Colombia is entering its third week of protests and, although a lot of what is happening is new to the country, the political response to it has been so far sadly familiar.
What is new is the scale and location of the protests, the issues at stake, the social profile of those participating in them, and the wide support they have received so far. What seems to be taking us back in time is the violent response from the State and the Government’s disconnection from the claims of those on the streets.
Before 2016, all national strikes and protests were directly related to the civil conflict, either to condemn the violent actions of the guerrillas or to express support for the peace process. This situation changed with the signing of a Peace Agreement between the Government and the FARC guerrilla.
The agreement gave Colombia the opportunity to move beyond half a century of armed conflict and begin to address issues that, up to then, had been completely invisible. Youth unemployment, extreme income inequality, corruption, the quality of public education, racism, classism, and police brutality suddenly became part of the public agenda. These were social grievances deeply grounded in a long history of economic, social, and racial inequalities, re-emerging into political debate. They have already been for a long time at the centre of politics in other South American countries – in that sense Colombia’s politics are returning to what is considered ‘normal’ in the Latin American region.
The emergence of these concerns, which had been reproducing in silence up to now, is what led to the first wave of mass protests in 2019 – historical at that time -, which came to an end with the arrival of COVID-19. What we are witnessing now is just the continuation of those strikes, whose grievances have become even more salient after a year of lockdowns that resulted in 3.5 million people falling into poverty.
The fragmented and inefficient response of the Colombian government to the social and economic challenges posed by COVID-19 deepened the already dire situation. The first lockdown, which lasted almost 6 months, affected mostly those families that depend on informal labour – about half of the labour force of the country. Besides, the Government refused the approval of a basic income to alleviate this situation, even when it had fiscal viability. The existent subsidies didn’t reach the 9 million families that were left vulnerable thanks to the economic crisis. In a country where social protection and the legitimacy of the State were already failing, these bad decisions were decisive in pushing people once more to the streets.
This time, not only have the issues at stake changed, but also the geographical and social composition of the protesters. Demonstrations are no longer concentrated in the main cities. Additionally, although university students are still playing an important role, this time they are being accompanied by many youths from some of the poorest neighbourhoods, who are neither studying nor working. During the past days, pictures of people protesting in villages all over the country – sometimes in places that were until recently at the centre of the armed conflict – have appeared on social media. Strikes and demonstrations are also taking place in some of the poorest areas of the cities, where people rarely took to the streets in the past. Thus, protests are not only lasting longer and being more massive than ever before, but they are also more diverse. All this would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
So far so good. Unfortunately, even if the issues at stake and the socio-economic profile of those involved have changed, the political response of the Government and the elites has not and Colombia seems to be locked in its history of political violence, unable to solve political differences peacefully.
As has been widely reported by the international media, police have repressed peaceful protesters all over the country, killing at least 42 people. But it is also true that organized crime has taken advantage of the situation and contributed to acts of violence. Even more worrisome, armed civilians have also taken the streets to “protect themselves against vandals”, displaying scenes and narratives disturbingly familiar with those common in the early 2000s, when paramilitarism was rampant in the country in response to the increasing power of guerrilla groups.
As a result, during the past days, Colombians have witnessed an all too familiar division. On the one hand, there is a small white elite that frames legitimate social demands and protests as undercover attempts by leftist movements to overtake them. On the other hand, there is a large share of the population that is expressing its anger at a political and economic system that has not been able to guarantee their basic rights. Therefore, this situation seems to be an ideological -and now violent- dispute about maintaining or changing the status quo.
The year, the setting, and the issues at stake may have changed but the grievances of the people and the response by the Establishment to those remain all too familiar.