Colombia has historically figured out a dramatic way forward because of itself and sometimes in spite of itself.
It’s not clear which applies to the current situation, that finds itself entering week two of national strikes. Colombia has not reached an inflection point as has Chile, but in the run up to and immediate handling of the national strike, it seems as though the government and a fringe of the strikers has been itching for one.
Originally called by labour unions to protest proposed and rumored changes in tax, labor and pension laws, the strike attracted the attention and participation of others who have a litany of concerns. In addition to the aforementioned economic issues, the strike has attracted support from those with concerns over the government’s handling of educational funding, the ongoing murders of social and indigenous leaders, climate change policies (including the preliminary approval of fracking), the implementation of the peace accord and, as ever, corruption and impunity.
Unlike the situations in Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia, there was no one precipitating event or flash point for the march. Nor, unlike in those countries, was there a general tone of violence or rage. The motivating sentiment was not a call to the ramparts, but rather an admixture of disillusion, disgust and concern.
This feeling was heightened by the news leak that the government had not disclosed that eight of the 15 people killed in a recent raid of a dissident Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) encampment were underage minors conscripted by force. President Iván Duque had previously described the raid as an “impeccable operation” and former president Alvaro Uribe subsequently tweeted in essence that the minors were likely culpable for FARC activities.
Given the unease about internal security caused by several factors, it was understandable that the government would respond by erring on the side of protecting public safety. Yet it did a lot more than that. It pulled out the traditional hard right handbook by turning up the rhetorical heat. It dismissed the strike as a plot by the extreme left to sow chaos, do Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s dirty errands and import Chile’s street violence. It alleged that the national strike was orchestrated by hard left Senator, Gustavo Petro.
The massive deployment of specialized riot police by Bogota’s outgoing mayor, presumably in close coordination with the national government, had unfortunate results. The level of violence could and likely would have been much worse had the overwhelming majority of the strikers not maintained a peaceful approach. The incidents of riot police overreaction indicates that more civic and human rights police training is necessary.
The government’s actions resonated among many as scared, out of touch and provocative. Neither the tone, nor purpose of the march seemed to resemble the government’s characterization. Immediately following the government’s response, a one-day national strike was extended indefinitely with a large concert and rally scheduled for December 11.
Given these recent events, the intellectual parlor game among moderates for the past 15 months seems less relevant: Is President Duque shackled by the hard right from being the centrist that candidate Duque claimed? Or is he much more right leaning than candidate Duque claimed to be? It also casts more doubt on the speculation among some pundits that victories by independent candidates (and clear losses for Mr. Uribe’s candidates) in recent state and local elections would incentivize President Duque to move to the center.
At least thus far, the government’s record on many indicative decisions and appointments has shown that its fail safe is to the right, and sometimes the hard right. The handling of the strike would seem to follow that pattern.
This track record will make President Duque’s attempts to reconcile with a wide swath of the country more difficult. The level of mistrust is far greater than it was at the outset of his term as evidenced by his approval ratings settling in below 30 percent.
In an attempt to regroup and take initiative, President Duque has set up a series of structured conversations among some strike leaders, government representatives and other players on varying topics of concern moderated by highly respected, non governmental interlocutors.
We’ll see whether the conversations lead to progress or wind up being a play for time, as some allege, by the government. If so, this could be an unfortunate miscalculation. The government’s failure to engage seriously and expeditiously with the strikers’ more serious demands would sharpen the frustration in the buildup to the follow up strikes planned for a couple of months for now. All bets would be hedged on how much closer Colombia will get to an inflection point.
Neither the strikers nor their demands are homogenous or necessarily harmonious. As University of the Andes Professor Marc Hofstetter pointed out in a recent article, only 10 percent of Colombian workers are unionized. Their concerns over protecting their privileged pensions, opening the market to youthful entrants and concessions already granted by the government, will not jibe nicely with those of the many youthful strikers.
One irony is that that Mr. Petro, one of the government’s boogeymen, may be one politician who stands to lose. He likes to project strength when he controls the street. He didn’t control this strike and showed weakness by trying to claim ex post facto that he sort of did. The coalition of marchers, including many young voters and centrists, including some former Duque voters, had their own agenda and owe no allegiance to Mr. Petro.
No one can predict how these sentiments will get funnelled in the lead up to the 2022 election. The hunch here is that an engaged youthful electorate and others will prioritize climate change and sustainability over Colombia’s traditional security agenda.
As analyst Sergio Guzman points out, Dilan Cruz, the 18 year old university student killed this week by a kevlar tissue bullet fired by a riot policeman struck him in the head, was unborn when Mr. Uribe became president. He wasn’t eligible to vote in the 2018 presidential elections, but his peers and those several years younger, will be eligible in the 2022 elections. They also know how to utilize social media to quickly turn what in former times would have been a call-your-friends a la convocatoria to a massive show of concerted action at the push of a button.
Neither Mr. Petro nor any other politician has a natural claim on those votes at this point.
Kenneth Frankel is president of the Canadian Council for the Americas (CCA) and a Global Americans board member. You can follow him at @knfrankel