On November 21, massive protests took place throughout Colombia; the largest at least since 1977, over 40 years ago. Though limited labor union strikes and university student protests are fairly common in Colombia, this was a public action unseen in Colombia for at least two generations. Overwhelmingly peaceful protest marches took place in every major city in Colombia, and in many smaller cities, villages and hamlets.
Q: Were the strikes violent?
A: It is important to note that the strikes were with few exceptions, inclusive and non-violent. In Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Colombia’s second largest city of Medellín, there were only minor incidents. Medellín’s metro system continued to operate. Cali and the impoverished Pacific port city of Buenaventura experienced some looting in limited areas.
In Bogotá the marches were calm and orderly in most areas. However in some areas the protests turned violent, with most violence directed towards the government and government assets such as the city’s Transmilenio and SiTP bus systems. It is important to note that a significant portion of the violence in Bogota appears to be police instigated. Police have often been denounced in the past as disguising as protesters and infiltrating protests, and apparently it is the case as verified by major Colombian media. Early in the day, two police were caught attempting to infiltrate the march in Bogotá. One of the major issues presented by the protesters is bad behavior by the police, especially the ESMAD (riot police), and ineptitude by the leadership of the security forces. In October the Defense Minister was ousted after the military bombed a camp of FARC dissidents but ended up killing at least 8 children who may have been captured against their will.
Most of the violent exceptions shown on international news channels took place in the poor neighborhoods in the south and west of Bogotá, and away from mainstream business and tourist areas. Medellín and Cartagena were free of violent protests. 3 police were killed by an improvised device in a small town in a troubled area in Southwest Colombia.
Q: What started it?
A: Labor unions originally called for a strike to protest certain economic proposals put forth by the current government, which probably would not have passed even without a protest. A business group proposed lowering the minimum wage for younger workers, an hourly wage (Colombians traditionally receive a monthly salary), and several measures adjusting pension and health contributions. Some members of Duque’s party in congress were considering the measure.
Normally this would not attract much attention outside of organized labor, but a year ago, Students protested, and teachers held national strikes protesting education funding. Duque’s administration promised additional funding for education, but a year later, students and teachers claim that the government reneged on its promises so they joined the strike.
From there, the movement caught the national zeitgeist and general mood of dissatisfaction against the current administration. Indigenous tribes and afrocolombians both suffering violence and forced displacement at the hands of land robbers and narcotrafickers were already upset with the government for not taking enough action to protect them joined in the strike. Even Colombia’s other conservative parties, who don’t want to be seen as close to the unpopular president joined in.
Q: What do the protesters want?
A: It is not just one thing. In this case there are lots of people protesting lots of different things. Many if not most people belong to multiple of the following groups:
- Students and teachers claim the government has not kept its promises regarding education funding.
- Labor Unions protest the (failed) proposals to decrease the minimum wage for younger workers, add hourly wages allowing part time workers, and increases in pension and healthcare contributions.
- Peace advocates: A broad segment of the population is upset with the Duque administration’s deliberate foot-dragging in implementing the peace agreement reached with the FARC by former President Juan Manuel Santos in 2016. There is support for implementation of the peace agreement across the political spectrum, except in Ivan Duque’s Centro Democratico party, which holds a minority of seats in congress and is deeply unpopular.
- Indigenous Colombians (Native South American tribes): There is an epidemic of killings of Indigenous Colombians and their leaders that has flared during the current administration. While nobody is accusing the government of organizing the killing, the government is faulted for adequately taking steps to fight the violence and prosecute those responsible. Duque has refused to meet with indigenous leaders, sending a signal that they are not a priority for his administration—or that their lives don’t sufficiently matter to him, and emboldening the perpetrators. Most of the violence appears to be committed by land thieves, and narcotrafickers who want isolated rural lands to conduct their illegal activities unseen.
- Afro-Colombian groups and their supporters are protesting for reasons identical to the indigenous groups. Afro-Colombians tend to inhabit the sparsely populated coastal lowlands desired by drug traffickers and the illegal mining industry, which tends to be controlled by the same violent mafias that control international drug trafficking.
- Desplazados (internally displaced refugees) and victims of violence want Duque to take the implementation of the peace accords more seriously. The government also has certain legal obligations to support these groups and ensure that they see justice. Many victims say the current administration is ignoring them.
