Middle classes in Latin America (5). From the rhetoric of growth to post-agreement expectations in Colombia

Although the rise of the middle classes in Colombia responds to the same factors as in the rest of Latin  America, social unrest here has a particularly multiclass character. Español

Sandra Milena Londoño Juan Camilo Portela Adriana González Gil
3 May 2016

Street in Bogota, Colombia. Anthony Devlin / PA Archive/Press Association Images

The explanatory factors for the expansion of the middle class in Colombia are similar to the ones at play in the rest of Latin America: economic growth and, to a lesser extent, social policies focused on the reduction of extreme poverty. Far from consolidated, this is a vulnerable middle class, because its upward mobility has been based on an increase in consumption through access to credit. It is a debt-ridden middle class.

Three aspects of the middle class growth in Colombia – which, according to Angulo, Gaviria and Morales (2014), increased from 16% to 27% between 2002 and 2011 -, should be taken into consideration. First, to what extent do the pillars of the National Development Plan (PND) respond to the expectations of prosperity promised by President Juan Manuel Santos, and how much do they contribute, or otherwise, to the consolidation of the middle class. Second, the demands of the recent social mobilisations and their relationship, or otherwise, with specifically class-orientated claims - for the building process of the middle class does not in itself guarantee its alignment to a particular agenda. Finally, the impact that the reforms agreed upon in the ongoing negotiation process to end the armed conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will have on the demands and expectations of emerging social sectors.

Promises of prosperity and the emerging sectors’ uncertainty

Colombia has managed to maintain a moderate rate of economic growth despite the impact of the global economic crisis. Between 2005 and 2015, the country’s GDP growth  ranged from 3.3% to 4.8%. This figures have served President Santos’s two-term rhetoric well - "Prosperity for all" and "All for a new country" - and also, particularly, his aim to consolidate the Colombian middle class during his tenure. Although some specific government programs do cater for historically vulnerable sectors, particularly in terms of job creation and housing, it is clear that the proceedings from this growth have not been reinvested into improving the conditions of the so-called "established and emerging" middle classes, which bear much of the burden of tax policies which, in turn, affect directly and significantly their socioeconomic status.

The aim of the PND to build an equitable and educated Colombia at peace has faced some serious challenges in practice, which have led to frustrated expectations during President Santos’s second term. Issues such as improving the reach and quality of the education system, reducing socio-economic differences, and closing the historical population and social gaps are some of the factors showing how far away the goal of an "educated society with a skilled workforce, no large differences in income, and with citizens who solve their conflicts without resorting to violence" is.

The reduction of poverty has entailed an increase in the proportion of the population in a vulnerable situation: from 8.1 to 8.7 million between 2010 and 2013. Moving the population from the vulnerable to the consolidated sector requires an improvement of this group’s socioeconomic conditions and guarantees as to their stability. Reducing poverty is a necessary but not sufficient condition for strengthening the middle class and achieving greater equity. This trend of poverty reduction does not lead, however, to a significant increase in the established middle class, but rather to an increase of the population in a vulnerable situation[1] - that is, prone to fall back into poverty.

The strategy of middle-class building in the countryside through the productive inclusion of agricultural workers in the economy should also be taken into account. Reducing poverty in rural areas requires the strengthening of institutions with a regional approach, bearing in mind the different impact of the armed conflict in the various regions.

This being so, the promise of prosperity appears inexorably stalled by the precarious socio-economic situation of the urban and rural sectors which, though moving beyond poverty, are skirting the edges of a situation of real vulnerablity.

The social protests’ actors and agendas

The growth of the middle classes and their relation to social mobilisations in Colombia shows some similarities, but also some outstanding differences, with the overall trends in Latin America. On the one hand, Colombian social movements do share their agendas and repertoires but, unlike their neighbours, it is hard to ascertain to what extent the Colombian mobilisations are class  - particularly, middle-class – expressions, as is the case in other countries like Argentina, Chile and Brazil.

The hegemonic economic model has been challenged by several social actors in Latin America. These actors have established formal and informal ties between them which have resulted in better organising, as well as in opening to and exploiting new opportunities for political mobilisation. Colombian mobilisations in recent years can be understood as an expression of this, in a context where, since the 1990s, measures have been adopted to open the country to international trade, in accordance with the current neoliberal globalization trend. The political struggle in Colombia has been associated with the impacts of mining and energy development, the free trade agreements (FTAs), the healthcare and higher education systems, labour rights and the rights of indigenous peoples. However, this does not mean that the mobilisations in Colombia have been staged by actors specifically ascribed to the middle classes. In 2013, the largest mobilisation was carried out by the agricultural workers (campesinos), unhappy with the social and economic conditions resulting from the coming into force of the free trade agreements. Different social actors, not only from rural areas, then began to join in, and this led to a broad social mobilisation of different social sectors which culminated in a nation-wide strike.

