Source: FRANCE 24 / Carlos Jasso
A year of lockdowns, high unemployment, and rising poverty rates has provoked social discontent in Colombia. The current wave of protests—while originally triggered by the government’s poorly conceived, strategized, and communicated tax reform proposal—has been further inflamed by police brutality, a tone-deaf government response, and a vacuum of political leadership. The government insists on the half-truth that protests have been infiltrated by terrorists, vandals, and criminal organizations. It is undeniable, however, that Colombians are angry and demanding change. Previous efforts to promote dialogue—namely, after a previous wave of protests in 2019—failed to produce any resolution. Does anything suggest that things could play out differently today, one year before the 2022 elections?
The past week’s demonstrations in Colombia have shown that popular dissatisfaction is surging after a year of COVID-19 lockdowns. Although the government’s tax reform proposal may have been the immediate trigger for the unrest, pent-up anger has been building since 2019 over social inequality, unemployment, the murder of social leaders, and the conspicuous absence of the state in peripheral regions far from Bogotá. All of these problems have only been aggravated by the pandemic.
If the proposed tax reform was the spark, police brutality was the flame that set fire to the protests. Videos shared widely on social media show security forces clubbing, tear gassing, and even killing demonstrators—over 19 people have been killed by police since April 28—in cities such as Bogotá, Cali, and Manizales. International human rights organizations, the United Nations, and foreign governments have all called on the Colombian government to de-escalate the situation, convene a dialogue, and investigate incidents of wrongdoing by police. Nevertheless, the government has refused to acknowledge the role that police brutality played in escalating the protests and continues to defend all police actions, no matter how egregious, as having been necessary to restore law and order.
It is true that, in various cities across Colombia, protests were characterized by vandalism, broken windows, torn-down statues, and occasional looting—actions that threaten to obscure the political nature of the demonstrations and the legitimate popular grievances that inspired them. There have emerged some reports of organized blockades of entry and exit access points to various cities, largely due to the fact that truck and taxicab-drivers’ unions—which know the chokepoints of cities and highways better than anyone—have participated in the strike. However, there is no compelling evidence that the protests have been organized or led by insurgent groups or criminal organizations.
The events currently transpiring in Colombia share some interesting parallels with recent events in the U.S. involving the administration of former President Donald Trump. At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted across the country in the summer of 2020, former President Trump called upon law enforcement and the military to rally to his defense. Acting upon orders from former President Trump and former Attorney General William Barr, the National Guard and U.S. Park Police unceremoniously cleared demonstrators from Lafayette Square park, enabling Trump to stage his infamous photo op at St. John’s Episcopal Church. The move was widely and loudly criticized, even from within the military—General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was even compelled to apologize for his participation in former President Trump’s photo op—likely making Pentagon officials wary of being involved in the former president’s plans going forward. Although this earned the Department of Defense Trump’s wrath, it also won the American military brass praise from analysts and pundits alike. In Colombia, however, when the military was asked by President Iván Duque to intervene in order to quell political unrest, they eagerly complied.
The ruling Centro Democrático party is now urging the government to declare emergency powers in order to deal with the ongoing protests. They continue to promote unsubstantiated allegations that the protests have been infiltrated by illegal groups, echoing neo-Nazi conspiracy theories from Chile that portray the social unrest in Colombia as part of a conspiracy by extremist left-wing terrorist groups to sabotage the government, seize the means of production, and establish communism. (This can be roughly understood as being analogous to the Republican Party calling on former President Trump to declare emergency powers in response to Antifa’s alleged infiltration of the Black Lives Matter protests). Despite such pressure, however, President Duque must resist the temptation to listen to the extremists within his party urging him to do away with Colombia’s constitutional order.
At present, the protest movement has the upper hand. They have forced the government to rescind an unpopular tax proposal, sack the Minister of Finance, and call for a new national dialogue with opposition political parties. As time goes by, the government’s bargaining power is diminishing even further. Furthermore, excessive police violence in Colombia has received primetime coverage across the globe, forcing many international governments to issue statements condemning the disproportionate use of force by authorities. These external pressures are only compounded by internal pressure, from within President Duque’s own party, to continue to escalate the crackdown.
It is unlikely that political parties such as Cambio Radical, to say nothing of the Partido Liberal and other opposition sectors, will collaborate proactively with the government on what remains of its legislative agenda, which includes a new version of tax reform, healthcare reform, the implementation of the peace agreement, and anti-corruption efforts. They have learned from the Centro Democrático’s actions following the 2016 peace plebiscite that cooperation with an outgoing unpopular administration is not an effective electoral strategy.
Everyone can read the writing on the wall: Iván Duque is a lame duck president, and his attempts to deflect the blame onto terrorists, communists, and heavy-handed police officers betray a desperate effort to maintain control of the national narrative as the 2022 election draws near.
Sergio Guzmán is the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy in Bogotá. His social networks are @ColombiaRisk and @SergioGuzmanE.