Why Colombia Has Erupted in Protest

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Yves here. Lack of interest in political upheaval south of the border is all too common in the US press, as the uprisings in Colombia confirm. And even then, whether a story gets covered too often depends on the US having perceived stakes, aka meddling.

On the Twitterverse, there’s remarkably little on the Colombia upheaval in English, and not even that much in Spanish, but here are some tweets that link to additional coverage:

By Sandra Borda, Politóloga de la Universidad de Los Andes, MA Relaciones Internacionales la Universidad de Chicago, MA Ciencia Política, y PhD CPol de la Universidad de Minesota. Originally published at openDemocracy

Spiralling poverty and unemployment in the wake of the pandemic lie behind the widespread protests in Colombia that began on 28 April. Young people have been particularly badly affected, even though their generation has been largely excluded from the government’s negotiations with protest leaders – one half of an official response that has mixed dialogue with violent repression. As presidential elections approach next year, the situation is eroding people’s trust in political institutions.

Economic Devastation

In the last year, an estimated 3.6 million people have fallen into poverty, while 2.78 million are now classed as living in extreme poverty. The result is that 42.5% of Colombia’s population now live below the poverty line, up from 35.7% in 2019.

A decade of anti-poverty measures appear to have been reversed, at least in part. The figures mean that more than 21 million people are currently being forced to subsist on the equivalent of less than $88 per day, with 7.47 million people living on less than $39 per day.

Big cities have suffered the most from the economic impact of the pandemic, and the social distancing policies that followed. In Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city, 3.3 million people (of a total population of 7.1 million) are living in poverty. Other major cities, such as Medellín and Cali, also have large numbers of people below the poverty line.

Women are among the hardest hit, with 46.7% of women (compared to 40.1% of men) living in poverty. This has a knock-on effect for many families: according to the director of the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), “the gender gap increased during the pandemic and this necessarily affects the incidence of poverty in households where women are heads of households”.

For young people, meanwhile, unemployment has risen to 23.9%, up from 20.5% in the first quarter of 2020, in the 14-28 age category. Young people are also being forced out of education, because of the high cost of private universities, and a lack of capacity in the public system. Last year, an estimated 243,000 students dropped out of various forms of education.

People Take to the Streets

The trigger for the protests that began in April was a proposal to reform the tax system, although demands quickly expanded to a rejection of reforms to the healthcare system, too. For many people, the pandemic has exacerbated a situation that already sparked mass protests in 2019, adding unemployment and a lack of education opportunities to the mix.

Poor neighbourhoods of large cities face a range of discontents, including the presence of illegal groups (from guerillas to drug trafficking networks) who try to recruit young people. These neighbourhoods also play host to families displaced by Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict, who give up everything they own to seek safety in the anonymity of the city. This uprooting is compounded by the lack of opportunities that young members of these families face when they arrive.

As if the above weren’t enough, people’s daily relationship with the police is one of constant tension, with routine instances of sieges, illegal detention and abuse. This endemic problem has been made worse by the additional powers the government has given to the security forces to enforce social distancing measures.

With many people impoverished and confined to their homes in a situation where there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel, the police were increasingly coming to dominate public space. When the frustration of young people in particular could no longer be contained, the resulting clashes showed a brutality that was unprecedented in Colombia’s recent history.

Public DistrustThe Backlash

In the meantime, the government led by Colombia’s president, Iván Duque Márquez, has bet heavily on a public order strategy to try and contain the protests. It portrays the protesters as criminals and focuses on material damage caused by the mobilisation, which takes away the agency and voices of those who protest. Given the government’s role in creating the conditions that led people to protest, and its lack of criticism of police violence, the government itself must be seen as an aggravating factor.

A major obstacle to progress is the Duque administration’s immense weakness. The tax reform proposal that triggered the protests was not even supported by Duque’s own party and the government lacks the authority to lead a concerted dialogue on solutions to the crisis. Its only way out, therefore, is very little carrot and a large dose of stick.

Further police violence is likely, and the government has been put on the defensive by international criticism of human rights violations. In an unprecedented decision, Colombia rejected a request by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to make a fact-finding trip to the country. (The government later relented, saying ‘yes, but not for now.’)

What Comes Next

Each day that passes is a day lost for implementing measures that would help alleviate the desperation of so many impoverished families. The delay further undermines public confidence in Colombia’s ailing institutions, and oversight bodies that should exist to ensure respect for citizens’ rights have been co-opted by the government. They are failing to act as watchdogs that monitor the behaviour of the security forces.

Yet Colombia’s political class seems to be in a deep slumber, with its attention mainly focused on next year’s elections. The parliamentary left wants to avoid being blamed for the chaos and excesses of the protests. The right is biding its time, because it knows that a discredited and worn-out protest movement will be a useful target for a revived attack on castrochavistas (a red-baiting discourse that accuses opponents of wanting to turn Colombia into Cuba or Venezuela), and a further wave of repression.

