Colombia has been rocked by the most significant protests in recent memory. In late April and May Colombians took to the streets across the country initially to protest a proposed new tax law. But what began as a protest against this new tax bill swiftly morphed into a broad based protest movement against systemic inequality.
Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world and these protests are seeking to upend the political system that has entrenched this inequality in Colombian society.
I caught up with my guest today Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group, from Bogota. We kick off discussing how and why these protests began and spread so quickly throughout the country. She also explains how the legacy of the decades long civil war between the government of Colombia and the left wing FARC rebel group and the peace deal that was signed five years ago has shaped the public’s response to this protest movement.
Elizabeth Dickinson [00:02:53] So we think there are two things that really hit people -rubbed people the wrong way. One was the fact that the tax plan, although it had a lot of redistributive elements, there were some parts of the reform that sought to increase revenue by taxing new groups of the population -specifically people who hadn’t paid income tax before. They lowered the sort of threshold for which someone would have to file income taxes. And then secondly, there was also sort of a value-added tax that was being suggested for basic goods, the sort of things that people stock on their shelves every day like rice and eggs and things like that.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:29] Those value-added taxes can be inherently regressive.
Elizabeth Dickinson [00:03:32] Well, exactly, because this percentage of income, of course, that a poor household is spending on those products is very high compared to the percentage that a higher income family would be spending. And for them, of course, the VAT tax probably wouldn’t have mattered so much. So that was, I think, one thing that, yeah, really hit people the wrong way. But almost more important than that was the way that the tax reform was presented by the government. The rollout was really sloppy and sort of seemed to downplay the concerns of the population in terms of the impact. There wasn’t a sense of empathy. There wasn’t a sense that, OK, we really understand what a difficult moment it is. And we have to see the context of this, that this is coming after a year in which the pandemic has hit Colombia extremely hard. Obviously, in terms of its health impact, Colombia is one of the countries that has had the most number of cases and deaths, despite having a relatively small population, but also in terms of the economic impact. And Colombia has been living on and off lockdowns, for now more than a year, that have just devastated the economy. And of course, that always hits informal labor -those who have to leave the house in order to find enough income to eat every day- they are hit the hardest by those types of lockdowns. So after that terrible year economically that Colombia has had, this tax reform, then the fact that it was presented poorly -it all just came together to be sort of the perfect storm to ignite this crisis.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:00] And it seems almost reflective of hubris or arrogance on the part of the government that they could propose these middle-class tax hikes and tax hikes on poor people in the midst of this devastating economic situation.
Elizabeth Dickinson [00:05:18] The government is in a serious pickle, in the sense that they have to find a way to raise new revenue and there is a real fiscal gap that they’re going to have to close. And, in fact, we aren’t going to be able to turn the page on this tax reform because something needs to be implemented this year in order for Colombia to keep its credit rating. And so there is sort of an imperative from the government. But I think what you mention is exactly right about this lack of really a disconnection from the population. And this is fundamental to understanding the crisis here. Columbia is an extremely stratified country. The elites are a circle unto themselves -extremely protective of their benefits, job opportunities often depend on your family name, where you live, where you came from. And the ability for us, for a low-income family to access that system is so limited that the OECD estimates it would take 11 generations for a low-income child to reach average income. So not even to be well-off, but to be average income. Eleven generations! Which is to tell you how exclusionary this small circle of economic success is here in Colombia. The government, of course, is part of that elite. And so the fact that they were not in tune with the reality of the vast majority of Colombians, it just really came across in the entire way that this whole thing was rolled out. And I think it’s fundamental to understanding exactly the crisis of confidence that, not just this government, but the entire Colombian state. and the socio-economic system is living at the moment.
How Did the Colombia Protests Evolve?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:56] This tax bill was rolled out in late April and protests erupted very soon thereafter. Was there a geographic center of this protest? How did they begin?
