A woman lights a candle in a peaceful protest held in the Chapinero sector, Bogotá, Colombia, May, 4, 2021. Photo: Sebastian Delgado C/Shutterstock.com

The new Colombian crisis (or how to indefinitely put off problems)

The protests of the past few weeks are not just a consequence of tax increases or a lack of vaccines – more immediate issues. They are the result of decades of unresolved problems and a wake-up call for Latin America

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Over the past seven decades, Colombia has experienced the most prolonged and bloodthirsty internal war in South America, with left-wing guerrilla groups controlling more than a third of the country (mostly jungle areas) and right-wing paramilitary groups plaguing other regions (smaller areas compared to their Marxist rivals). All of these areas are still studded with explosive mines left by these groups. Also, for much of those same decades, drug trafficking organizations have dominated peripheral localities in some of the big cities. All of this happening while the other “half” of the country, the one supposedly free from these groups, lived in a certain democratic institutionality, with regular elections and a plurality of parties.

In other countries, such a republic would have been the target of several coups d’état, with dictators justifying their existence as the only way for “national pacification.” However, the last coup d’état carried out by the military in Colombia occurred in the distant 1953, when General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla overthrew President Laureano Gómez with the argument of ending the period called La Violencia (a phase of confrontations between the country’s leading political parties). Rojas Pinilla was replaced by a brief military junta, which, in 1958, called for elections. The military never returned to the country’s presidency.

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Ephemeral optimism

Since the peace agreements with the FARC guerrillas in 2016 and the deactivation of a large part of the paramilitary groups in the previous years, the most democratic “half” of the country has undergone a gradual “normalization.”

At the time, an optimistic energy arose (although many remained skeptical) due to the possibility that the end of the civil war would allow for the rapid development of several abandoned areas of the country. However, this general optimism hid a series of problems that the various Colombian governments had permanently put off dealing with.

Among Colombia‘s most urgent problems are the huge social inequality, the lack of explicit and large-scale punishments for the members of the various (left and right) gangs who carried out massacres, rapes, kidnappings, torture, land grabbing, in addition to the frequent murders of community leaders in areas far from large urban centers.

The last straw

In 2019, when President Lenín Moreno ended the fuel subsidies in place since 1974, Ecuador was the stage of intense protests. Subsequently, the indigenous people joined the protests, which paralyzed the country for two weeks. Days later, it was Peru’s turn. Crowds took the streets to protest the controversial impeachment of then-President Martín Vizcarra, who at the time was highly popular for his anti-corruption crusade.

Shortly afterward, protests began in Chile. What started with a demonstration against the increase in the prices of Santiago’s metro tickets ended up encompassing other demands, from complaints against the social security system to the need for a new Constitution (which led to the constituent elections that will be held on April 15th and 16th). Still, in the aftermath, there were also protests in Bolivia and Paraguay.

Colombia was no different. There, however, the protests were dehydrated by President Ivan Duque, who started negotiations, proposed dialogues and social advances, which were, however, gradually “shelved”. Not by chance, the background of the current tension, of the social explosion of late April, had Duke’s tax reform project as its last straw.

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The reform would imply tax increases, especially the introduction of the 19% Value Added Tax (VAT) for services, in addition to the expansion of the taxpayer base. These measures have irritated the population, which is suffering from the biggest economic crisis in decades.

Colombian GDP fell 6.8% last year, and unemployment rose to 15.9%. Currently, 46% of Colombians are in poverty. Another exasperating factor was the health system reform project, which would imply the decentralization of health systems, leaving the responsibility to the provinces (governors and mayors). In some provinces, the system could improve by being administered directly. But in most provinces, with the current fiscal deficit problems, hospital management could be catastrophic, with a drop in quality.

Several sectors fear that, in a short time, in the face of an eventual collapse of the system, the government would implement the privatization of several health areas, a fact that would complicate the access of the poorest Colombians (currently almost half of the country) to the service

The health system is of great concern due to the coronavirus pandemic, since in the main Colombian cities, ICU occupation has passed the 90% range (in Medellín, it has reached 99%). The government, adding failure after failure in managing the crisis, has kept the country in an intermittent lockdown since last year. Recently, it has implemented the system called 4×3, that is, 3 days with all social and economic activities closed and 4 of “normal” operations.

Despite withdrawals and repression, demonstrations continue

On Sunday, May 2, scared by increasingly intense protests, President Duque stepped back and withdrew the tax reform project. But the demonstrations continued. On the next day, Minister Alberto Carrasquilla, author of the reform, resigned. But the demonstrations continued. Subsequently, the new Minister of Finance, José Manuel Restrepo, announced that the government was canceling the purchase of new, modern 14 warplanes as a way to cut public spending and thus try to contain the fiscal deficit of 7.8% of the forecasted GDP for this year. Still, the demonstrations persisted.

