One need not have been particularly attentive to have noticed the devastating rupture between Colombian civil society and its governing authorities over the past few weeks. A momentary browse through social media would have been sufficient in offering a simple synopsis of Colombia’s contemporary struggles; feeds have been peppered by snapshots of police brutality against civilians and activists alike. Yet, although symbolic of deep political and social rupture, such events merely represent a culmination of the profound societal fissures characteristic of the modern Colombian disposition.
In truth, the magnitude of the problems present in the status-quo is encapsulated by some damning socioeconomic markers. Based on monetary income figures from 2019, for instance, the level of Colombian citizens in poverty would equate to 35.7%; an additional 9.6% of the population are calculated to have been extremely impoverished, too. Indeed, alongside the noticeable backsliding of income and quality of life, the periodical slimming of the middle-class has also represented a difficult reality for the country’s politicians: how to go about easing economic disparities without causing mass indignation? In this case, the proposed answer was the so-called “Ley de Solidaridad Sostenible” [Law of Sustainable Solidarity].
In pursuing this new bill, though, a cursory glance at other Latin American countries should have offered a cautious reminder to the beleaguered President of Colombia, Iván Duque. A relatively modest hike in transport fares, for example, sparked an emphatic wave of protests in Chile (2019), with popular assent for a nascent constitution later being granted. Unsurprisingly, economic disparities foregrounded much of this discontent; rising travel costs merely represented the tip of the iceberg. In fact, this potent combination of governmental imprudence and mass social and economic despondency is a persistent fixture in Latin American societies – wide-spread mobilization in Bolivia and Ecuador (2019) were also reminiscent of a growing sentiment of anger and distrust towards their respective governing elites. Duque himself should have known as much. Following unjust police-led brutality, the last year has been littered with protests demanding reparative and judicial justice. In effect, the recent reports of tumultuous civic unrest in Colombia alludes to a far more deep-seated trend, one unlikely to be captured in a single Instagram post; simmering political and economic tensions across the Americas are reflective of a deeply inequitable rupture between the state and the people it is charged with serving.
It is against this backdrop, then, that the presently recurring protests in Colombia can be contextualised. Already handicapped by sinking popularity, the government of Iván Duque has been subject to appalling approval ratings across all political and generational divides. Unable, too, to stem the influence of emerging new forms of paramilitary violence, the Duque presidency is both riddled with internal inertia and deprived of popular support. Much of this can help explain the outcry against la Ley de Solidaridad Sostenible. In a befuddling display of naivety, the Duque government presented a plan to expand tax revenue to ease economic inequalities, yet, paradoxically, it intended to place much of the burden on those whose income was below the minimum wage threshold. What has unfolded since is symbolic of an out-of-touch elite stumbling from one blunder to another.
Yet, this goes beyond vacuous leadership. Through the prism of grave social and economic inequality, the depleted social fabric of Colombia has exposed the insecurity of the state. Its own Supreme Court recognised such a startling assessment: in 2019, the Court came to a landmark ruling warning the police to limit its arbitrary and violent approach to protests. Worryingly, security force impunity has hit atrocious new levels. Using Covid-19 as an excuse for further systematic repression, reports of sexual violence and severe use of force have spiralled upwards. These grotesque developments underline a disconcerting reality: an unchecked, unaccountable state has turned on its own citizens.
In essence, what Colombians demand – and deserve – is merely what their Constitution has promised them: a state that serves its community; equality before the law, and an environment conducive to the ‘effective and real’ equality borne through the Colombian political ideal. Unfortunately though, the Colombian political reality is much bleaker. A crack-down on rights; severe economic and social marginalisation; communities left vulnerable to violence and death, and a lack of hope proliferate. This, perhaps, is the greatest tragedy of all.
Image: Anders J. Moen on Flickr