Elizabeth Dickinson [00:07:09] So the initial protests took place everywhere. But from the very beginning that the sort of the epicenter of this movement has been the city of Cali on the Pacific coast. Cali is Colombia’s third-largest. And, it’s the city where perhaps inequality in terms of socioeconomic inequality, racial inequality, geographic inequality, segregation -they’re all at their most pronounced. And so Cali really became sort of the place where protests were fiercest and also where the protests innovated their tactics. So this is where, for example, you saw the development of roadblocks in which protesters would cordon off parts of the city, either to limit transport in and out of certain areas or basically to close off their neighborhoods so that the police or local authorities couldn’t enter. So that was replicated then throughout the country, both in terms of the protests and the regular manifestations, but then also in terms of the roadblocks. But it’s important to mention so Cali, of course, was the epicenter. That’s an urban area. Many urban areas experienced extremely strong protests. But this was a national movement and Colombia, has 32 departments, the equivalent of US states, and every single one of those departments has seen protests. And not only that, but the vast majority of Colombia’s municipalities have seen protests, which is to say that this is rural, this is urban, this is suburban, this is countryside. It’s everywhere, the level of discontent.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:38] And taken together, this is arguably the largest protest movement in recent memory?
Elizabeth Dickinson [00:08:47] I think that’s fair to say. Not only in terms of sort of the numbers of people but also just the variety and breadth of social groups that have been involved in the protests. Historically in Colombia, the protagonists of these types of movements have been labor unions and student organizations. And this time, of course, those actors are present, but they’re joined by many people who have no relationship with any formal organization, many who are protesting for the first time and have joined just because of a general feeling of disaffection.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:19] And they’re wildly popular. As I read your testimony to Congress recently, you said that the roadblocks have mostly now disappeared, gone away. But in general, the protest movement is extremely popular throughout the country.
Elizabeth Dickinson [00:09:40] It’s really astonishing. And the polling indicates that 75 percent of all Colombians view the demonstrations favorably and 84 percent of youth, which is really much higher than you would get on any other question you could ask in the Colombian electorate, which, like the United States, is quite polarized between the right and the left. So, I think the reason that these protests are so important and frankly also the reason that they’re so popular is because they’re really hitting on something that touches almost everyone’s life in Colombia. Which is this, again, this lack of access to the economic system, lack of access to political participation. It’s this exclusionary system that has been in place for so many decades and is now finally sort of boiling over.
How Anger At the Security Forces Sparked the Protests in Colombia
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:10:28] And it seems another motivating factor for these protests, one that you write about extensively in your report for the Crisis Group is general discontent and even anger at security forces. How is that sort of manifesting itself?
Elizabeth Dickinson [00:10:44] So I think what brought people to the streets were the economic grievances. But what entrenched the protests and has really made it more lasting has been the overzealous police response. The government from the beginning has viewed this as a security crisis rather than a political crisis. And so as a result, they’ve leaned very heavily on the police and even at times the army to enforce security -as if there were not demands to answer for, but rather just sort of an issue of public order. And because of that and because of very documented cases filmed many times with various videos and then verified, including by international organizations of police abuse -including police shooting directly into crowds using lethal weapons, incorrect use of non-lethal weapons, detentions, arbitrary detentions of protesters -this sort of behavior has really entrenched and radicalized a movement that already had vast support but now, I think, really has staying power because until this relationship with the police and the security forces can change, there’s going to be this fundamental conflictivity in the way that the society is organized.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:56] And one really interesting and frankly, very scary conflict dynamic that you identify is the role of right-wing militias who are sometimes attacking protesters with a wink and a nod from the security forces themselves. And you warn that this is something that could potentially spiral out of control because Colombia has a long history of both right-wing and left-wing violence and militias that are organizing along these ideological lines.