It turns out that the reform was not the only reason for the protests. People are also speaking out against the slow vaccination in the country: so far, only 6.19% of Colombians have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and of these, only 2.9% have received both doses.

As it happened in Chile in 2019, the Colombian government fiercely repressed the protesters. That is, on the one hand, it backed off with its reform project, but on the other, it bet on repressing. Duke sent military forces to control some cities, such as Cali, where the demonstrations were more intense. Duque’s political mentor is former president Alvaro Uribe, an apologist for the iron fist.

The Defense Ministry has put 47,500 soldiers on the streets across the country to deal with civilian protesters. In Cali, Duque installed 700 soldiers and 500 men of the truculent ESMAD, the acronym for the anti-riot body. The military presence on the streets had the effect of boosting the protests

On Wednesday, the 5th, the Ombudsman-General of the Republic announced a balance of 24 civilians killed due to intense police repression against the protesters. But the non-governmental organization Temblores said that there would be 37 deceased. According to the NGO, there were 77 cases of shots fired into the eyes of the protesters. The police allegedly sexually abused ten people. In this context, a poster with the words “They are killing us” became common among protesters.

Bogotá’s center-leftist mayor, Claudia López, declared the escalation of violence to be “brutal.” She criticized the violence of the security forces but also of some protesters who, last Thursday, destroyed buses in the public transport system and tried to burn 15 police officers alive inside a police station.

The UN and the European Union have condemned the use of out-of-proportion forces against demonstrators in Colombia. The Attorney General’s Office began investigating the police’s violent actions in several cities.

On Wednesday, the 5th, hundreds of protesters gathered in Plaza Bolívar, in the center of Bogotá, stoned the police at the doors of the Parliament to try to break into the building, something unprecedented. The session that was taking place in the Lower House was suddenly closed. The police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, and the crowd dispersed.

The country remains paralyzed. Protesters block avenues and roads. The military and police forcefully repress, generating more demonstrations. Security forces shoot unarmed civilians, while several groups take advantage of the confusion to prey on commercial establishments. The stores, shaken by the economic stagnation, remain with the blinds low due to fear of attacks by protesters and police shots against their windows.

Young people are the protests’ main protagonists, especially university and high school students. Unions and social organizations also participate, but the large mass of protesters are spontaneously going to the streets – something very similar to what happened in Brazil in 2013

President Iván Duque tried to regain political prominence by offering a dialogue possibility. But there is not a single interlocutor to discuss with. There is a myriad of groups with the most different demands, which complicates a quick negotiation. The whole situation is the ultimate consequence of indefinitely putting off problems; they can not be easily solved when they explode.

To illustrate how extensive the “complaints menu” is, I will briefly mention the case of the indigenous people of the Misak community, who are protesting to claim historical justice. They dropped a statue of the Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar in Cali. They argued that this is a way of claiming the memory of their ancestors murdered and enslaved by the elites.

This is the second Belalcázar statue overthrown in less than a year in the country. Other indigenous groups demand the overthrow of more monuments by Spanish conquerors who acted in Colombian territories, such as Pedro de Heredia, who is in the historic colonial city of Cartagena de Indias. They also demand the removal of statues of Christopher Columbus – a more profound wound since the name of the country itself is a tribute to the Genoese navigator in the service of the Spanish crown.

La minga

In recent days, the role of indigenous communities in the protests has increased. Or, “La Minga Indígena”. “Minga” is the Quechua word that designates a kind of task force with a sense of mobilization and resistance. The presence of “la minga” is an important factor since indigenous people are the group with the most experience in protests across Colombia.

In the past five years, 300 indigenous leaders have been murdered in Colombia. According to the UN, of the 66 different native peoples, 33 are on the verge of extinction. Indigenous people make up 5% of the Colombian population and 63% of them are plagued by poverty.

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The indigenous people are asking for respect for their culture, demanding an end to the actions of the land grabbers and more security against the violence they suffer from the remaining right-wing paramilitary groups, the remains of leftist guerrillas and the “bacrim”, the mafia organizations, which are increasingly powerful.

On Sunday (9), hundreds of indigenous were entering Cali, a city of 2 million inhabitants, when they were attacked by groups of armed civilians. Several indigenous people were wounded by the shots. President Duque decreed curfew and dry law in Cali and sent more troops to the area. The mayor of Cali, Jorge Ospina, declared that what is happening in the city could “run over the whole of Colombia”.

Band-aids or the Chilean path

The country has two paths ahead. One is to put political “band-aids” in this crisis and try to push the problems forward, which would imply a future remake of the current social turmoil. Another path, a more difficult one, but possibly more destined to success, is to follow the Chilean path and create a constituent that tries to resolve the serious political and social pending issues in that country.

Either way, the country will have presidential elections next year. I fear that the turbulent scenario is ideal for all kinds of authoritarian adventures, whether in Jair Bolsonaro mode or Nicolás Maduro mode.

Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes