democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Why Colombia has erupted in protest

The economic impact of the pandemic has exacerbated conditions many already found intolerable. As state repression mounts, is there any way out?

Sandra Borda
2 June 2021, 11.20am
A demonstrator at a London event held in solidarity with Colombian protesters, on 15 May
Jessica Girvan / Alamy Stock Photo

Spiralling poverty and unemployment in the wake of the pandemic lie behind the widespread protests in Colombia that began on 28 April. Young people have been particularly badly affected, even though their generation has been largely excluded from the government’s negotiations with protest leaders – one half of an official response that has mixed dialogue with violent repression. As presidential elections approach next year, the situation is eroding people’s trust in political institutions.

Economic devastation

In the last year, an estimated 3.6 million people have fallen into poverty, while 2.78 million are now classed as living in extreme poverty. The result is that 42.5% of Colombia’s population now live below the poverty line, up from 35.7% in 2019.

A decade of anti-poverty measures appear to have been reversed, at least in part. The figures mean that more than 21 million people are currently being forced to subsist on the equivalent of less than $88 per day, with 7.47 million people living on less than $39 per day.

Big cities have suffered the most from the economic impact of the pandemic, and the social distancing policies that followed. In Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city, 3.3 million people (of a total population of 7.1 million) are living in poverty. Other major cities, such as Medellín and Cali, also have large numbers of people below the poverty line.

Women are among the hardest hit, with 46.7% of women (compared to 40.1% of men) living in poverty. This has a knock-on effect for many families: according to the director of the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), "the gender gap increased during the pandemic and this necessarily affects the incidence of poverty in households where women are heads of households".

For young people, meanwhile, unemployment has risen to 23.9%, up from 20.5% in the first quarter of 2020, in the 14-28 age category. Young people are also being forced out of education, because of the high cost of private universities, and a lack of capacity in the public system. Last year, an estimated 243,000 students dropped out of various forms of education.

People take to the streets

The trigger for the protests that began in April was a proposal to reform the tax system, although demands quickly expanded to a rejection of reforms to the healthcare system, too. For many people, the pandemic has exacerbated a situation that already sparked mass protests in 2019, adding unemployment and a lack of education opportunities to the mix.

Poor neighbourhoods of large cities face a range of discontents, including the presence of illegal groups (from guerillas to drug trafficking networks) who try to recruit young people. These neighbourhoods also play host to families displaced by Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict, who give up everything they own to seek safety in the anonymity of the city. This uprooting is compounded by the lack of opportunities that young members of these families face when they arrive.

As if the above weren’t enough, people’s daily relationship with the police is one of constant tension, with routine instances of sieges, illegal detention and abuse. This endemic problem has been made worse by the additional powers the government has given to the security forces to enforce social distancing measures.

With many people impoverished and confined to their homes in a situation where there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel, the police were increasingly coming to dominate public space. When the frustration of young people in particular could no longer be contained, the resulting clashes showed a brutality that was unprecedented in Colombia’s recent history.

Public distrust

To further complicate the situation, Colombians have become increasingly distrustful of state institutions and political parties. This makes the prospect of a resolution all the more difficult.

According to Colombia’s Observatorio de la Democracia, public satisfaction with state institutions has fallen to 18.2%, down from 57.7% in 2004. Trust in media and civil society organisations has also dropped. As a result, many people now believe that protest is the only way to make their voices heard, and have lost faith in representative democracy.

One immediate consequence is that communication between the government and protesters has been slow and difficult. Everyone insists that negotiation is the only way out of the situation. But the government has found it difficult to identify interlocutors. While a strike committee is taking part in discussions, protesters complain that the committee does not represent them.

An example of the mismatch is that the strike committee contains just one young person, an activist from the university student movement. Many of the young people protesting are people leaving the school system, whose chances of entering higher education are remote.

The backlash

In the meantime, the government led by Colombia’s president, Iván Duque Márquez, has bet heavily on a public order strategy to try and contain the protests. It portrays the protesters as criminals and focuses on material damage caused by the mobilisation, which takes away the agency and voices of those who protest. Given the government’s role in creating the conditions that led people to protest, and its lack of criticism of police violence, the government itself must be seen as an aggravating factor.

A major obstacle to progress is the Duque administration’s immense weakness. The tax reform proposal that triggered the protests was not even supported by Duque’s own party and the government lacks the authority to lead a concerted dialogue on solutions to the crisis. Its only way out, therefore, is very little carrot and a large dose of stick.

Further police violence is likely, and the government has been put on the defensive by international criticism of human rights violations. In an unprecedented decision, Colombia rejected a request by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to make a fact-finding trip to the country. (The government later relented, saying ‘yes, but not for now.’)

What comes next

Each day that passes is a day lost for implementing measures that would help alleviate the desperation of so many impoverished families. The delay further undermines public confidence in Colombia’s ailing institutions, and oversight bodies that should exist to ensure respect for citizens’ rights have been co-opted by the government. They are failing to act as watchdogs that monitor the behaviour of the security forces.

Yet Colombia’s political class seems to be in a deep slumber, with its attention mainly focused on next year’s elections. The parliamentary left wants to avoid being blamed for the chaos and excesses of the protests. The right is biding its time, because it knows that a discredited and worn-out protest movement will be a useful target for a revived attack on castrochavistas (a red-baiting discourse that accuses opponents of wanting to turn Colombia into Cuba or Venezuela), and a further wave of repression.

The centre, meanwhile, has chosen this moment to lose its backbone entirely. As a way out looks remote, Colombia’s political leadership seems to have little imagination left.

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