Elizabeth Dickinson [00:12:28] So this is a very important and dangerous trend that we’ve seen emerge from the protests. Essentially in cities like Cali and also Pereda, groups of citizens who oppose the protesters organize themselves, sort of informally, to form what they describe themselves as a sort of protection unit for their neighborhood. What they then did, is there are numerous occasions in which these individuals, who are armed, were filmed shooting at protesters or otherwise being violent towards them, for example, apprehending protesters extra-legally. And often they did so in the view, and sometimes side by side, of the police themselves. This is very dangerous. Of course, any time a citizen takes justice into their own hands, that’s something that is not acceptable. But it’s even less acceptable given its proximity to the official security response. There was almost a sense that the police saw these people as allies. And so, of course, why would they stop them? They’re all shooting at the same enemy. That’s very alarming.
[00:13:30] The other reason that this is alarming is exactly what you mentioned -because of this deep history of, particularly, right-wing paramilitary organization. Colombia during the 1990s and early 2000s really struggled to roll back a movement that initially evolved as self-protection. Forces, forces against the leftist guerrilla movement, the FARC, but those paramilitary organizations became monsters in and of themselves. They were drug trafficking cartels, they committed some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, they controlled vast areas of the territory, and the remnants of those groups continue to exist throughout Colombian territory. Some of them are armed groups. And, frankly, some of them are still drug trafficking networks. So the DNA is sort of planted in terms of this type of organization. So the fact that we are seeing it emerge during the protests in big cities like Cali and again, in clear view of the police, these are historical references that we really have to be careful about because it can be reactivated so quickly and so easily.
A Cycle of Violence in Colombia?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:14:31] Yeah, I mean, that seems to be a potential kind of nightmare scenario that I can deduce from speaking to you, is that these protests sort of ignite a cycle of violence and reignite conflict that has largely died down -at least, you know, overt conflict over the last several years.
Elizabeth Dickinson [00:14:50] I think that’s exactly the risk that we really want to draw attention to. This is the moment that, if it is not taken seriously, could easily take Colombia back into a sort of bad scenario of descending into conflict. We have the right-wing side of the mobilization. We also, frankly, have armed and criminal groups who, while, they didn’t organize or motivate the protests, have certainly taken advantage of the social context and the turmoil to implant themselves even more deeply in society. There’s also, of course, the disaffection with the state, which has rendered young people, particularly, more vulnerable to recruitment into these groups. The cycle of violence that this sort of social catastrophe could ignite, it’s really a nightmare scenario. And I think it really would push Colombia back over the edge into a situation of direct armed conflict. Now, the Colombian conflict has never really gone away. It has changed form. It’s less visible. It affects fewer regions of the country today. But again, the historical roots are there and it’s much easier to reactivate a conflict than it is to wind one down. Colombia’s just barely trying to work its way out of five decades of conflict and so the risk of this moment, is that it pushes us back in the wrong direction.
What is the Role of The Peace Deal in Colombian Politics?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:11] We are now five years into the peace deal between the government of Colombia and the FARC. And in your testimony to Congress, you say that the fact that we’re at this five-year inflection point is actually a key way for understanding the protests -a benchmark for these protests in the same way that these protests are also motivated by a year and a half of Covid restrictions and lockdowns and economic decline. What’s the relationship between that peace process or perhaps lack thereof, and these protests?
Elizabeth Dickinson [00:16:49] I think this is really important in understanding why the protests are happening now. So during Columbia’s armed conflict, which again lasted half of the century and was really quite all-consuming in terms of the state and also the society itself. These fundamental questions about how the economy and social structure were organized, things like inequality, things like access to opportunity -they were really pushed aside and almost in a collective deference to the extent of the conflict. The crisis really existentially threatening the stability of the very state itself. So these sorts of issues were off the table.
[00:17:26] The other reason they were off the table, frankly, is because of the stigmatization of left-leaning activism as being associated with the leftist guerrilla movement. So the ability to raise these social concerns was extremely constricted. There was very little political space to have these conversations. What the peace agreement did was open that space. It lifted the stigma against leftist activism, but it also, because it lifted the shadow of armed conflict, all of a sudden it was this opening in which Colombians could look around and start asking harder questions about other aspects of society -which is exactly what has happened. You sort of crack open deep problems that have been decades in the making and have been growing and growing in magnitude, but that really the society wasn’t ready to turn to until now.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:19] So like in the 80s or 90s, for example, if you were someone who is calling for free university education for all Colombians, you might be credibly accused of being like a FARC sympathizer, because that’s kind of part of the left-wing ethos that animates FARC. But now, with FARC no longer being this active armed movement, people are able to disassociate say, free education or left-wing causes, with FARC violence.
