When Colombia Caught Fire

Colombian politics have long been dominated by strongmen insisting on the need for “tough security measures.” But right now, with strikes and demonstrations gripping the country, it’s Colombia's hard-right government overseeing atrocities — not the guerrilla insurgents.

Demonstrators gather and make noise with pots while musicians perform at a square in North Bogotá during a protest against the government of Colombian president Iván Duque on November 28, 2019 in Bogotá, Colombia. Guillermo Legaria / Getty Images

Unlike their neighbors in other Latin American countries, Colombians aren’t used to taking to the streets. As people often say, Colombia isn’t Venezuela or Ecuador — or, indeed, Chile or Argentina. When there are protest marches, they don’t take on mass proportions — those in recent decades that enjoyed broad popular support can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Yet all this abruptly changed on November 21. What began as a national strike call by the country’s trade union federations rapidly transformed into a generalized cry of protest — one able to rally together a large cross section of Colombians with a wide range of demands. What glued the demonstration together was a common feeling: “We’ve had enough.”

In a day that has already been called historic, marchers filled the streets of Colombia’s main cities. Images of placard-wielding protesters demanding change came from all four corners of the country. The mobilizations were mostly peaceful, though some individuals exploited the situation to attack bus depots and destroy shop fronts. But there was such emphatic support for the demonstrations that president Iván Duque had no option but to come out that same night and acknowledge the need for dialogue.

Yet this climbdown wasn’t enough to calm people’s anger. The president’s response was so weak and full of generalities that what had seemed to be a one-day protest repeated itself the following day, with force. This brought scenes unprecedented in Colombia, like cohorts of protesters banging saucepans or even the inside windows of their buildings. Powerful demonstrations then continued on November 23, 24, and 25. The demonstrations did not calm down, and on November 27, there was the announcement of another general strike.

Duque is a right-wing president, elected thanks to the patronage of former president Álvaro Uribe (today a senator). He has proven unable to address the popular dissatisfaction and now faces a major challenge. If he does not immediately respond with serious social measures, his government is sure to be left confronting a political crisis with an outcome impossible to predict. This gloomy outlook for Duque seems even worse when we remember that he has only been president for fifteen months — and he still has two-thirds of his term ahead of him.

What Brought the People into the Streets?

Even for Duque’s own party allies, it’s become clear that he has not managed to build a narrative around what his government is really about. Previous presidents were skilled in constructing a general framing of their activity: for example, the last president, Juan Manuel Santos, centered his proposals on negotiating peace with the FARC guerrillas, while before him, Uribe emphasized his focus on “security” and “taking a hard line.” Duque wanted to sell himself as a young man (he’s forty-three) concerned with the economy and employment. But he didn’t manage to consolidate this image. Instead, most of the country sees him as a kind of puppet who merely obeys Uribe’s orders.

But beyond these questions of form, there are other, more fundamental issues feeding the popular discontent: inequality, unemployment rates, and access to education loom large. According to a 2017 World Bank report, Colombia is the second most unequal country in the Americas, falling only behind Haiti. Sustained GDP growth in recent years — sometimes above 4 percent — has drawn the applause of international bodies. But this has not been reflected in poverty reduction, or indeed in any fall in the startling divide between rich and poor. A study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reveals that, in current conditions, a poor Colombian family would take 330 years to finally emerge from poverty — eleven generations. Substantial improvements in quality-of-life indicators seem impossible.

The second reason for discontent is unemployment. A few weeks ago, the National Department of Statistics (DANE), a government agency, revealed that 10.8 percent of Colombians are without work. This return to double-digit levels of joblessness soon set off alarms.

Another factor is education. The impossibility of accessing university education — and the poor quality of primary and secondary schools — is one of the complaints we hear about most frequently on the demonstrations. And these protests aren’t about to be defused. According to the Niñez Ya Foundation, some fifty-six in every one hundred Colombians do not finish secondary school, a situation aggravated in rural parts of the country, where the armed conflict persists even now; in these areas, 40 percent of children are unable to attend classes. Even more telling are the numbers regarding university education. In a country of 48 million people — 8 million of them between eighteen and twenty-six years of age — less than half a million attend university. The public universities’ low capacity — and the high cost of private ones, which are the majority in Colombia, makes it almost impossible for those in the middle and lower classes to get places.

These three areas of grievance explain a good part of the protests, which are mostly driven by young Colombians in their twenties and thirties. But there’s no doubt that the crystallization of the revolt against Duque also owes to factors that go back well before his term in office, from social inequality to the coca boom and the rise in drug trafficking. Also important is the complex web of relations between big companies and actors on the margins of the law, contriving to control the country’s extractivist businesses and water resources. NGO reports have shown how the collaboration between these forces has often led to death threats — and assassinations — of social-movement leaders. According to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ), 155 such leaders have been assassinated in 2019 alone — a scandalous number for any democracy.