The diversity of the actors involved in the protest shows that they have not built a common political rhetoric, and that they do not identify themselves with a particular social class. The antagonisms that have prompted them to getting involved are not centered on class factors, though they may imply them. As historian Mauricio Archila has said, the actors who have been involved in the social struggles in Colombia are multiclass. This is clearly so even in the case of the urban struggles, where actors of various social positions converged and united around cross-cutting citizen demands coming from the lower, the vulnerable and the middle classes. Road maintenance, energy supply, water (and drinking water) service, domestic gas and utilities in general, as well as the effects of infrastructure construction, generally related to pollution caused by mining projects, have generated conflict[2], and have been included in the demand agenda of the citizen protests’ wave. The actors who have staged such demonstrations are both urban (from city neighbourhoods, sectors or municipalities) and rural (agricultural workers, indigenous people, fishermen, and township and village dwellers), united around the claims outlined above.

The social protests in Colombia have thus a particularly multiclass character, their agenda ranging from structural claims (land) to the circumstantial issues (FTAs). As Barrero points out, Colombian protests in recent years, which have been gathering strength since early 2013, reflect the inability of the development model to translate economic growth into a reduction of inequality and inequity; the existing gap between social demands and political leadership – due to the disconnection between parties and society and also between the national and the sub-national levels within the parties –; and the political opportunity offered by the vacuum created by the failure of political parties to politicise social spaces.

Expectations and challenges of the post-agreement with the FARC

Unmet expectations of increased prosperity and growing social mobilisation show the government's inability to process and channel social demands. This incapacity is not attributable solely to the government, but also to the precarious communication with the political parties, which have not only been absent from the demonstrations, but have been expelled from them by the mobilized sectors. The political parties are not proposing any mechanisms, alternatives, ways to resolve conflicts, and they usually see in mobilisations only an opportunity to renegotiate their bureaucratic involvement.

The atmosphere generated by the current negotiating process with the FARC involves a demand for social reform and political modernisation which, it is hoped, will translate into an effective democratisation of the country. However, this scenario is not yet included in an agenda responding specifically to the demands of the different mobilised actors, particularly the agricultural sector, which would favour the peace process in as far as it would respond to historical demands through concrete reforms. This means that while the agenda of the citizen protests is also a demand for peace, it must be accompanied by responses – reforms – that ensure consultation and inclusion and not the usual repressive response to mobilisations.

Alejandro Reyes states that "In the peace process, the model of concentrated and exclusionary development that characterises the country has not been negotiated, but a democratic opening has been agreed to, so that the dilemmas and conflicts that it has been locked into may have a civilised and orderly exit.” In the same vein, the government's chief negotiator, Humberto De la Calle, has insisted that the agreements will result in reforms that should have been undertaken a long time ago. These reforms would ensure transition from a society that has seen protracted armed confrontation to a peace-building stage in which the challenges of moving forward, beyond the achievements in development, expectations, social demands and, particularly, reparations to the victims of the armed conflict, are met.

The agreements on land restitution, assistance and reparation to the victims and political participation constitute a series of transformations which had been historically deferred, and which became a justification for the armed struggle. These agreements would now be in line with strengthening the principles of the social rule of law laid out in the 1991 Colombian constitution. This means getting on, with or without a signed agreement, with the tasks of achieving the full effectiveness of these principles through the establishment of institutional capacities to build confidence, generate agreements, resolve conflicts and ensure order. It is simply circumstantial that the reforms which are being negotiated in Havana have an impact on the middle classes, among other things because the unfulfilled expectations of these social sectors, which turned into citizen discontent, are being instrumentalised by the opposition to the peace process conducted by the government of President Santos. But also, what can be seen as progressive policies stemming from the negotiations are being threatened by the imaginery of social sectors that do not find in them an answer to the historical needs of Colombian society, but a loss of the security allegedly achieved, to which they give central importance and which they feel that it is being put at risk by the expected scope of negotiations.

Translated from Spanish by Katie Oliver, member of Democracia Abierta's Volunteer Program.

[1] The vulnerable class increased from 32% to 37% between 2002 and 2011 (Angulo, Gaviria y Morales, 2014)

[2] A reading of chronologies of social conflict elaborated by the  Observatorio Social de América Latina (Social Observatory of Latin America) affirms that during the first quarter of 2012, the protests in Colombia were concerned with demands for basic services and housing (63 protests), followed by educational demands (43), labour (32), health (23), and presence and response capacity of the State (20).

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