Although protests in Colombia have been increasing since the 1990s, they have grown noticeably following the signing of the peace agreements in 2016. Until then —with few exceptions— protest marches were stigmatized as infiltrated by guerrillas, limiting them to union members, public university students, LGBTI people, and informal workers, excluding other minorities with legitimate claims and an immense apathetic society. A significant part of Colombian society has now demonstrated an increased public expression of its discontent. The government, disconnected from the streets, has failed to understand and manage the new democracy.
Is Social Protest Guaranteed in Colombia?
Over the last three years, three cycles of national demonstrations have been highly representative of citizen discontent. In each of them, the marches have been disproportionately repressed by the police. In 2020, during the second cycle, the Supreme Court of Justice issued a ruling regarding a tutela (a legal mechanism to protect fundamental rights) after a couple of police officers killed a citizen with a taser in a scene reminiscent of George Floyd’s death in the United States. In the ruling, the Court guaranteed the right to protest while ordering the State to “deter, prevent and punish the systematic, violent and arbitrary intervention of the public forces in demonstrations and protests.” We are experiencing the third cycle with this strike, called since April 28 by the same committee of 2019. During these protests, the national government’s response has not only been misguided and ignored the strength of the popular demands but has demonstrated its weakness and its authoritarian tendency in trying to maintain public order. Now the government, the police, and the public ministry have to respond for contempt of Court.
From the outside, the government recognizes peaceful protest, provided it does not cause any disruption, but stigmatizes it in its discourse, in which mentions of vandalism and infiltration of marches by alleged guerrilla dissidents and drug traffickers prevail. The demonstrations in some municipalities have indeed been accompanied by excessive and reprehensible violence, but protest in Colombia has been traditionally peaceful (from 1975 to 2016, only 4% of marches have been violent). This time, the government has been unable to isolate these outbreaks of violence in peaceful protests, becoming directly or indirectly responsible for over thirty deaths, dozens of missing persons, and hundreds of wounded in twenty-four days of demonstrations. Human rights violations have been numerous and very serious, leading to an unprecedented crisis.
Precarious representation and failed participation
If the right to protest has failed to gain traction, other forms of participation and representation in government have been precarious. President Duque’s government has not exactly been a plural government. The ministerial cabinet and several key officers which must be independent have been constituted tightly by friends, university and party colleagues of the president. When demonstrations erupted over the tax reform, the Minister of Finance resigned. Still, his vice minister, who drafted the reform, became the Minister of Foreign Trade, and the Minister of Foreign Trade became the Minister of Finance. The crisis brought the eyes of the international community to Colombia and caused the resignation of the Chancellor who was replaced by the Vicepresident. Such rearrangements are a clear demonstration of an endogamous government.
On the other hand, both the 1991 Constitution and the peace agreement signed with the former FARC guerrillas in 2016 sought to create better mechanisms to ensure a participatory and pluralistic democracy. Unfortunately, several of these promises have been broken. The failure of popular consultations to prevent the imposition of extractive industries in some regions and the death of over 900 social leaders since the peace agreement was signed have progressively reduced the space for citizen participation that demands an escape valve in the streets. Moreover, recent governments, particularly the current one, have not been prone to dialogue with citizens and the use of inclusive channels to involve different sectors of the population in developing, implementing, and monitoring public policies.
Citizens’ Claims in 2021
The straw that broke Colombia’s back was the tax and fiscal reform bill that the government filed in Congress with no political calculus whatsoever. The reform offered to support some social programs and provide aids to small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as green taxes, as sweetener for the punch of the VAT increase on public utilities such as water and funeral services amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a toll of 500 deaths per day. In particular, the reform intended, at the wrong time, to increase the tax base in middle-class sectors without offering to significantly increase tax collection or reduce exemptions for the very wealthy sectors.
The social outburst has been going on for 24 days, even though President Duque withdrew the tax bill, the Minister of Finance resigned and the health bill flunked. And the demonstrations will continue because the underlying problem is much more severe. The demands reflect tensions accumulated over the years for economic reasons, such as the high level of poverty (42% of the population goes to bed with some degree of hunger and one million people live in extreme poverty as reported by the National Department of Statistics a few days ago) and for social reasons in which Colombia takes the rather unfortunate prize with one of the highest levels of inequality in the region (0.544 GINI) without achieving effective redistribution. This, compounded with the fact that one of the historical reasons for protesting is the breach of previous arrangements, shows that there will be discontent for a while.
The strike committee has presented seven issues of variable magnitude to negotiate with the government. Some issues are specific, such as better vaccination, basic income of one monthly legal minimum wage, subsidies for small and medium-sized enterprises, zero tuition fees, and suspend the alternating school schedules and the fumigation with glyphosate. There are, however, more generic claims, such as the defense of the national production and non-discrimination based on gender, sexual diversity and ethnicity, that will be more difficult to deal with.
In addition to these demands, the police must be reformed to avoid the abuses and violations documented by several NGOs and journalists. Furthermore, the causes of the current unrest are intertwined with the loss of confidence in the institutions, whether due to impunity, corruption or non-compliance (for example, according to the last report by the Kroc Institute, almost 60% of the provisions of the peace agreement were at a minimum stage of implementation or had not been initiated) and are exacerbated by a culture of citizen disregard for rules and a massive arms market that feed on drug trafficking. The incendiary cocktail is ready.
What to do?
Confronted with the violence in the protests, the government and political leaders, as well as social leaders, must first promote the de-escalation, putting human rights at the center of the crisis management, as Rodrigo Uprimny has proposed. We must all condemn violence, including police violence, especially the government, which is responsible for maintaining the public order. This way, we will avoid any authoritarian outcome. The State control bodies must independently assume their investigative and accountability role. The international community, through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (650 international organizations requested a visit), the United Nations and international cooperation should set their eyes on Colombia.
The next step is effective two-tier dialogue. First, with those who called for a strike. If the tax reform was the spark that ignited the flame, we must heed the socioeconomic claims of the strike committee, focusing on the voice of students, indigenous people, afro-descendants and unionists that comprise the committee. But since the strike committee is not the only one protesting, the groups of students, young people, unemployed, and women who march and ask to be heard also have demands that we must listen to in assemblies or open meetings to compile their disagreement and offer inclusive public policies as a response.
Finally, and under a broad and protective vision, nonconformity is not dealt with by force but by politics. The government must negotiate honestly and effectively with Congress, which must also offer viable solutions to achieve a broad dialogue that brings together different forces and offers solid public policies and norms that will restore the current weakened State. This is urgent to avoid that things remain the same or, even worse, that violence escalates, prevents the exercise of democracy, and definitively ruptures the rule of law in Colombia.
 This article was written on May 21, 2021.
*Director of Dejusticia
Photo: AP Photo/Andres Gonzalez