- Anticorruption advocates: Duque’s political patron Alvaro Uribe is on trial for witness tampering and accused of “parapolitics” or collaborating with paramilitary forces. Uribe’s party, essentially made up of his hand-picked supporters, has consistently tried to run interference for the caudillo (political strongman) in the legislature. With Uribe now on trial and facing prison, clean government advocates from across the political spectrum are voicing their displeasure.
- Left wing ideologues already are opposed to the current administration and their generally center right economic policies.
- Right wing ideologues and centrists, from conservative parties such as “The Conservative Party” and Cambio Radical who want to distance themselves from the current administration at all costs.
- Other groups: The LGBT community, environmental activists, there were even protesters demanding an end to shark fishing. Practically any organized group you can think of feeling any dissatisfaction with the current administration was represented to some degree.
Below a protester holds a sign demanding an end to shark fishing in Colombia:
— ruben arango (@rubenarango2003) November 21, 2019
Q: If the current administration is so unpopular, how did it take power?
A: Colombia’s 2018 presidential elections saw a first round with multiple candidates. The three major candidates were Ivan Duque, supported by Alvaro Uribe and his right-wing Centro Democratico party, centrist former mayor of Medellín Sergio Fajardo, and far left candidate Gustavo Petro. Petro was once a Marxist militant and member of the armed M-19 revolutionary group and is a former mayor of Bogotá.
The crisis in Venezuela and economic morass of Argentina has left average Colombians with little appetite for leftist revolutionary adventurers these days. When the FARC laid down arms and became a political party after the 2016 peace accords, they won zero seats in congress.
As the top two vote getters, establishment Ivan Duque faced populist Gustavo Petro in a runoff. Centrists, fearful of Petro’s revolutionary past and his unpopular term as mayor of Bogotá (he was temporarily removed from office for causing a garbage crisis in the city of 9 million), supported Duque as an inexperienced, but more predictable choice. Petro also did not help himself with his habit of picking fights with center-left and centrist leaders who might otherwise at least consider political cooperation with him.
In this year’s local elections held in October, President Duque’s Centro Democratico did embarrassingly poorly, sending a strong message to the president and his congressional minority that they in no way have a mandate. Left wing parties such as Petro’s Colombia Humana also were rejected, with voters expressing a centrist, reformer mood.
Q: Are the protests anti-American or anti-foreign?
A: No. The protests are largely over domestic issues. You can certainly find almost every kind of political opinion within the vast number of protesters, but these protests are overwhelmingly domestic in nature. The major issues are almost entirely about domestic policy. The protests are directed at the current presidential administration and not at foreign businesses or tourists. The protests are not about foreigners or foreign policy, and protesters are not looking for foreigners. Still, the prudent traveler will seek avoid protests in unfamiliar areas.
Q: Is it safe to travel to Colombia?
A: Yes, generally as safe as normal. Business and tourism travel to Colombia should not face any distress. The first two days of the protests, some flights were delayed or cancelled but travel has largely returned to normal. Within the cities, most businesses are functioning normally, grocery stores and shopping malls are open, and the vast majority of businesses are operating as normal. If you have any travel plans, check with your venue, travel provider and hosts for any last-minute updates. Travelers anywhere would be well advised to avoid protests or large groups of upset people under any circumstance, and in any country.
Q: What will happen now?
A: After initially resisting, the President has agreed to meet with strike representatives. Hopefully the government will take some of their concerns seriously, especially those that have broad support such as the peace process, protection of the population, and attention to education. The government has already tapped the state-owned petroleum company Ecopetrol for a billion dollars to spend on initiatives. If the administration continues to drag its feet, we can expect unrest to intensify in 2020.
It is unlikely to see, and no one seems to be asking for, significant changes to Colombia’s political structure, such as we are seeing in Chile or Venezuela, nor is there a constitutional crisis such as in Bolivia or Peru. The economy though challenged is fundamentally sound and there is no debt or liquidity crisis.
Subscribe to Finance Colombia for free using the yellow box below to stay current.
Headline photo, Cali, Colombia: Roboting – CC BY-SA 4.0,
Front page photo, Bogotá, Colombia: EEIM – CC BY-SA 4.0,