The centre, meanwhile, has chosen this moment to lose its backbone entirely. As a way out looks remote, Colombia’s political leadership seems to have little imagination left.

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  1. Principe Fabrizio Salina

    A decade of anti-poverty measures appear to have been reversed, at least in part. The figures mean that more than 21 million people are currently being forced to subsist on the equivalent of less than $88 per day, with 7.47 million people living on less than $39 per day.
    It makes no sense. $88 per day translates into about $32,000 per year.

    1. Polar Socialist

      $ is also a symbol for Colombian peso. Current conversion rate seems to be 3650 pesos to 1 dollar. Not sure if the numbers make any more sense that way, although they are not purchasing power adjusted, which seems to be the way when defining poverty.

      1. Milton

        Yes, Colombians in 2020 had a per capita *purchasing power of COP 14,183, 040 or $3940 per annum. About $11 a day.

        *Purchasing Power describes the disposable income–that is, income without taxes and social security contributions, including receivable transfer payments.

    2. Milton

      The Colombian peso is roughly 3600 to 1 dollar. The median income for Colombians in 2020, accordiang to Michael Bauer Research (our data provider), is roughly 38,000,000 COL or $10,555 or $28.91 a day. Perhaps the $88 per day is using data from Bogota or some other major city.

  2. Sound of the Suburbs

    Neoclassical economics and the missing equation
    Disposable income = wages – (taxes + the cost of living)

    “Who put that other term in the brackets with taxes?” neoliberal policymakers
    Everyone that uses neoclassical economics trips up over the “cost of living” including the Chinese.
    Taxes and the cost of living sum together in the same brackets, so it shouldn’t be hard, but today’s policymakers don’t have the equation.

    What they really mean is ……
    Who removed the other term in the brackets with taxes?
    The early neoclassical economists hid the problems of rentier activity in the economy by removing the difference between “earned” and “unearned” income and they conflated “land” with “capital”.
    They took the focus off the cost of living that had been so important to the Classical Economists as this is where rentier activity in the economy shows up.
    It’s so well hidden that everyone trips up over the cost of living, even the Chinese.

    Now we have the equation we can see what the Classical and Keynesian economists knew.
    It’s in classical economics.
    It’s in Keynesian economics.
    It’s not in neoclassical economics.

    We got some stuff from Ricardo, like the law of comparative advantage.
    What’s gone missing?

    Ricardo was part of the new capitalist class, and the old landowning class were a huge problem with their rents that had to be paid both directly and through wages.
    “The interest of the landlords is always opposed to the interest of every other class in the community” Ricardo 1815 / Classical Economist
    What does our man on free trade, Ricardo, mean?

    Disposable income = wages – (taxes + the cost of living)
    Employees get their money from wages and the employers pay the cost of living through wages, reducing profit.
    Employees get less disposable income after the landlords rent has gone.
    Employers have to cover the landlord’s rents in wages reducing profit.
    Ricardo is just talking about housing costs, employees all rented in those days.
    Low housing costs work best for employers and employees.

    Of course, employees get their money from wages and it is the employers that are paying the high housing costs via wages, reducing profit.

    Everyone pays their own way.
    Employees get their money from wages.
    The employer pays the way for all their employees in wages.

    What was Keynes really doing?
    Creating a low cost, internationally competitive economy.
    Keynes’s ideas were a solution to the problems of neoclassical economics, but we forgot why he did, what he did.

    They tried running an economy on debt in the 1920s.
    The 1920s roared with debt based consumption and speculation until it all tipped over into the debt deflation of the Great Depression. No one realised the problems that were building up in the economy as they used an economics that doesn’t look at private debt, neoclassical economics.
    Keynes looked at the problems of the debt based economy and came up with redistribution through taxation to keep the system running in a sustainable way and he dealt with the inherent inequality capitalism produced.

    The cost of living = housing costs + healthcare costs + student loan costs + food + other costs of living
    Disposable income = wages – (taxes + the cost of living)

    Strong progressive taxation funded a low cost economy with subsidised housing, healthcare, education and other services to give more disposable income on lower wages.
    Employers and employees both win with a low cost of living.

    Keynesian ideas went wrong in the 1970s and everyone had forgotten the problems of neoclassical economics that he originally solved.

    Let’s look at the equation again.
    Disposable income = wages – (taxes + the cost of living)
    Neoliberals cut taxes, but let the cost of living soar, so people don’t get better off.
    They also hold down wages.

    It’s a time bomb waiting to go off.
    It’s already gone off in France.
    When people are sufficiently squeezed they put on yellow vests and take to the streets as they did in France.

    This is the neoliberal squeeze that sooner or later will get people onto the streets.
    The maths is simple.
    Disposable income = wages – (taxes + the cost of living)
    When I say wages, I mean income, which has gone down rapidly in many places with the coronavirus.

      1. Sound of the Suburbs

        Ricardian Equivalence!
        Does anyone really behave like this?
        I know I don’t.

  3. Cocomaan

    You’re right, had not heard of this.

