Yesterday in Colombia the country saw massive protests in every major city and in many small towns and even rural villages. The marches, largely peaceful with some exceptions in Bogotá, Cali and some looting in the small, impoverished city of Buenaventura, were a perfect storm of discontent across a wide range of causes and issues that go beyond partisan politics.
Indigenous populations protested the government’s failure to protect them against land robbers and narco traffickers, people are unsatisfied with the government’s foot-dragging and apparent backtracking on implementation of the historic peace process, students and teachers are upset at the government’s failure to keep its promises made last year after teacher strikes and student protests, and pensioners and labor unions are upset over a myriad of issues.
“This has to have shaken the government at its core” – Sergio Guzmán
Finance Colombia: Sergio, today we have seen large nationwide protests across Colombia, even in small towns. Do you see the Colombian actions today as part of a larger wave of discontent across Latin America, or really more due to domestic issues here in Colombia, with coincidental timing with what’s going on in the rest of Latin America – but not necessarily tied to what’s happening in Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, etc.?
Sergio Guzmán: According to some estimates early on, more than 800,000 people in Bogotá alone marched, as well as elsewhere throughout the country. Namely in Medellín and Barranquilla, Cali, La Guajira, and Buenaventura; it was a nationwide protest of very large proportions. It was much larger than the government expected and frankly much larger than the opposition expected. It was mostly peaceful, which is something remarkable given the increased antipathy that was taking place between the government and the protesters.
It’s easy to draw a comparison between Colombia and Bolivia and Chile and Ecuador, but I think that misses a point. Sure there is a contagion effect of social unrest that shares some causes, but like you point out, I think it’s really discontent with this government in particular, not with Latin America as a whole, not with capitalism or neoliberalism more broadly, I think that that’s taking a very narrow view of the protests.
It’s important to point out that what’s happening in the rest of Latin America does influence what’s happening in Colombia, and you saw Mapuche (Chile’s largest Indigenous group) flags and indigenous flags pointing out Bolivia, but there are a lot of domestic issues that have to do with the implementation of the peace agreement, that have to do with pension reform, the labor reform, the overall state of the economy, the high unemployment rates, the lack of popularity of this government, so it’s not easy to point the finger at Chile, Bolivia & Ecuador to sustain that.
“The question now becomes: Is this the kind of relationship that Duque wants to have with the body politic for the remainder of his three years in office, or will he look to forge a new consensus?” – Sergio Guzmán
Finance Colombia: The discontent here seems more basic than right / left. It seems that a majority of society is discontent; from indigenous groups to students, to unions, certainly the left, but this march seems less political, and more a sign of broader discontent, What does this say about public sentiment?
Sergio Guzmán: I think that the public sentiment is changing quite significantly. We already know that President Duque is not a popular president, Gallup has him at a 26% approval rating, this is his lowest rating yet. It’s not something that President Duque is just finding out, he has done some pretty unpopular things in the past, but one of the things that I think is key, is it’s not like he wasn’t warned that this was going to happen. He has had warnings that this was going to happen.
He has had obviously the other countries’ examples to follow, but crucially he had local elections on October 27th that did not endorse his party, or his government policies strongly; quite the opposite in fact. And I think that should have made Duque realize that he needs to adjust—and sadly since then, since that election he hasn’t, which has also enraged people who oppose his government, added to the fact that we had the unfortunate event of the bombing where 8 to 18 children, depending on who you hear, lost their lives. I think that is one of the crucial things. Of course they were recruited by FARC dissidents, which is a complication in and of itself, but the fact is that cost the minister of defense his job and the person they replaced him with is not necessarily someone who builds bridges with the opposition, but somebody who represents the same old-timers.
Finance Colombia: Many would say the government overreacted. There has been some acts of violence and vandalism, but the marches have been overall peaceful. not riots like we see in some other countries. How would you characterize the Duque administration’s reactions, and what does this say about the state of his presidency at this point?
Sergio Guzmán: I characterize the government as pretty temperate in its response so far. I can’t say the same about riot police, who have a history of reacting to these protests with a heavy hand and did so at the tail end (yesterday). I think that’s unfortunate the way the protest ended. At least the first statements from people like Vice President Ramirez and Minister of The Interior Gutierrez recognized that the protest was by and large peaceful and multitudinous, so the question now becomes how the government is going to respond.
So similar to what you asked, I think the problem is the march was much larger than the government expected but (not enough) to effectively push the government to effect change. This has to have shaken the government at its core, that this was such a large protest, but the government hasn’t called other factions to come and dialogue, there are no recognizable leaders, the requests are diffuse, and this protest is not likely to last for another consecutive day so that timing releases some steam and reduces the pressure a little bit on Duque to react immediately. The question now becomes: Is this the kind of relationship that Duque wants to have with the body politic for the remainder of his three years in office, or will he look to forge a new consensus?
Sergio Guzmán is an expert on political and business risk, and co-founder of Colombia Risk Analysis, where they provide clients with analysis, context and projections about the political, economic and social environment that affects Colombia and the region. To receive their monthly newsletter published in both English and Spanish, please click here.