By Eeva Ruuska
A wave of deadly anti-government demonstrations and violent unrest have engulfed urban hubs of Colombia in at least 27 of the country’s 32 departments. Tens of thousands of people first participated in a national strike and protests on 28 April to denounce a tax reform bill promoted by President Iván Duque as a response to an economic downturn aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first protests were followed by increasing incidents of unrest, vandalism and deadly clashes between security personnel and demonstrators. The heavy-handed response of security forces to quell riots in Cali, Bogotá and Medellín as well as other cities has left at least three dozen people dead and hundreds more injured or detained. On 2 May, Duque gave in and rescinded his planned bill which would have increased the burden on the already deprived middle-class. The protests, however, did not abate as demonstrators refocused their attention towards other long-standing social grievances that have been left unvented under COVID-19 restrictions. The protesters are now picking up where they left off during the November 2019-February 2020 demonstrations.
The pandemic has decreased the country’s GDP by nearly seven percent in 2020, spiked unemployment and pushed some 3.5 million additional people into poverty, increasing the population below the poverty line to over 40 percent. In parallel, violence in rural areas has been increasing since the 2016 peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Hundreds of social leaders are being killed by armed groups including in Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Nariño and Chocó departments to consolidate and expand their territorial control. Instead of delivering promised social and economic reforms in conflict-ridden areas, the government’s default response to outbreaks of violence has been to deploy more troops.
The ongoing third and most severe wave of the pandemic yet has not limited the demonstrations. While the great majority of protests have been peaceful, authorities have blamed the attacks on police stations, the torching of buses and incidents of looting in cities such as Cali to alleged protesters hired by FARC dissidents, the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and urban gangs. Meanwhile, authorities have refrained from condemning reported cases of police misconduct, further fueling the outrage of demonstrators.
Calls by President Duque to hold National Dialogues to resolve the situation are likely to go unheard by some civil society actors who believe Duque did not fulfill his promises in the previous rounds of negotiations in 2019. Duque’s popularity has significantly dropped since the beginning of the pandemic. Demonstrators now include teachers, doctors, students, transport workers and trade unionists who are likely to continue their protests ahead of the 2022 presidential election with a widened scope to demand better living conditions for citizens amid despair caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as structural changes in the police forces, a repeal of health reforms and protection of social leaders and ex-FARC combatants. The demonstrations could spread to other countries in Latin America that share the same combustible economic and social conditions, as a continuation of the protest movement that swept Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua and other countries in the region in late 2019.
Eeva Ruuska is a Mexico-based political and security risk analyst covering Latin America.