    Covid has had real effects on the economic well being of the young. Schoolchildren not being able to learn, young people not being able to buy houses. Looks like that’s a global phenomenon.

  4. Louis Fyne

    1. At best, US Media’s “foreign news reporting” is a reporter based in London covering everything from Ireland to Vladivostock.

    2. The mere concept that African-Colombians face discrimination in a “brown” country gives triggers a DIV/0 error in the brains of US, ostensibly liberal, journalists.

  5. Susan the other

    It’s strange that for this part of the world which we claim under our “sphere of influence” there is such a lack of reporting. But certainly by design, because “sphere of influence” is just double-talk for “colony.” We’ve been strong-arming most of the world for 70 years and somehow we assume that domestic tranquility is their problem. And we (Western governments) have turned a blind eye to the drug trade. I’m assuming that’s because all that underground money has kept capitalism alive. And I’m assuming that because the capitalism we have is simply not fit for purpose. So my usual hack is to eliminate the root problem… unregulated capitalism. Which is colonialism. Which is mercantilism. To my thinking the administrative void this would leave would soon be filled with competent socialist governments. And at this point in time it feels odd to be saying capitalism/socialism. Neither one applies in reality (which is now “sustainability”) – but if I had to choose one I’d take more socialism. That’s only because I’ve seen our failures to achieve social equity be repeated again and again for my entire lifetime. It’s really time for a change. Keep the good and lose the bad.

  6. lyman alpha blob

    In the last year, an estimated 3.6 million people have fallen into poverty, while 2.78 million are now classed as living in extreme poverty. The result is that 42.5% of Colombia’s population now live below the poverty line, up from 35.7% in 2019.

    Funny, isn’t the fact the their economy was tanking the excuse Uncle Sugar used to justify the repeated coup attempts on Maduro in Venezuela?

    Not mentioned in the article is the fact that Columbia’s murderous government has been a US ally for quite some time. That would be why there is such a lack of coverage in the US. If it’s covered at all, I’m sure the uprising will be blamed on Russian interference or some such nonsense.

    Of course, if their government started leaning a little socialist, the US press would be all over any protest against it, calling it some glorious revolution against the evil commies. That’s how the empire rolls.

  7. noonespecial

    Wages in Colombia

    One of the “helps” from Duque’s government implemented in 2020 was a salary subsidy for those working in industries affected by the national shutdown. However, the subsidy only helped those workers who were “bancarizados”, meaning that their salary and benefits are paid through formal banking entities which entails paying the respective taxes. There is something known as “Familias en Accion” which is a type of cash welfare check, but is very limited in scope and amount.

    Missing from this article is the issue of what % of the working population fits into Colombia’s rubric of officially employed i.e. employee who is enrolled into the social security system accompanied by an employer who diligently pays into the pension system, health, etc. Conservative estimates range from 45%-47% of working peoples work in informal, paid in cash and not in the “system” arrangements.

    So, add to the batter a pandemic, a government that only subsidizes those “bancarizados” and what does the lady (60+) who sells coffee/candy next to a major stop in Bogota’s famed buses “Transmilenio” and ridership bottoms out for a while do? Or the farm hand whose per diem (in the area I am familiar with) is about $13USA per day to work 7am-6pm and then is affected by COVID and is not affiliated to a health provider?

    There are some entrenched issues and neoliberalism simply don’t care. One of the latest salvos from Duque is a proposal to bolster youth employment by essentially subsidizing employers’ costs to enroll people into the systems.

    One quick translation from the link below: It is worth noting that young people, especially women, have been traditionally the sector of the population most affect by unemployment, a situation further aggravated by the pandemic. According to the most recent statistic by DANE (Colombia’s dept. of analysis and dissemination of the official statistics) youth unemployment (ages 18-28) is almost 24 % for the months of January-March 2021.


  8. Jeremy Grimm

    Although the scales are different this description of Columbia is not so very different from how the US might be described. Perhaps that is why there is so little news about Columbia in the Media. The line “…political class seems to be in a deep slumber…” echoes the discussion on the Watercooler about the dirth of news and action from the Biden administration. Another line also resonates: “Given the government’s role in creating the conditions that led people to protest, and its lack of criticism of police violence, the government itself must be seen as an aggravating factor.”

  9. Crazy Horse

    Ah, Colombia
    Look at her from the standpoint of Empire— the US Deep State/CIA/NSA/Military/Corporate State, What use is she that “we” can’t do without?

    —- A source of well trained sicarios that we can send against Venezuela in our ongoing covert war to recover “our” oil?
    — A geographically ideally situated base for that war?
    — A more reliable narcotrafficante class to do business with compared to the batshit crazy Mexican Zetas?
    — A higher class of prostitute for the entertainment of visiting dignitaries and Secret Service agents?
    (I admit that you have to go all the way to Eastern Europe to exceed that standard)

    As I start to develop this list perhaps pushing a few hundred thousand more people into extreme poverty is worth it after all.

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