between them, a strong feeling of exclusion on the part of young people who are from a generation that wants a different future. The fundamental difference is the pandemic and its consequences: increasing urban poverty, growing youth unemployment, and containment itself. Quarantine and pandemic control measures have focused on restricting the mobility of young people, who can no longer take it anymore.
To what extent does the significant increase in poverty [de 35,7% em 2019 para 42,5% em 2020] worsened the situation? The social devastation was enormous. The poorest 20% lost an average of 50% of their income and the state response to the problem has been insufficient. Containment measures, especially in large cities, have eroded the livelihoods of millions of people. For obvious reasons, all of this fueled the discontent of society.
Do you see any similarities between the current Colombian process and what started in Chile in 2019? The feeling of exclusion and the rejection of such great social inequality are similar. Another common element is technology. Cell phones allow for coordination that was previously impossible. They facilitate the emergence of spontaneous mobilizations, without central organization. Social networks, in turn, unify the message, create a shared narrative, and make police abuse more visible.
Overall, how do you see the government’s management of the pandemic? Has the pandemic been politicized, as is the case, for example, in Brazil and Argentina? The fight against the coronavirus was less politicized than in Brazil and Argentina. But here it is worth highlighting a paradox: despite the different responses and approaches, the results, in terms of death rates, were similar in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia. More than government responses, conditions in these countries, including high population density, high rate of informality, deterioration of welfare states, fiscal constraints, were determining factors. In Colombia, after months of stagnation, vaccination is progressing rapidly. This is good news in the middle of it all.
Why is Cali the epicenter of tensions? Cali brings together all the issues of southwestern Colombia: racial tensions, drug trafficking, forced displacement and great social differences. It did not have the same economic dynamism as Barranquilla or the urban planning innovations of Bogotá and Medellín. Also, containment was particularly strong in Cali.
There are two accounts of the protests, one by the government, which reinforces the idea that there are large foreign groups causing violence during the protests, and another by the protesters, which highlights police abuse. . What is happening? The government’s rhetoric is simplistic and paranoid. It ignores the decentralized nature of the protests, the underlying reasons and the outrage shared by millions of people. The police have committed serious abuses, it is undeniable. But it is also true that there is vandalism with the presence of organized crime. At this point, when it comes to organized crime, Colombia is very different from Chile. In Colombia, drug traffickers and criminal groups took advantage of the chaos and probably financed certain groups. It is a complex phenomenon, with many causes and differences related to regions that do not correspond to simplifying narratives like those used.
There is a polarization in Colombia today. How is it the same as the referendum for the 2016 peace agreement? It is a great polarization, with a political inability to find a consensus. But there is a difference from 2016. Rejection of the Democratic Center’s long-term agenda [partido de Duque e do ex-presidente Álvaro Uribe] is now much bigger. In five years, public opinion has changed. One of the problems with the current government is that it did not notice and accept this change.
Colombia has advanced in recent years in terms of civilian conquests. Did this provoke a reaction from the more conservative sector? When I was Minister of Health [entre 2012 e 2018, na gestão de Juan Manuel Santos], promoted a series of progressive reforms, such as greater access to abortion, the possibility of euthanasia, the use of cannabis for medical purposes. I was against it, of course. But also a lot of support. Colombian society is changing rapidly. Cultural changes, however, are not final. Conservative sectors remain important. The mobilizations are, in part, a symptom of these tensions, revealing of a cultural and generational change which is beginning to take place.
Alejandro Gaviria, 54 years old
A graduate in engineering from the University of Antioquia (Medellín), he obtained a master’s degree in economics from the University of California. He worked at the Inter-American Development Bank and was Minister of Health under Juan Manuel Santos. In 2017, he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, the treatment of which he reported in his book “Hoy Es Siempre Nevertheless”. He is the current dean of the Universidad de los Andes.