It is undeniable that many of Colombia’s socioeconomic problems have deeper roots in decades of state failure. And in the last year and a half, these factors have returned with renewed force. But added to these are Duque’s own concrete economic measures, as well as planned moves, yet to reach parliament, which have already been strongly challenged by the opposition. Such is the case of a tax reform that privileges the already dominant sectors and multinationals at the expense of middling and lower layers of Colombian society. This is combined with a series of reforms that seek to eliminate the state pensions fund Colpensiones, as well as a proposal to reduce the pay of the youngest workers to 75 percent of the current monthly minimum wage. This, even when Colombia already has some of the continent’s most abusive and precarized labor conditions and pension systems.

Here we have described Colombia’s explosive cocktail of unsatisfied demands, planned measures that will make people’s economic situation even worse, and an unpopular president (Duque’s disapproval rating stands at 69 percent). But we should not overlook the Latin American context, which helps us understand the wider, regional sense of the Colombian strike. In particular, events in Chile — prompting a prolonged series of demonstrations and, indeed, the repression unleashed by president Sebastián Piñera — have been much in view in Colombia, and not only in the eyes of those who want to express their discontent with the current administration. The government too has taken advantage of what is going on in Santiago de Chile to show that, as it puts it, a prolonged strike will bring violence, destruction, and economic damage. Uribismo has projected an image of military order in Colombia’s main cities, suggesting that here they would not allow Chilean-style “excesses.”

Not Believing in Peace

The theme of security is particularly important in Colombia, not least given the years of armed conflict. The government’s supporters insist that the peace negotiations with the FARC advanced by the previous government under Santos — which transformed the now-disarmed guerrilla insurgency into a political party — were damaging to Colombia. Duque was obliged to put the peace process into effect, but a large part of the population considers that his real intention is to put up obstacles to the post-conflict measures and to the former guerrilleros’ reintegration into society.

Indeed, in recent weeks, an event has come to light that is widely considered a further trigger to the resistance against the current government: in early November, an opposition senator revealed to Congress that when a camp of FARC dissidents (who rejected the peace negotiations) was bombed — a “result” that Duque himself boasted about — more than a dozen children between twelve and sixteen years old were killed.

If the scandal here was the fact that the then–defense minister Guillermo Botero covered up the children’s death for months — recalling the army’s famous “false positives,” i.e., passing off innocents murdered in rural areas for economic reasons as guerrilleros shot down in combat — the really unbearable thing in the court of public opinion was the government’s excuse-making over these events. Senators from the government’s Centro Democrático insisted that the armed forces were blameless. Former president Uribe even commented, “If there are some kids in some camps, what do you expect?” Further bringing the popular anger to the brim, President Duque’s reply to a journalist’s question on these bombings was: “What are you talking about, dude?” This line — typical of the Colombian upper classes and often used in a humiliating and condescending manner — became one of the protestors’ own battle cries. The protesters’ shirts and placards often say, “This is what we’re talking about, dude!”

The strike that began in November does not seem to be approaching an end any time soon. It has continued into the early days of December, and a third national strike has just been announced. Just as popular support seemed to be flagging, it was revealed that Dilan Cruz, a student who took part in the march through central Bogotá the week before, had been killed by what seems to have been a tear gas canister launched by the police. His death once again fueled widespread indignation and brought people back out onto the streets. Indeed, the deployment of the police’s special forces has itself been strongly questioned by the Procuraduría General de la Nación and the Defensoría del Pueblo — two official but autonomous bodies that monitor the state’s actions regarding the civilian population.

Building the Political Frontier

It is worth stressing how pro-government forces have constantly resorted to an old but effective political tactic: building up an enemy within. The rising insecurity in the country’s urban centers, the situation of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans now arriving in Colombia, and the eruption of a dissident movement led by some widely recognized FARC chiefs has allowed Uribism to portray a threat looming over Colombia. Faced with the fears whipped up by the media — which is dominated by the country’s most important economic powers — and the frenetic use of social networks, middle and upper layers of the population have ended up demanding protection from the armed forces, even if this means potentially boundless repression.

Despite this pessimistic picture, what is at play in the unprecedented protests Colombia is experiencing extends far further than the marchers’ own demands. The continuing series of demonstrations is also a bid to legitimize social protest, insisting that the individuals and collectives involved must not be stigmatized as “enemy forces” attacking their own country. Sporadic acts of vandalism (and police infiltration has also been reported) have served to reproduce an equivalence between protest and violent insurgency — thus putting political and social leaders’ very lives on the line. Yet the difficulties in promulgating and implementing the peace accords with the FARC seem to have drawn a political dividing line whose final demarcation is still being determined. To damn the powerful is not the same thing as favoring political violence.

The fact that this dividing frontier is still in play can be seen in the unprecedented and spontaneous character of many of the demonstrations that have followed November 21. This has made it possible for certain signs of hope to emerge in a country whose political values had seemed so strongly entrenched in the Right that they could no longer be shifted. The protests against the Duque government show the combination of different unsatisfied demands, amid a crisis of politics and representation without immediate precedents in Colombian history.

The mass demonstrations in Colombia are not only a test of the president’s own political dexterity. Rather, they are also a demand on the various forces of the political left. They, too, need to build their own unity — and provide a common perspective that is able to give real cohesion to the different values expressed both in today’s demonstrations and those we can expect to follow.