Colombia’s unrest shows the wounds of exclusion

Rising poverty, police brutality, and a stagnant peace agreement are failures the Duque government must correct.

Photo by Byron Jimenez on Unsplash

Scenes from Colombia show a country burning at both ends. At one, candlelight vigils honour the protestors injured and killed in confrontations with police; at the other, vehicles and bus stations blaze.

Inequality, violence, and corruption drive the demands behind Colombia’s protests, now entering their fourth week. Demonstrations that began in opposition to a regressive tax reform have spiralled following violent crackdowns against protestors by government forces.

The National Strike Committee, composed of labour unions and student groups, scored several policy victories after the government withdrew two contentious reforms.

In the grip of recession, with GDP down 6.8% in 2020, President Ivan Duque’s tax plan proposed to lower the income tax threshold, add a 19% value-added-tax on basic foods (meat, fish, eggs, milk, rice), medicines, and electronics, and introduce various tax exemptions to the private sector.

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic — which caused over 3 million infections and 84,000 deaths in Colombia — the health reform sought to increase the role of private companies in the sector and allow the merger of private health providers with public hospitals.

A wave of demonstrations in Colombia from 2019–2020 rallied for similar grievances; income inequality, potential austerity measures, corruption, and police brutality among them. Then, the Duque government pledged dialogue, an act of listening.

The reforms proposed show what the government took on board. In 2020, an estimated 3.5 million people in Colombia fell into poverty, raising the country’s poverty rate to 42.5% of the population. The pandemic is not uniquely responsible; income inequality, undernourishment, housing deficiency, and poverty in both urban and rural Colombia also increased in 2019, following the election of President Duque.

The disconnect between political elites and Colombians at large has again torn open the wounds of exclusion. Estranged from policymaking and economic life, the current wave of protests continue with a spirit of rising indignation towards the government.

Excess violent force towards the protestors is a clear accelerant. Temblores registers 2905 assorted cases of police brutality as of May 21st, and 27 cases of sexual violence and gender-based attacks committed by Colombia’s security forces. Indepaz reports at least 51 confirmed homicides.

Hundreds are believed missing, though discrepancies between Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman and local NGOs obscure the true scale of the disappearances.

Fast, fatal physical violence marks the government’s approach to dissent; towards peace, negligence burns slow.

Progress towards fulfilling the Peace Agreement’s six key points has been stagnant. From a report presented in August 2020 by Colombian senators and opposition members, just 0.08% of the intended 3 million hectares of the Land Fund had been allocated. At the current pace of compensation, the report found that it would take 43 years for the Colombian government to provide reparations to all of the conflict’s victims.

The government pledged funding and assistance for productive projects to support the re-incorporation of ex-combatants and provide sustainable alternatives to the production of crops for illicit drugs. By July 2020, 71.3% of ex-combatants had no links to productive projects; just 12% of families subscribed to the crop substitution program had projects.

Without provisions or protection, security guarantees are crumbling. Since the signing of the Peace Agreement in 2016, the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia has verified the killings of 252 ex-FARC combatants.

In 2020, Indepaz registered killings of over 300 human rights defenders and social leaders, including from indigenous, Afro-Colombian, farming, and LGBTIQ+ communities. As of May 25th, Indepaz reports 39 civilian massacres and 146 victims from 2021.

Colombians in need have paid a severe price for their government’s lack of engagement. The escalating violence and distrust show that peace requires consistent economic, social, and political support to work.

As negotiations with the protest leaders continue, the Duque government must commit to policies and initiatives that help Colombians to live safe, prosperous lives with open doors to participate in society. To use the power of governance differently is to invite conflict.

I write about international relations, politics and culture.