Elizabeth Dickinson [00:18:46] So labor unions, left-leaning parties, poor farmer organizations, we call them Campesino organizations here. For decades, these movements faced stigmatization as being infiltrated by the FARC, or somehow serving the purpose of the FARC, and as a result, these groups face high levels of selective assassination. In the case of one political party, the Patriotic Union, hundreds of its members were assassinated and specifically because they were raising these types of issues and because of that supposed association with the left. So that’s exactly right. But the activism on the left never disappeared, but it was extremely dangerous and it was always a target from the state itself and from the institutionality and sort of the establishment as being seen as something that was intended to overturn the order.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:42] Fascinating. That’s really fascinating insight. So, you know, do the protesters now have a concrete set of demands that in theory the government could meet and could escalate the situation?
Elizabeth Dickinson [00:20:00] So the demands fall, I think into two categories. The first one is socio-economic demands and the second categories is demands relating to the police response. So, for example, accountability for crimes, reparations for families who have had victims during this crisis, and people who have been killed or disappeared. Those two buckets of demands are there. Now, the way that this sort of negotiation is organized and the way that these demands have been articulated is the following: There’s a national level committee that tries to represent the diversity of the protesters and they have listed seven macro-demands. So these are things like free university education, universal basic income, implementation of the peace accord. These are big asks, obviously, and they’re big categories that include a lot of things.
[00:20:52] Then, however, in each of Columbia’s departments -so, again, the unit that’s equivalent to US state- there’s another strike committee that’s sort of the decentralized version that has its own set of petitions that are often specifically related to the same basket of grievances -whether economic or in terms of the security forces. But they’re localized to that area. One of the interesting things that you encounter when you look at these specific demands at a local level is the extent to which the peace accord and factors into what protesters are asking for, particularly in areas that have large rural populations. So economic grievances can include things like lack of access to land, lack of access to agricultural credit, very poor roads that make it incredibly hard to commercialize agricultural produce. These are all things that are addressed in the peace accord. And so implementation of the peace accord, therefore, is almost sort of a basket grievance that sums up a lot of what demonstrators, at least in the countryside, are looking for.
[00:22:03] I think, in urban areas. It’s interesting. I mean, the peace accord, one of the wonderful things that it did, was it finally, after so many years, addressed this fundamental disconnect and inequality between the countryside and Colombia’s large cities. What we haven’t had, however, and I think what is now sort of on the table, is to have a similar pact for cities to address urban poverty, to address urban concerns. And the urban areas didn’t really get treatment in the peace process. And I think part of what you see protesters asking for on the streets is that similar type of conversation about rethinking the way that society is structured.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:47] So if these protests are so wildly popular and equal and opposite, the government ofI van Duque is becoming increasingly less popular, I mean, are you seeing some political momentum towards their demands? At least, are officials at the local or department level more, perhaps, willing to entertain some of these ideas?
Elizabeth Dickinson [00:23:12] So the local negotiations have been much more productive. And part of that is just the reality of the local situation. The national government, I think, sort of feels like it can afford to kick the problem down the road -although I think that’s quite dangerous- but the local authorities are sort of living in this context. And they just had this urgency to address the situation, particularly in a place like Cali, where at the high point of the protests, you had twenty-six permanent roadblocks within the city that made it nearly impossible to get from one end to the other, let alone to supply grocery stores and get fuel distributed and things like that. So there was just this urgency to address the problem. And for that reason, I think local authorities have been very pragmatic and productive in many cases in trying to at least get some sort of basic understandings with protesters.
