A new Latin American hope: The Colombian people have lost their fear

Colombia resiste

Author: Luciana Cadahia

Translated by: Catalina Vallejo Piedrahíta

Photography: Patrick Kane

Since 1977, Colombia had not lived such an intense scene of protests. Unlike other countries in the region, the development of Colombian social unrest has had unique characteristics, due to two factors: armed conflict and drug trafficking. Both factors have functioned as repressive mechanisms to keep wide-reaching popular mobilization attempts at bay. In Colombia, raising one’s voice or promoting social mobilization puts the own life at risk, because the state will use the excuse of armed conflict to accuse individuals −symbolically or judicially− of a guerrilla combatant, a terrorist, or a drug trafficker. At worst, they will murder them. Through this dictatorship-like mechanism, is how the Colombian state reduces the capacity of unions, student organizations, farmers organizations, Indigenous groups, and Afro-descendant communities. However, since the signing of the Peace Agreement, this situation began to change. In other words, it became thinkable that in Colombia social conflicts could be dealt with by means other than violence, and thus social stigmatization would gradually cease. Younger generations, who knew no other than the government of ex-president Santos, even forged the conviction that Colombia could be a different country and learned that ‘Uribismo’ was a nightmare of the past.

However, Ivan Duque’s 2018 presidential triumph put Uribismo back at the centre of the scene. The nightmare of the past became a horizon of a dark future. Many of us warned that this could happen if Duque won the election. But the Colombian business sector along with the big media and the liberal elite of the cultural, political, and academic sectors were the main ones responsible for creating the deliriant image that Duque, although he represented Uribe’s party was not a Uribist.

What did Duque’s presidential triumph mean? The shattering of the Peace Agreement, a return to a war agenda, and reawakening the ghosts of armed conflict and drug trafficking to be able to persecute and assassinate opposition voices again. And to this, Duque added lousy management of the economy and an unprecedented crisis in the country. Unlike the rest of the region, Colombia −thanks to the illegal narco-economy−, had had robust accounts and did not need to accept the IMF blackmail. Why destroy the country −economically− if armed conflict and drug trafficking already functioned as the perfect mechanism for social control and for the neoliberal agenda?

Now, Duque brought us back to a war agenda, but the country had already changed and he and his supreme chief, Uribe, could not see it. What did this mean? An unprecedented social outburst −twinned with the 2019 Chilean protests. Colombian youth harnessed the social demonstrations, which were joined by the Indigenous movements, the Afro-Colombian movement, and other social sectors of the country. The pandemic interrupted that wave of social unrest until it resumed last week. The trigger was widespread rejection of a tax reform that disproportionately affected the country’s middle class and the most economically disadvantaged. And this reform is connected to another, from2019, which benefits the most powerful and privileged sectors. Both reforms, coupled with a recent loan requested from the IMF, left Colombia in a delicate economic situation, and with a national government and a set of local governments unable to provide solutions to the most affected sectors. Currently, 42 percent of Colombians are on the poverty line.

Thus, the rejection of the tax reform was just a part of a much deeper unease: with war and the widespread impoverishment of Colombians. That is why the withdrawal of the recent tax reform bill and the resignation of his architect, the Finance Minister Carrasquilla was not enough to soothe the social discontent.

To this picture, we must add what is now news around the world: the brutal police crackdown on protests. This repression must be understood in the context of a state that is trained for war, that is, the Colombian government has made civilians its military target. The police are shooting protesters and terrorizing −at night and with different types of firearms− the residents of deprived neighborhoods. At the same time, the army has intervened in the main cities. As of today, the Colombian people cannot fully exercise their civil rights. We have all become a military target. Anyone could die in Colombia these days.

Additionally, in Twitter, former President Alvaro Uribe elaborates delusional theories about a “dissipated molecular revolution” (a term used by a neo-Nazi Chilean guru who trains the Colombian army and police to combat the “neo-communism of deconstruction”) prompting public forces and “good citizens” (referring to their paramilitary and drug-trafficking allies) to attack the people who protest in the streets. Mayors like Claudia Lopez align with the delusions of Uribism by not condemning these acts of violence. Conversely, they have created the figure of the “vándalo” (petty criminal/vandal) to justify the action of the police and army, and they use the discourse that the guerrillas have co-opted the protests. However, this old narrative strategy no longer works for them. Why not? Firstly, thanks to the images circulating globally, showing that the people are protesting peacefully. Secondly, because the guerrillas are complying with their part in the Peace Agreement. And thirdly, because it is of common knowledge that it is the same Uribismo itself that infiltrates and escalates the demonstrations, to a point where the use of police violence is justified.

Uribismo, represented by Ivan Duque, is cornered. Centrists (elite liberals) want to use the two-demons theory, to imply that both the government and the people are to blame for the violence. The historic pact led by Gustavo Petro is the only one that is up to the task. It calls for a democratic negotiating table where the government and the organizations leading the protest meet.

One last element illustrates well the dimension of the situation: the Colombian government is studying the possibility of declaring a “state of emergency”. It is the last remaining war card to disrupt the rule of law, postpone next year’s presidential election, and prolong the current term of office through a low-intensity war against its own population − and the threat of war with Venezuela. It seems to me that this wet Uribist dream has little chance of coming true. Because the post-Trumpist scenario does not seem to be up for navigating war waters between Russia (through Venezuela) and the United States (through Colombia). Colombia has entered uncertain territory, one that the country is not used to. It is not implausible that, for the first time in recent Colombian history, a Colombian President were forced to resign from office.

*This text was originally published in Spanish in the #lacanemancipa on the Hypotheses platform.

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