The news from Colombia is discouraging. Two weeks after the start of widespread protests, at least 42 persons, including a police officer, have lost their lives, and the number of victims continues to rise. More than 1100 cops Y protesters have been injured and it is believed that at least 400 people are missing, according to a local human rights group.
The protests began on April 28 due to an unpopular tax reform. Led by trade unionists, students, small farmers and women’s rights advocates, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, and LGBT people, the protesters are now voicing many other claims related to deep economic inequality, the government’s failure to establish a peace agreement in 2016 with the largest guerrilla group in the country and violence against social leaders. They are also denouncing the response of the security forces in the streets, which has been brutal, disproportionate and indiscriminate.
Colombia cannot afford to allow the fighting in its streets to continue to escalate, and Washington needs to help it find ways out of the crisis. The demands have to be channeled into a real dialogue between the aggrieved sectors and the government. Dialogue must be given priority before there are more deaths, before the possibility of resolving differences peacefully is extinguished.
This is the third wave of mass demonstrations in the country since November 2019. It could continue until the presidential elections in May 2022, which would make the country ungovernable. Or President Iván Duque could adopt the approach taken by the Nicolás Maduro regime in neighboring Venezuela and quell protests with violence, dealing a potentially fatal blow to democracy.
Following the November 2019 demonstrations against the proposed economic measures, inequality, corruption and police violence, Duque agreed to hold formal and unsubstantiated talks in the presidential palace with the group, made up mostly of union leaders, which organized the protests. The members of that group were older white men, unlike the people who were on the streets (now it is becoming point that the National Unemployment Committee, which is in talks with the president, is not representative of the general population either). The 2019 dialogues made no real progress: there was no mediation, advice or delegation to the working groups. By early 2020, just as the protest movement was regaining strength, the pandemic shattered the agenda.
Most of the political leadership and elite Colombian business recognize that dialogue is the only viable way to proceed. But a large part of President Duque’s Democratic Center party, which is a conservative with an authoritarian-populist streak, disagrees.
Duque and his party are not popular. The approval rating of the president is less than 35 percent. The most influential member of the Democratic Center, former President Álvaro Uribe, has an approval rating of 38 percent, well below the solid ratings he enjoyed as president from 2002 to 2010. The party faces a difficult path to maintain the vote. power when Duque ends his one-term presidency in August 2022.
Like other populist parties in the world, the Democratic Center of Uribe y Duque exercises its power through a strategy that consists of aggressively fanning its base: rural landowners, a segment of the business sector, religious conservatives and middle-class Colombians who they demand a strong hand against crime and riots. This strategy is fueled by the current turmoil, especially the vandalism or looting that occurs on the margins of marches that have been largely peaceful.
These episodes of vandalism give Uribe and his colleagues more opportunities to promote the “us versus them” narrative, and thus separate those they call “good people”From the leftist mob. It is a speech that they will take advantage of in the run-up to the elections and that they had not managed to take root after the historic 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, which today is a political party.
However, the Democratic Center seems to be on a war footing and Uribe has been attributing the blame from violence in protests to “city hooligans, far-left politicians who stimulate violence and talk about politics.” He is concerned that “this country has allowed its Armed Forces to weaken” and adds that “there is an international stimulus, especially from Venezuela, to install a regime here similar to that of Venezuela in the elections next year.”
This is the language of “Castro-Chavism,” a term that describes socialism in Venezuela and Cuba as a common enemy. This perspective holds that the left has renounced the armed conflict of the guerrillas to assume a more damaging strategy —Uribe the flame a “Dissipated molecular revolution”– which uses even peaceful dissent as a form of “hybrid warfare”To undermine the political system.
The narrative of a fight against the Castro-Chavistas is attractive to ultra-conservatives who oppose dialogue and want to quell the protests. It also resonates with the security forces.
Racism also comes into play here. The epicenter of the demonstrations has migrated to Cali, Colombia’s third largest city, where thousands of unarmed people from indigenous communities traveled from the countryside to join the protests. The vice president of the country, Marta Lucía Ramírez, He suggested that indigenous groups are being financed through illegal means. Ómar Yepes, president of the Conservative Party, aligned with the Democratic Center, rant against these protesters on Twitter, claiming that indigenous organizations “go out of their natural habitat to disrupt citizen life.”
The speeches promoted by the Democratic Center are dangerous, but they comfort some citizens whose difficulties have worsened during the pandemic. It is estimated that four out of ten Colombians live below the poverty line, and millions more are at risk of the same fate. In recent weeks, more than 400 people a day have died from COVID-19, while only eight percent of the population has received a dose of the vaccine.
What the United States says and does —as well as what it is silent and stops doing— has always carried a lot of weight in Colombia. The Joe Biden government must distance its country from leaders like these with both its words and its actions.
The Biden government must also distance its country from certain elements of the Colombian security forces, especially its riot police, the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad, known as Esmad, whose brutal tactics are being condemned for the human rights groups. As the number of victims continues to rise, the US government must suspend its financing and sales to these security forces until Colombia restores the standards of public order recognized by the international community.
Biden must understand that disagreeing with the radical politicians of the Democratic Center does not mean that he should remain silent about the vandalism and violence perpetrated on the margins of the protests. On the contrary, it implies taking sides in favor of Colombians who understand that only a political process, which includes the participation and dialogue mechanisms established by the 2016 peace agreement, will help the country to overcome the enormous challenges that the country has left it. pandemic. Lastly, it means that it must provide Colombia with the most effective and immediate means to regain hope and reactivate its economy: vaccines.
By helping Colombia opt for dialogue, the Biden administration would be developing a guide for interacting with its counterparts across Latin America, where several virus-affected countries are grappling with authoritarian populism amid deep social divisions.
Adam Isacson (@adam_wola) is director of defense oversight at the Washington Office for Latin American Affairs.