As protests flare up across the globe, Colombia is no different. Last week, it became the fourth state in South America to witness demonstrations against the government. Colombian President Iván Duque was forced to place the capital city of Bogotá and the southern city of Cali under curfew Friday night after closing the nations borders on Thursday. Amid the unrest, Duque attempted to restore order by promising a “national dialogue” for the following week.
Colombians took to the streets for a number of reasons. First, Duque has been under pressure for his handling of the 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a guerrilla group. When he ran for president in 2018, Duque emphasized the need to alter the deal and declared he would send it back to Congress.
Duque said the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) law is too soft on the rebel fighters, both in terms of repayment toward victims and in prosecuting culprits accused of war crimes. The president’s move to revisit the JEP slowed down an already arduous process, which his critics did not receive fondly.
“Duque has sent a lousy message to demobilized guerrillas,” said leftist Senator Aida Avella of the Patriotic Union party in March. “Duque’s government is an enemy of the peace process and is working to return us to war.”
Protestors are also incensed over the treatment of indigenous groups. Guerrilla militants associated with FARC attacked an armoured convoy, killing five indigenous leaders Oct. 29. The fighters even fired upon an ambulance that responded to the attack. Duque called the attack what it was – a massacre – and pledged to launch a military operation to counter the threat from rebel fighters, but few were sold on the idea, as evidenced by his perpetually falling poll numbers; only 29 per cent of respondents approved of his job in a Gallup poll.
“The government says the right things, but doesn’t do anything,” said Eduin Marcelo Capaz, human rights coordinator for an indigenous council. “Duque will say whatever he has to cover up his government’s ineffectiveness and disinterest in protecting us.”
The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia reported 121 indigenous people have been murdered since Duque stepped into power.
Economic concerns also fuel Colombian activists as they fear the lowering of the minimum wage and reduced pensions. Although Duque’s administration never formally announced a proposal, Colombian trade unions announced a general strike against rumoured cuts Oct 10. Duque submitted a tax reform bill which was struck down by the constitutional court on technical grounds at the end of October. A new bill, predominantly the same, must now journey once more through the typical legislative process.
The focus of the law includes a high-earner tax, increased taxes on business duties, and a new tax on bank profit. In the eyes of Colombians, the increased taxes are yet another reason to loathe their president.
Six Colombians have been killed in the protests, two of which occurred when criminals tried to loot a shopping centre. Security forces that responded were attacked by rocks and sticks before escalating the confrontation. In Cauca, a car bomb claimed the lives of three police officers Friday. Nearly 300 more have been injured on both sides. Security forces have resorted to tear gas to break up demonstrations and one gas canister killed a young protestor.
“Today, Colombians spoke. We hear them. Social dialogue has been a main principle of this government and we need to deepen it with all sectors of society and speed up the social agenda and the fight against corruption,” Duque said on Thursday.
Following continued demonstrations, he said a “national dialogue” would be opened. Sunday, he was due to meet with mayors and governors from across the country to coordinate a solution that will satisfy the demonstrators.
Duque, a month away from his second year as president, has a lot to prove. The protests are unusual for Colombia whose citizens are usually reluctant to march. The fact that the president has inspired them to organize speaks volumes about the ineffectiveness of his government and the dissatisfaction of the people he leads.
Duque must find a solution that all Colombians can agree on, or he risks the protests forever tarnishing his time in office. So far, his words have done nothing to sway Colombians so it is left to his “national dialogue” to deliver peace. Perhaps with their regional leaders meeting on the issue, Colombians will be rewarded with peace.