Colombia has been witnessing a series of widespread national protests against President Iván Duque and his government. While the protests are largely centred against some reforms proposed by the government, but invariably include the demand to address larger social-economic issues such as inequality, social justice and action against police brutality.
The latest protests began after the government proposed tax reforms to mitigate the effects of the economic crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic. Under the proposed reforms, the threshold for taxable income was reduced to 2.6m pesos (US $ 684) and eliminated most of the tax exemptions given to businesses and individuals. The reforms were opposed by trade unions and citizens, as they feared that it would push more people into poverty at a time of economic uncertainty and the rising cost of healthcare. As the demonstrations have grown and continued, President Duque withdrew the reform and Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla has resigned. However, like the past protests, demonstrators have broadened their demands with calls for improvement in Colombia’s pension, healthcare, education systems and restrain over the use of violence by security forces. Excessive use of force has been a point of contention between the government and the protestors over the last few demonstrations. The excessive use of force by the police had led to protests in September 2020, after the death of person due to deadly use of a taser by police in Bogota. During the current demonstrations, the government has justified the use of force by the police and the Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron (ESMAD) or the Colombian national riot police, by stating that members of guerrilla groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and dissent members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are financing criminals to indulge in premeditated acts of rioting and violence. While protesters acknowledge some demonstrators committed acts of violence, including attacking police officers with rocks, looting, and burning of public and private property, particularly in Bogotá and Cali,, the majority are citizens who are demanding relief and reform from their government. Nonetheless, as the demonstration continue, one of the most effective tools of the protesters has been to block key highways around major urban areas to put pressure on the government by effectively stopping commerce. The Colombian economy is heavily dependent on its road networks for transportation of goods from ports to cities and vice versa. President Duque on 28 May, issued a decree to allow the Colombian military to assist the police in facing the protestors and help remove the roadblocks. The move has been widely condemned in Colombia and calls have been made for the U.S. to withdraw its military assistance to the armed forces of the country as deploying the military is an effort to deny the right of the citizens to protest.
In an effort to diffuse the situation, President Duque has stated that the government will create a space to listen to the citizens and develop concrete plans. However, trade unions and leaders of protest movements point out that similar offers were made after the 2019 protests, but the President failed to deliver any plan especially on police brutality and inaction to investigate cases. He also failed to address the other concerns raised by the protesters. On 27 November 2019, Colombia saw one of the biggest protests in the nation’s history, which continued till February 2020, were prompted by proposed cuts in pensions. Though the reform was never formally announced, it led to widespread dissatisfaction with the government. Protesters also expressed their anger at the perceived slow-rollout of the country’s historic 2016 peace deal with the FARC. The accord formally ended five decades of civil war and allowed the FARC to become a political party, nonetheless, much of Colombia is still engulfed in violence as illegal armed groups compete for territory where the state has historically been absent. Demonstrators came to the streets to protest economic inequality, violence against civil society leaders and indigenous people that have largely remained unsolved. Public fury was amplified after an airstrike against a camp of dissident rebel drug traffickers left eight minors dead.
The continued on and off protests reflect the social, political and economic grievances of the people against the government. The Colombian economy has shrunk by 6.8 percent in 2020 as a result of the pandemic and measures taken to mitigate its spread. The 2020 lockdown impacted small businesses, increased the number of unemployed and widened income inequality. The subsidies announced by the government were seen to help large industries that pay more tax rather than the small and medium businesses that employ more people. The recent proposed reform raised fears that it will push more people into poverty and increase economic disparity by expanding the tax bracket to include a majority of the middle class and small businesses. The perception is that, while the pandemic naturally increased social inequality, the government’s response was inadequate.
Apart from the above, President Duque faces other challenges as well. He came to power on a platform of anti-corruption, however, allegations of misappropriation of funds meant for COVID-19 relief, along with reports of corruption in the 2018 campaign have dented his popularity and clean image. Migration from Venezuela remains another problem. Colombia has close to 1.7 -2 million migrants. The government has recently launched a programme that will allow undocumented Venezuelan migrants to legally live and work in Colombia for up to 10 years. The programme will help Colombia document the migrants and also include them in its COVID-19 vaccination programme. It is also hoped that in the future it will benefit Colombia as Venezuelan doctors, teachers etc. gain employment. However, an economic downturn brought on by the pandemic has turned many against migrants. Public opinion in Colombia is not supportive of the Venezuelan President Maduro, nonetheless, it is not supportive of the current programme or the political capital invested by President Duque in supporting Juan Guaidó claims to the Venezuelan Presidency. Colombians feel that the government should focus on national policies rather than spend limited resources on regional issues. This is highlighted by the disconnect in the implementation of the peace deal between the government and FARC. During his campaign, President Duque critiqued the accord, signed by former President Santos, however, the failure to implement it on the ground has been criticised. Many FARC members who have laid down arms have been killed along with a growing number of civil society leaders, environmentalists, local politicians and activists from the indigenous communities. Around 223 people were killed in 2020. The government’s inability to stop the killings and also secure control of territories vacated by the FARC has become an obstacle in its efforts to promote ‘peace with legality’.
Presidential elections in Colombia are scheduled for 2022. The election will witness a generational change with a majority of voters having grown up after the peak of guerrilla and paramilitary forces violence of the 1980-90s. A majority of them also understand the importance of a robust education system as they were educated in public schools instead of those controlled by the Church. Thus, they may vote for a candidate who promises to strengthen public education and after the pandemic, the healthcare sector. The pandemic, the resulting economic slowdown and continued social unrest have created a window of opportunity for the opposition. Together with Colombia’s old problems of endemic corruption and a fragile peace, these new issues are likely to be the dominant themes for the next presidential election. The pandemic-induced restrictions have led to an early start to campaigning by the political parties. Opposition candidate Senator Gustavo Petro, a former member of the guerrilla group M-19 which was demobilised in the 1990s, leading a left leaning coalition has is campaigning on a platform highlighting the lack of improvement in the quality of life, the lack of healthcare especially in rural areas, rise in inequality and unemployment. The opposition will point to a general disconnect between the government and the voters as indicators that a change is required. President Duque has to not only overcome a pandemic but has to also engage with the people to overcome the challenges to his presidency.
*Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
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Joe Parkins Daniel, “'We're being massacred': Colombia accused of failing to stop murders of activists,” The Guardian, 08 Oct. 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/oct/08/colombia-activists-murder-amnesty-international, Accessed on 06 May 2021
The Government’s “Peace with Legality” policy aims to achieve the constitutional right to peace for all Colombians within a rule of law framework. This policy is in line with the 2016 peace agreement and contains instruments for both reintegrating former combatants and providing security guarantees for communities most affected by violence.