The Sown Seeds For Colombia’s Ongoing Protests

Protests have been organized in the streets of Colombia by the umbrella group National Strike Committee, composed of Colombian labour unions, student groups, and indigenous groups.

Blockades, rioting, and looting by protesters have been observed in efforts that demand authorities to address a variety of current concerns. These include a call for acknowledgement of police brutality and inequality, advocation of a basic income scheme, free tuition for public universities, and greater economic benefits that reduce the impact COVID-19 has had on Colombians. The pandemic has left 42% of the population surviving on less than $90 per month.

Significant numbers participated in these demonstrations, with as many as 8,000 people attending protests in the capital Bogota alone. The demonstrations have been mostly peaceful and authorities have urged protestors to leave these demonstrations in the evening. The primary trigger of the protests was a government proposal, advanced by President Ivan Duque, to increase taxes – despite shrinking incomes for millions during the pandemic. Though Duque’s administration swiftly withdrew the tax proposal once demonstrations emerged, the protests nonetheless persist.

The government justified the tax reform as essential in mitigating Colombia’s economic crisis. During the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, Colombia’s gross domestic product dropped by 6.8%. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate skyrocketed during this period, affecting businesses and pressuring the government to increase its debt load. As for how the tax reform would have impacted the lives of Colombians during this time, the proposal would have lowered the threshold at which salaries are taxed. Therefore, it would affect anyone with a monthly income of 2.6 million pesos ($684; £493) or more. It would also have eliminated various existing exemptions enjoyed by individuals and would have instigated increasing business taxes.

Aside from the proposed tax reform, many of the protesters’ demands are founded on Colombia’s high levels of inequality. Aside from the pandemic’s impact on employment, life for many Colombians has become more precarious; 3.6 million individuals have become impoverished since last year. In cities like Quibdó, 30% of people live in extreme poverty compared to 9% in Medellin.

Other protesters propose a universal basic income scheme that will address such inequality. Elsewhere, Colombia’s students are promoting the abolition of tuition fees as a means of increasing accessibility to higher education. Indigenous groups have also joined in the protests with calls to address continuing rural violence in which rogue rebels, rival armed groups, and security forces clash.

More controversial than the protests themselves, however, is the government’s response. The United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have condemned the violent crackdown on peaceful protests by the Colombian government on May 14, 2021. Although most protests were peaceful, the experts reported at least 26 killings of mostly young people, 1,876 cases of police violence, 216 cases of injuries including police officers, approximately 168 disappearances, 963 alleged arbitrary detentions, at least 12 cases of sexual violence, as well as allegations of torture. The independent specialists also expressed alarm at reported violent attacks against the Indigenous Minga in Cali. Furthermore, there have been at least 69 assaults against human rights defenders.

The expert groups expressed particular concern about the military’s involvement in the Government response. They stressed that military personnel are primarily formed and trained to defend the country against threats of a bespoke military nature and should not be used in police assemblies. They recommended that the government observe the right to peaceful assembly during future protests and ensure that authorities use extreme force only when necessary and proportional to the circumstance. The experts also recommend that an independent and detailed investigation is conducted into alleged killings, sexual violence, torture, and arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance.

Within Colombia, the dialogue between government representatives and protesters has been loaded with tension. In response to the protesters, President Duque has ruled out one of their main demands: the dismantling of the riot police. President Duque has been otherwise optimistic of the opportunity of discussions with the National Strike Committee but urged demonstrators to clear the roads they have blocked. The President remarked, “yes to conversation … but no to roadblocks.” He has made other promises, such as subsidizing 25% of the minimum wage for workers between 18 and 28 years old, for a minimum of one year, in order to persuade employers to hire young people. Duque also directly addressed young people in Valle del Cauca, the region where the violence has been at its worst, by tweeting “we know of your demands and proposals and there will be a space to hear you out and talk about the issues worrying you. Let’s together reach concrete solutions quickly.”

Ideally, this potential for discussion between government representatives and protesters would advance a solution in ending the violent and disruptive nature of the demonstrations. However, little progress has been made. Alejandro Gaviria, president of the University of the Andes, wrote in a recent op-ed that the violence will escalate if the attempt at a national dialogue fails. Dr. Dolly Montoya Castaño, head of the National University of Colombia, adds in her open letter about the protests that “if Colombia is a country that does not understand that it has to educate its youth, it will be a country at war for the rest of its days.” While the National Strike Committee has held several discussions with government representatives about protesters’ demands, the two sides have failed in holding formal talks.

