The outcome of the week-long wave of protests in Colombia is shocking. Despite all the justified criticism, the country is dependent on international support, says Stefan Reith from the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.
For more than a month, a wave of protests marked by violent clashes has kept Colombia in suspense. In Cali, the third largest city in the country, scenes similar to civil war broke out last weekend, claiming 13 lives.
Armed civilians shot at protesters while police officers watched. At the same time, security forces were attacked with firearms from the crowd by criminal groups. A public prosecutor’s office shot dead two people at a road blockade and was subsequently lynched by the angry crowd; Cell phone videos circulating on the net document the horrific scenes.
Devastating social and economic crisis
The interim result of the social protests and violent clashes that have been going on for over a month is staggering: dozens of dead civilians, dead police officers, hundreds of injured on all sides, looting and massive destruction of public infrastructure across the country as well as weeks of road blockades and supply bottlenecks in the middle of the third wave of pandemics.
About the author: Stefan Reith has been head of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s international office in Bogotá, Colombia, since January 2020
The trigger for the wave of protests was a tax reform that was perceived as unjust; however, the real causes lie deeper. Despite steady economic growth over the past 20 years, Colombia is one of the most unequal countries on earth. In addition to 90,000 deaths and an overload of the health system, the pandemic led to a devastating social and economic crisis. The continuously falling poverty figures exploded again. Today, 43 percent of the 50 million Colombians live below the poverty line. Almost two million refugees from Venezuela create an additional burden on the social and health system.
And despite the peace agreement signed with the FARC guerrillas in 2016, the state cannot guarantee public security everywhere. Parts of the country are still controlled by FARC dissidents, the ELN guerrillas, drug cartels or criminal gangs. Social activists, environmental and human rights activists who oppose their criminal machinations are threatened and murdered. As a result, there were massive protests at the end of 2019, but these were stifled by the pandemic.
Violence and chaos continue
This crisis cocktail explains why the largely peaceful protests are repeatedly overshadowed by violence and chaos and why they continue even after the tax reform has been withdrawn. The conflict is not only carried out on the streets. Supporters and critics of the protests flood the social networks with cell phone videos to document the violence of the other side and thus to justify their own. Manipulated videos and false reports are used specifically to defame the other side and to influence international reporting.
Protester with Molotov cocktail in Medellin: The record of the violent wave of protests in Colombia is shocking. (Source: imago images)
After initially one-sided criticism of the tough police operation, the international community is now recognizing that the widespread image of a repressive state that suppresses peaceful protests falls short and that the Colombian reality is more complex. In particular, the ongoing road blockades, arson attacks on public buildings and attacks on the police make clear the handwriting of radical forces who, for political reasons, are sabotaging the economic recovery and the vaccination process as much as possible.
First signs of hope
Colombia, measured in terms of population and economic strength, the third most important country in Latin America, needs the urgent support of its international partners in order to stop the wave of violence and find a way out of the crisis. As an OECD member and the only global partner of NATO in Latin America, Colombia has so far been a reliable anchor of stability and a democratic antithesis to the authoritarian regime in Venezuela. Permanent destabilization would have negative effects on democracy, security and development for the entire region.
The upcoming visit of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission is therefore intended to help educate and mediate. In addition, thousands of citizens in white shirts recently made it clear at large demonstrations that a majority of Colombians support the peaceful protests, but reject violence and road blockades. Local agreements to curb the violence and lift the roadblocks also give the first signs of hope and point the way out of the crisis.
The views expressed in the guest post reflect the opinion of the authors and do not necessarily correspond to those of the t-online editors.