Next Wednesday (28), the demonstrations in Colombia end three months.
The toll is 78 dead in the clashes (three of them were officers of the security forces, the others, all civilians).
As with so many protests that have taken place in Latin America in recent years, the immediate reason is almost a detail close to the magnitude of the region’s structural problems, added to the peculiarities of each country. At first, people took to the streets of big cities, like Cali, Bogotá and Barranquilla, because they were upset by a tax reform that would take a heavy toll on the middle class. The government backed down, changed the proposal and resubmitted it, weeks later, in something more acceptable.
But it was too late. After the first push, more flags were added in the streets, and they appeared since the 2019 protests. They were better access to quality health care and education, against police violence, which in Colombia is linked to the army, the lack of opportunities in the labor market and the reluctance of the government to implement the peace agreement with the guerrillas of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).
In 2019, as today, the protests were severely repressed and left 3 dead, including the young Dilan Cruz, 18, and lasted for months. To the relief of the center-right government Iván Duque, in February 2020 the tension dissipated, but not because these complaints were heard. On the contrary, because they have been made worse by the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, which is hitting Colombia hard. The country already has nearly 120,000 dead.
Unlike his Chilean counterpart, Sebastián Piñera, Duque has neither reconverted nor changed his attitude towards the current protests. While in Chile the president gave impetus to a plebiscite for the formation of a Constituent Assembly, which will draft a new Charter based on the demands for structural change in the country, in Colombia the president is still slipping, giving a series of responses unsatisfactory.
Economically, his reforms are unpopular, especially since they propose adjustments in the midst of the pandemic, the majority of the population still not being vaccinated at two doses, saturated hospitals, increased unemployment and poverty. The flags of the 2019 protests have reappeared with the problems of the past two years. In addition, there are the historic demands of minorities, who demand an end to prejudices, xenophobia and more rights in the area of gender and diversity. It was Afro-Colombians, natives and women who revolted mainly in the city of Cali.
Colombia is now entering a phase of electoral race, and with that of great contestation in the political field. In this environment, Duque, who adds only 18% popular approval (Invamer) and nothing against the tide to try to complete his term successfully in any field.
In the fight against the pandemic, Duque has a bit of a break, as the contagion curve has started to decrease. This is your chance to speed up the vaccination, which is still very slow – today with 31.5% of the population vaccinated with both doses.
In the economy, it has to cope with a decrease in GDP of 6.8% and increasing poverty, currently at 42.5%. While the majority of unionized workers, represented by the Strike Committee, have ended up leaving the streets and accepting the government’s proposals, those demanding rights and opportunities are the biggest sector of the mobilization – the unemployed or the workers. informal workers who have lost income and quality of life in the pandemic.
When it comes to violence in the countryside, Duque has a lot of responsibility. When he came to power in 2018, he received a country on the path to peace. Colombia had signed a peace agreement with the main guerrilla, the FARC, and was at the negotiating table with the second largest, the ELN (National Liberation Army).
His decisions, however, bring Colombians back to a stage of war.
The agreement with the FARC, which provided for several government actions, including the protection of unarmed ex-combatants and land reform, is progressing steadily, while Duque has simply ended talks with the ELN. The result was the occupation of areas previously dominated by the FARC by other criminal groups, associated with dissidents and the ELN guerrillas. There are the massacres committed following the struggle for control of the territory and the killings of ex-combatants (280 have been killed since 2016), civilians and social and human rights leaders (no less than 1,200 executions, all unpunished so far).
As if that were not enough, the reluctance to the peace agreement also worsened the tense situation on the Colombia-Venezuela border, with no possibility of a decrease in clashes since the hostility between Duque and the Venezuelan dictator, Nicolas Maduro, comes from ascend. Quite the opposite of what his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, had done, who, despite the condemnation of the Venezuelan regime, extended the bridges of dialogue with the regime which allowed peace with the guerrillas.
It is hard to imagine that the protests will be eased by May 2022, when it will be decided at the polls who will be Iván Duque’s successor. Its political force, the Democratic Center, is wearing down with the image of its government and with the slow disappearance of Álvaro Uribe, its political godfather, who responds to prosecutions for corruption and crimes against humanity. Uribe, however, is not a deadweight in this process, as he still maintains a significant stronghold of his popularity.
The left stands out with Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla who was mayor of Bogotá, beaten by Duque in the second round in 2018. Other center and center left players are still trying to make themselves viable, such as Sergio Fajardo , former mayor of Medellín, responsible for the urban reforms that saved the city after the war against the cartels, Juan Manuel Galán, son of Luis Carlos Galán, promising name of the liberal camp assassinated in 1989, the center-left Clara López Obregón and the writer and Dean of the Universidad de los Andes Alejandro Gaviria.
In a world that demands urgent answers, May 2022 is still a distant scenario. There is still time for Duque to listen to the voice of the streets and take urgent action to help the most vulnerable, while presenting strong proposals for structural change in one of the most unequal countries in the region. And, just as urgent, that you urge your security forces to stop committing human rights violations.