[00:24:01] The problem really that we’re all facing right now, in terms of declining this crisis, is Colombia’s electoral calendar. Colombia is set to hold presidential elections in May of twenty 2022. The current president is limited to one term, so he cannot stand again. But his party, of course, can. And so you have this temptation on all sides of the political spectrum to sort of let the crisis simmer a little bit in order to utilize it to their own electoral advantage. So on the right, that means sort of painting the protest as this wellspring of chaos and sort of “if you vote for a leftist leader, your future is this” -burning tires everywhere and blockaded roads in a debilitated economy. And then, of course, on the left, there’s also a temptation to keep the grievances that have fueled this crisis alive as a way to motivate votes for the left-leaning candidates. So this electoral calendar is very dangerous because it means that this crisis is likely to sort of just hang around for the next year with very unpredictable consequences, right? We’ve talked a little bit about how armed groups have taken advantage of the situation. We’ve talked about how the risk of vigilante violence. All of these risks get greater the longer that this drags on. And so the idea of waiting a whole year to deal with any of these challenges. That’s a risky gamble.
What Comes Next For Colombia?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:25:26] Lastly, as you are looking towards that May 2022 presidential election, are there any interim inflection points that you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you how this conflict may evolve over the coming year?
Elizabeth Dickinson [00:25:44] Well, I think the first one is in just a few days. It’s the 20th of July. And this is the date when the strike committee has called for the next mass mobilizations. What happened in June is that essentially I think there was an exhaustion on that on behalf of the protesters who had literally been on the streets every day. And in addition to that, Covid here is really in an apocalyptic moment.It’s at the worst peak that we’ve had since the pandemic started. There are tens of thousands of cases a day, the numbers of deaths are really off the charts, and the hospitals are overwhelmed. We have a shortage of oxygen. I mean, the moment I can’t overstate it. This is a really serious moment for Columbia right now. And I think because of the confluence of those two things, protests sort of deescalated in June.
[00:26:33] But there’s a real risk that just in a few days or maybe in a month or maybe in two months, they erupt again with force. And any sort of provocation could do this. It could be another legal provocation that the government plans to reintroduce a modified tax reform on the 20th of July -the exact same day that mass protests have been called. And we could have a situation or an incident of egregious police misbehavior that could ignite protests again. So, any of these sparks could really set us off on another cycle. And I think the message really is that, again, this crisis might ebb and flow, but it isn’t going to go away until it’s dealt with seriously. And the problem with leaving it like this is that every time it erupts, it gets bigger. We can say that the sort of the first species of these protests started in 2019 even before the pandemic -when you had mass mobilizations largely around economic issues.
[00:27:30] Then it erupted again in September 2020, in the middle of a lockdown, after a case in which a police officer was filmed very violently restraining someone who later died in custody. That erupted, for instance, again. Now there erupted again. So every time that they erupt, the crisis gets bigger and more profound and harder to roll back. And so that’s the urgency of seeing this as a living crisis and not something that’s over or, for now, has calmed down. And no, this has to be seen as urgent as ever, no matter the exact number of protests that there are on any given day.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:28:10] Well, Beth, thank you, as always, was very helpful.
Elizabeth Dickinson [00:28:15] Thank you so much for having me. It’s always great to speak with you, Mark.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:28:20] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Elizabeth Dickinson for speaking with me today. And I mentioned at the outset that I have been following Elizabeth Dickinson’s work for a very long time. In fact, back in 2013, we worked together on a book project that she wrote called Who Shot Ahmed? A Mystery Unravels in Bahrain’s Botched Arab Spring. You can find that book by visiting GlobalDispatches.org. And while you’re there, check out our new book for The Love of Hong Kong, A Memoir From My City Under Siege by Hana Mehan Davis. That book, published just a few weeks ago, tells the story of Hong Kong’s recent and rapid decline from a place that was once a bastion of liberty and free speech to a place where one can now be arrested for a social media post or showing up at a protest. Again, please visit GlobalDispatches.org and you can find those two books and more.