How can we make protests work in Colombia?

By: Manuel Bustamante, MPP’ 2020 / Pearson Institute Fellow

Colombia has become the most recent example of the sweeping wave of unrest in Latin America, as tens of thousands joined mass demonstrations in a national strike last Thursday, Nov. 21. 

The protests, planned by a diverse group of organizations including labor unions, indigenous people, students, and opposition leaders, responded to an equally wide range of issues. However, what all protesters had in common was their dissatisfaction with the government of president Ivan Duque, elected just 15 months ago.  

The fact that such a broad cross-section of the society was able to mobilize is in itself a good thing. As renowned political sociologist Charles Tilly puts it, ‘when ordinary people resisted vigorously, authorities made concessions: guarantees of rights, representative institutions, courts of appeal. Those concessions, in their turn, constrained the later paths of war making and state making.’ 

However, protesters must find a common agenda and a political movement that is able to translate their demands into legislation. Not an easy feat.  

The protests were initially convened by labor unions and student organizations, but rapidly grew encompassing other social organizations and ordinary citizens, on the way incorporating a wider range of demands. 

While this means that finding a common agenda will be difficult, it is also true that widespread discontent has normally preceded institutional and political changes in Colombia. Whether this is what will happen this time remains to be seen.

Some of the issues initially invoked by the organizers of Thursday’s demonstrations resemble those traditionally articulated by left-wing parties and labor unions in Colombia, namely the rejection of the ‘neo-liberal economic order,’ including the privatization of state-owned companies, and the rejection of labor and pension reforms that the government had announced it would present before Congress (but whose contents are not yet known).  

Another group of demands referred more broadly to the lack of government action to complete the implementation of the Peace Agreement signed in 2016 between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). 

And it is in the Peace Agreement where the chance for unity is greater. As former Colombian High-Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo recently told attendants at the Pearson Institute Distinguished Speaker Series on Nov. 11, many communities already see themselves represented in the Agreement and have found in it a window of opportunity for demanding much-needed economic development.

While the government of Ivan Duque has continued with the implementation of parts of the Agreement, such as the re-incorporation of ex-combatants to civil life, it has slowed or presented objections to other key areas, such as the transitional justice mechanism. 

Critically, the protests come at a time when social leaders of peripheral regions of the country, and especially of the southwestern department of Cauca, have been the targets of high levels of violence. The government has been ineffective at confronting this violence. In fact, in its Sept. 2019 report, the UN Verification Mission in Colombia expressed its concern for the killings of 123 human rights defenders and social leaders so far in 2019. 

The protests also happen after the Minister of Defense was forced to resign on Nov. 6, after it was revealed during a debate in Congress that the army had aerially bombarded a camp of FARC dissidents, killing at least eight forcefully-recruited minors. 

The outrage voiced on Thursday undoubtedly comes as a political shock for the country. However, its success is contingent on whether such a diverse group of protesters can come up with a coherent and long-term agenda for the country. Crucially, this agenda must be mindful of Colombia’s many hard-won social gains which came after the 1991 Constitution, also the result of mass mobilization.

Even if this feat will be very difficult to accomplish, there are things that are already worth celebrating. First, protests in Colombia seem to have become less about parochial issues and more about fundamental demands, such as an anti-corruption agenda, a solution to economic injustices or increasing the presence of the state in peripheral regions. 

Second, while some have criticized that the demands of the protesters are varied and often uncorrelated, this is not necessarily bad if it allows for a diverse coalition to form that can aggregate the preferences of a broader portion of the population. For example, the successful governing coalition that emerged in Sweden in the beginning of the twentieth century, also as a result of social unrest, included not only labor unions but businesspeople. In Colombia, such a coalition must also include the communities living in the periphery of the country.

This coalition will need to transform its demands into laws. And in this Colombia has already made progress, as alternative parties opposing the government of president Duque have recently gained ground, some of them proposing a modernizing agenda for the country. As Camila Pérez explained, these parties came out on top during the recent local elections. This makes them good vehicles for translating the concerns voiced this week into something tangible. 

Thursday’s protests could be the start of a movement able to substantially alter the dynamics of Colombia’s political development. However, this remains very challenging and will depend on a political movement emerging from the protester’s discontent.

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