The blockades, invoked by local protesters and truckers, caused shortages of food and gasoline across the country – especially in the city of Cali. The government reports that some blockades are connected to criminal and guerrilla groups, who also carry the blame for sparking observed looting and other violence. Duque said on May 18 that he had ordered “the increase of all operational capacity of our public security forces on the ground to – together with mayors and governors – unblock the roads of our country with strict adherence to human rights.” According to Duque’s administration, the blockades and vandalism have cost Colombia around $1.6 billion and road closures halted the transport of 700,000 tonnes of food.

The recent calls to end police brutality and economic inequality are nothing new and, in fact, were focal points of discussion for the past two years in Colombia. From November 2019 to March 2020, a year after President Duque was elected, various union organizations joined to form the National Strike Committee. The group planned a one-day demonstration over stalled reforms to address rising economic inequality as well as government corruption and violence. This movement gained momentum through social media, culminating in a historic form of protest characterized by banging on pans and other utensils (cacerolazos). The actions were replicated in most of the country’s neighbourhoods and, in peak times, involved more than 1 million people. The National Strike Committee agreed to meet with Duque in March after a young protester died following an altercation with the country’s anti-riot squad.

The manner in which the recent demonstrations obtained mainstream attention draws parallels yet also yields some exceptions with the previous protest. Both cases garnered substantial awareness within mainstream media. Secondly, public opinion for the 2019, 2020, and 2021 demonstrations shifted greater attention and support towards the elimination of police brutality, economic inequality, and the violence perpetrated against indigenous groups.

One major difference is that the National Strike Committee was previously unable to accomplish any legislative or institutional changes for the aforementioned issues – along with no changes to any leadership within the current administration. The current demonstration, however, has already achieved institutional change and has pressured President Duque to abandon his tax reform proposal. The same can be said for electoral consequences, whether intended or unintended.

More importantly, the manner in which the National Strike Committee protest unfolded serves as a reminder as to why the 2021 protests will likely prove more successful in inducing long-term institutional change. According to Zeynep Tufekci, a contributing writer at The Atlantic and associate professor at the University of North Carolina, protests work – though not in the manner and timeframe they’re associated with. Tufekci explains that protests may look appealing in the short term, but much of their power is derived in the following years and is dependent on the will of both the protesters and surrounding society.

Tufekci suggests that if the short-term is considered, protests can only be successful to the extent that they can scare authorities into changing their behaviour through high-risk or difficult-to-pull-off actions. This becomes especially pertinent given the resources a state possesses. Governments hold much more capacity to compel demonstrators to withdraw from their movements, such as through the imposition of anti-riot police.

Instead, Tufekci comments that movements are powerful because they change the lives and beliefs of people – even those that are not necessarily participants. In the long term, protests work because they highlight that the legitimacy of the government has become compromised.

Without legitimacy, Tufekci states that a society is unable to govern itself. The absence of this principle explains why authorities sometimes cannot repress protester behaviour until they relinquish their power. Moreover, it explains why governments often succumb to protester demands. Using Colombia as an example, President Duque has demonstrated the state’s capacity in compelling demonstrators to stop undesired behaviour such as looting or rioting by promising discussion with protesters. However, true to Tufekci’s model,  authorities cannot force demonstrators to suddenly regain faith in the government: “It is difficult to coerce enthusiasm, competence, and creativity out of a discouraged, beaten-down people.”

The true accomplishment of the 2021 anti-government protests should not be the legislative withdrawal of the tax proposal. That is the short-term way of viewing these protests. The government is acting upon this perceived threat, but the very same government did not enact any institutional change a year prior to the National Strike Committee protest.

Instead, what should be considered is why the demonstrations are continuing past its fourth week – despite the President withdrawing the proposal that supposedly sparked the protests. The recent demonstrations have provided catalysts to the discussion of the potential loss of legitimacy with Duque’s government. The message conveyed by these protests becomes more salient to the causal viewer given the repression that they overcome – especially with regards to police brutality. There’s no doubt that, in the long-term, the potential of protests lies in their capability to shape public opinion, turn ordinary citizens into lifelong activists, and empower groups by unifying them. United under the purpose of demanding social change through collective action, protests in Colombia and around the world can represent a “threat” to authorities.

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