BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA—Colombia is working on a “fundamental pact” in response to massive protests that have swept the country for a month, President Iván Duque said Thursday at an event co-hosted by the Inter-American Dialogue and the Wilson Center. In the meantime, he vowed “zero tolerance” for abuse by police officers and called for an end to blockades and “illegal” protests.
Demonstrations that began in late April against a now-canceled tax reform proposal have extended into a second month and evolved into protests over a litany of grievances, including rising poverty and unemployment as well as police violence.
This moment of social reckoning must not only be seen as a crisis, Duque said, but also as an opportunity. “2021 has to be the year of massive vaccination, of safe recovery, of attending the youth’s needs … and [of] the poorest of the poor, and stabilize our economy,” the president said.
A key part of the pact are initiatives that support the country’s young people. This includes Colombia’s “most ambitious program on public education,” which provides free public education for low-income and middle-class youth, Duque said. Additionally, the government is launching a program that will subsidize social security costs for companies or contractors that hire people between the ages of 18 and 28, and there will be an election in November of local, regional and national youth district councils that will be able to participate in policymaking, Duque added.
The president said the United States, through USAID and private companies, and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank can support the plan by accelerating the creation of jobs for young people in Colombia.
The United States can also help by supporting a policy of near-shoring, which would bring outsourced work in Asia back to the Americas. This would generate employment, reduce immigration pressure at the U.S. southern border and help build lasting development impacts in Latin American countries, including Colombia, Duque added. “If there is a big commitment, bipartisan [and] bicameral … this is going to be transformational in our region,” he said.
Duque added that the United States can also help influence ratings agencies not to judge emerging markets with pre-pandemic indicators. “For the time being, we have to face this with extraordinary measures and extraordinary eyes … because there is going to be a major need by emerging markets in terms of raising debt in the following years.”
S&P Global Ratings recently cut Colombia’s rating to junk status following the government’s withdrawal of its tax reform plan. Fitch rates Colombia at its lowest investment-grade rating, and Moody’s rates it at two notches above junk status. One more junk rating would lead to Colombia being automatically dropped from indexes used by investors, triggering automatic selling of Colombian assets.