Colombia is awakening and Iván Duque’s government has no answers

The exhaustion of a formal democratic model based on a conservative-liberal two-party system unable to meet people’s expectations is evident in Colombia, where the government of President Iván Duque struggles to articulate a response for the newest wave of protests in South America

Colombia is awakening and Iván Duque’s government has no answers
A protester wraps around the Colombian national flag during a demonstration in honor of Dilan Cruz in Bogotá, Colombia - Photo: Luisa González/REUTERS
English 29/11/2019 19:11 Gabriel Moyssen Mexico City Actualizada 19:11
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The exhaustion of a formal democratic model based on a conservative-liberal two-party system unable to meet people’s expectations is evident in Colombia, where the government of President Iván Duque struggles to articulate a response for the newest wave of protests in South America.

The trigger for the crisis was the October 21 national strike against thepaquetazo” (Great Package) of fiscal and economic measures planned by authorities and the overreaction from the far-right government and its corporate allies, which led to the closing of the border crossings with Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru.

However, millions marched across Colombia in a historic demonstration supported by unions and students that was followed by the imposition of a curfew in Bogotá, after the protests continued and three people died, while other 122 resulted injured.

During his electoral campaign in 2018, Duque, the country’s youngest and least experienced leader of the past century, considered by many a figurehead of former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), promised tax cuts, yet the plan presented by Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla limited this benefit to multinationals and local corporations such as Grupo Aval Acciones y Valores, owned by Luis Carlos Sarmiento, the wealthiest man in Colombia with a net worth of USD $11.3 billion.

The “paquetazo” approved by the International Monetary Fund includes the increase of taxes for the working and middle classes, as well as the removal of the minimum wage, the increase of electric rates, and privatization of the pension system, radio-electric spectrum, and oil industry.

Due to the widespread rejection of the program and Duque’s approval rating plummeting to 29%—it reached 26% in October, according to Gallup—, the government tried to distance itself from these proposals; nevertheless, its unpopularity was also triggered by the reluctance to implement the 2016 peace deal with the FARC guerrilla.

Uribe, Duque, and other leaders from the Democratic Center (CD) party opposed to the peace deal since negotiations, promoted by former president Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s successor in the Nariño Palace, began in 2012; under Duque’s government, the killing of activists, ethnic minorities, and demobilized rebels have resumed amid scandals of corruption, human rights abuses, paramilitary activity, and drug trafficking in the armed forces.

Last August, FARC’s former peace negotiator Iván Márquez announced his return to insurgency; Duque tried to link the dissident group with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, only to find himself in the middle of another scandal when presenting fabricated evidence before the United Nations’ General Assembly.

Paramilitaries and drugs

The reputation of Álvaro Uribe and his “vice president” was further eroded by the trial against the former in the Supreme Court, which exposed his family’s relations with paramilitary death squads and drug traffickers; during the October 27 local elections, CD’s candidates were heavily defeated in Bogotá and even in their outpost of Medellín.

As if that was not enough, Duque’s government suffered a serious blow earlier this month when an official investigation revealed that eight children between 12 and 17 years old, victims of forced recruitment, died in the air attack on a FARC dissident camp in August, prompting the resignation of Defense Minister Guillermo Botero.

Dilan Cruz, as the victims in the FARC camp in San Vicente del Caguán, was also young. He was 18 years old and studied at high school in the south of Bogotá until last Saturday when a stun grenade fired by the feared ESMAD anti-riot squad hit his head while peacefully marching in the Colombian capital.

Dilan’s agony ended on Tuesday, one day after his graduation ceremony at the Ricaurte IED school, and hours before a new national strike; his face has become a symbol of police repression against protestors, yet also offers a symbol of the non-organic movement: a young, globalized generation aware of Colombia’s dark past, and determined to build a better future demanding efficiency from the authorities.

More than 250 university professors echoed this position in an open letter on Wednesday, stressing the demand for quality education for all, the right of decent working conditions, full compliance of the peace deal, and the rejection of attempts to criminalize social protests.

As Manuel Zárate, student of Political Science in the Universidad de los Andes summarized, “the violent Colombia that normalized violence and lies is still more current than ever since it is represented in the national government; why in the government? Because people there arrived doing what they have done for a long time, lying and slandering, true to their style. However, now citizens are different, collective action seems to gather strength despite thousands of social leaders viciously murdered throughout the country.”

Perhaps driven by the examples of active citizenship from Chile or Ecuador, Zárate told EL UNIVERSAL in English, “we have finally left fear behind and decided to make ourselves heard, because the violent people, the vandals, are the people in government, and we refuse to fail again to the thousands of victims, we are tired of war and those people.”

So far, Duque’s response to concrete demands, such as the disbanding of ESMAD, has been slow and vague. The former senator, who refused to receive indigenous groups in Nariño after massive demonstrations last March, called for a continuous “national dialogue” until March 15 and has met with state governors, mayors, lawmakers, and other sectors that did not participate in the first national strike.

Nonetheless, his reaction has been “a drop in a bucket of a faucet of accusations and criminalization of social protest,” said the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

“He is going to have to show with actions, not just words and statements that his government is going to address the grievances expressed by a good part of the country,” the non-governmental organization observed.

While the protests have been creative and festive, for instance staging a “cacerolazo sinfónico” (“symphonic banging on pots and pans”) with the National University’s orchestra performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Duque rescued a campaign promise and proposed removing the VAT three days a year.

On Wednesday, leaders from Congress, political parties, and the National Strike Committee (CNP) called Duque to converse directly with the latter. They also agreed that the Senate will work on demands made by the CNP with regards to the legislative agenda and political control issues, reported the Colombian radio.

Óscar Gutiérrez, executive director of Dignidad Agropecuaria, an agricultural union part of the CNP, remarked that the Senate understood the need to negotiate with the real actors from the social mobilization.

“Duque’s proposal dilutes the solution to the problems that are being raised, supported by millions in the streets,” he added.

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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