Colombia is bracing for a national strike on Thursday that could cripple air traffic and result in the country’s largest anti-government protests in years. Demonstrators in Colombia have blasted President Iván Duque’s government over the massacres of social leaders, pension reform plans and other grievances. What is at the root of citizens’ discontent in Colombia, and will the nation see the same sort of violence break out that has occurred in other countries of the region? Why has Duque’s popularity, which in a recent Gallup poll sank to 26 percent, plummeted? What must he do in order to pacify the protests and address Colombians’ concerns?
Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: “With social grievances exploding around the hemisphere, it has seemed only a matter of time until Colombia experienced a similar outpouring of discontent. The country’s economy is growing at 3.3 percent—far above the regional average—and foreign investment, mostly in the mining and hydrocarbons sectors, is pouring in. But frustration with double-digit unemployment, labor sector informality at around 50 percent and a rising cost of living amid a deteriorating peso has grown. Inequality in Colombia is worse than in Chile, Peru and Ecuador (but better than in Brazil), such that any discourse that hints at lowering corporate tax rates, making labor markets more ‘flexible’ or privatizing public pension funds has galvanized a sense that the Duque government cares more about energizing the private sector than it does about average Colombians. Labor unions represent a tiny portion of Colombian workers, but the call last month for a general strike has galvanized multiple interests fed up with the slow pace of implementation of the peace agreement, the gap in quality between public and private education and health care, corruption and a host of other fairness issues. It is hard to imagine that Colombia will escape the acts of violence and vandalism that have marred other recent protests in the region. But the response to these criminal acts should not overshadow the broader message, not only of the demonstrations but also of Colombia’s mid-term elections last month: Colombians are demanding broadly inclusive, clean government and an end to political extremism. Capturing those currents and delivering on them will strengthen Colombian democracy in the long run.”
Erin McFee, postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of Chicago and visiting fellow at the Latin America and Caribbean Centre of the London School of Economics: “Colombians mobilizing in Thursday’s anti-government protests will be doing so for a variety of motives. And as much as their motives for protest are varied, so too are the many legitimate reasons for citizen discontent with the current administration. These include lackluster political will for implementing the peace accord and an inability to produce protection measures for social leaders under threat and demobilized FARC members who have complied with the accord. The government has also been unable to provide justice for hundreds who have already been assassinated and has seemingly interminable unwillingness to invest in quality infrastructure developments in the regions that need them the most. The many socioeconomic and political challenges that Colombia currently faces are further undermined by a government whose legitimacy has been questionable since the election platform was based on the global trend of using polarizing discourse as a political strategy. Last month’s local elections, in which the Democratic Center party lost ground, suggest citizens have grown tired of this strategy. The Duque government needs to take steps to address human rights issues in a way that demonstrates political will (such as through dedicated budgets) and sustainability (such as through programs institutionalized to the extent that they are able to weather the changing tides of political priorities that come with each administration). It is certainly a delicate situation in terms of public security, but last month’s elections offer hope in terms of ending the pattern of using violence as a political tool in the country.”
Maria Velez de Berliner, managing director of RTG-Red Team Group, Inc.: “Colombians will demonstrate against valid grievances: insecurity and corruption; politically driven assassinations; and deficiencies in education, health care and pensions. Colombians’ proclivity to settle grievances, often murderously and destructively, heightens expectations of violent encounters among demonstrators and damage to private and public infrastructure. There is a slight correlation among recent strikes in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Chile, but they are not direct causations of what might happen in Colombia. Each country is different from the others. Claims by respected analysts equating those strikes to a communist conspiracy led by the Forum of São Paulo add to the apprehension that permeates Colombia, hence the formation of groups such as Jaime Restrepo’s ‘El Patriota’ Civil Resistance Against Disturbances in Medellín and similar groups in Bogotá. These groups claim they will act within the law, as adjuncts to military and police forces, should violent events overcome them. Whether all sides act within the law remains to be seen. Duque’s government is trying to calm public anxiety by delegating to governors and mayors the level of security required in their respective states and municipalities. This nationwide strike will find a weakened President Duque countered by a united congressional opposition. A growing number of Colombians sees Duque as detached and incapable of governing a country overwhelmed by security and social issues, with high levels of youth unemployment and an expected economic downturn. Hopefully, for once, Colombians will protest peacefully, protected by the state monopoly of force. Otherwise, Colombia will become a democracy under siege, with possible and probable deleterious consequences in the 2022 elections, or sooner.”