Colombia upheaval risks populist contagion from outside

Social protest is a new, and potentially positive, phenomenon for a still-repressive country, but stokes fear in its conservative political establishment.

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Although unprecedented for Colombia, the prolonged social protests currently sweeping the country and paralyzing the government are not a surprise.

In 2020, COVID-19 put on hold a wave of protests which had started in late 2019 led by labour unions and indigenous and Afro-descendent community groups over low wages and the slow pace of social programs promised in the 2016 peace agreement.

But when the government recently proposed a new tax hike, even the threat of COVID-19 was not enough to keep Colombian citizens from the streets as national protests erupted.

The proposed tax reform is relatively small in reality, focusing mostly on the rich but also extending taxes to lower and middle income workers and expanding value-added taxes.

And it is long overdue, because Colombia’s taxes are the equivalent of only 19.7 per cent of the country’s GDP compared to an average of 33.8 per cent among OECD developed economies, which Colombia is aiming to join.

State finances under severe strain

Fiscal stimulus packages intended to cushion the effects of lockdown measures on the economy strained state finances and Colombia’s fiscal deficit tripled from 2019 to 2020. This led to its sovereign bonds being recently downgraded to BBB- by ratings agencies, just one notch above junk.

In the grip of a pandemic and one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, government efforts to bolster the economy have not been sufficient

In the grip of a pandemic and one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, government efforts to bolster the economy have not been sufficient. According to Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA), in 2020 the economy shrank by 6.8 per cent and the number of poor grew from 37.5 per cent of the population to 50 per cent.

President Ivan Duque’s low levels of public support and lack of popular credibility complicates matters. The 44-year-old president had effectively been handpicked by his mentor, controversial former president Alvaro Uribe, when Duque was serving in the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, DC.

Before the protests, the president’s approval rating was already hovering around 30 per cent where it had largely remained since just 100 days into his term. The fact Uribe also denounced the tax package weakened the president’s image even more, and then the finance minister and foreign minister both resigned after protests began.

Although Duque withdrew the proposed tax increase as protests spread across the country, it was too late. Alleged police abuse resulting in the eventual deaths of dozens demonstrators changed the focus of the protests as demonstrators began calling for the dismantling of the riot police, the creation of a basic minimum income program (BMI), and free university tuition.

Originally called by Colombia’s labour unions, these demonstrations were tapping into long-standing frustrations first seen in the 2019 protests over the slow pace of the implementation of the 2016 peace accords and ongoing suspicious deaths of social leaders.

Reportedly more than 220 social and community leaders were killed in 2020 alone, with the majority claimed to be at the hands of Colombian state security forces.

Those alleged murders and reports of violence by police forces against demonstrators did spark international expressions of concern. After Colombian riot police reportedly fired into crowds in the western city of Cali in early May, the United Nations (UN) and Amnesty International both denounced state repression of protestors.

Amnesty has specifically accused the Colombian government of ‘excessive and unnecessary use of force against demonstrators… [that] resulted in dozens of people being killed and injured, arbitrary detentions, acts of torture… sexual violence’ and reports of disappearances.

Early efforts by the Duque government to defuse the protests by convening a broad dialogue with unions and social groups fizzled out when many refused to participate. The government and its allies have accused outside provocateurs of aiding and encouraging the violent protestors used by the government to defend its own violent reactions.

Although plausible that the government’s ideological nemesis across the border – the government of Nicolas Maduro – is stoking the conflict, so could any number of criminal groups which sprouted and proliferated after the peace agreement, finding fertile ground in Colombia’s infamously unequal economy and society.

Colombia’s politics look more and more like its neighbours. As in Peru, Brazil, Mexico, and – after its recent constituent assembly elections – Chile, Colombia’s traditional party system has fragmented, leaving an array of splinter parties and a vacuum in the centre.

This rather echoes the second round of Colombia’s 2018 presidential election which pitted the conservative Duque at the head of a new party orchestrated by Uribe and his allies against a leftist coalition of parties and social movements led by the former mayor – and a former leader of the now-demobilized M-19 guerrilla movement – Gustavo Petro.

Petro’s stock continues to rise as the protests continue, especially as Duque is constitutionally banned from running for re-election in the 2022 presidential contest, and therefore is a lame duck leader.

The prospect of a Petro presidency strikes fear in the hearts of many in Colombia’s conservative political establishment, sparking rumours that Venezuela’s Chavismo – the rudimentary populist movement of former president Hugo Chavez and current president Nicolas Maduro that has led to the economic and humanitarian disaster in the once oil-rich country – is coming to Colombia’s government.

No end in sight

With Duque’s efforts at social dialogue petering out and the prospects of any progress on demonstrators’ expensive and complex demands looking unlikely, Colombia’s social protests will probably continue for a long time yet.

After decades of civil war in Colombia which effectively ruled out social protest, citizens are finally finding expression for long, pent-up social frustrations

And they may be a foreshadow of what is coming to many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Latin America countries suffered an average 7.7 per cent contraction of GDP in 2020, adding an estimated 24 million people to the ranks of the poor, and economic suffering has been added to pre-existing social and political discontent and collapsing party systems.

In a region marked by low taxation rates per GDP – Colombia’s 19.7 per cent is actually one of the highest – a year of fiscal-busting stimulus packages means many governments will also soon have to face tax increases of the kind which started the Colombian protests.

But there is one positive note. After decades of civil war in Colombia which effectively ruled out social protest, citizens are finally finding expression for long, pent-up social frustrations – and, for the most part, peacefully so even in the face of police repression. What matters now is how to channel those frustrations and demands into meaningful political representation and institutional change.