The constitutionalist Rodrigo Uprimny (Bogotá, 62 years old) is a respected voice in the Colombian public debate. Professor and emeritus professor at the National University of Colombia, he directed for a decade the Center for Studies of Law, Justice and Society, Of Justice, to which he is still closely linked. With a master’s degree in sociology of development in Paris and a doctorate in economics in Amiens, in France, his columns in The viewer Y The Empty Chair They are among the most read and commented on in Colombia. He tells from his apartment in Bogotá that he has been “very guarded” during the pandemic to take care of his health. In the midst of the wave of protests against the Executive of Iván Duque, who has been serving for more than two weeks and has crashed against police repression, he proposes in this virtual interview with EL PAÍS possible solutions for the crisis.
Question. How would you define the moment Colombia is going through?
Answer. Colombia is experiencing a crisis that admits different readings and solutions, including two opposite ones. The first is that, due to the democratizing effect of the peace agreement, it raises the issue of the armed conflict that has dominated Colombian politics for the last 30 years, other demands have arisen, other problems. Colombia would be living, especially since 2019, a kind of democratic spring. People are mobilizing, there are new actors in the streets, such as students –or more than students, even young people, since some are not even students–, making demands for a number of accumulated problems to be faced. The problems of inequality, the lack of a future, the implementation of the peace agreement, the murder of social leaders, environmental demands, and indigenous peoples. Then we would be in a street democracy that Colombia has not had much of, unlike other Latin American countries that are used to huge demonstrations and protests. That would be a very positive turn that will allow for a deeper and more robust democracy. That’s the optimistic reading.
P. And the pessimist?
R. That perhaps also as a consequence of the peace agreement, what we are seeing is a polarized, divided society, a disjointed and ungovernable society with a lack of clear and lucid leadership on all sides, both presidential and promoters of unemployment. The protests, the crisis, the demonstrations in the middle of the pandemic, the blockades that affect the rights of others, the unacceptable violence of some protesters and the serious human rights violations in the police repression, all this shows a polarized society. So, the indefinite persistence of unemployment and blockades will increase violence. And given the precariousness of the control agencies and the Prosecutor’s Office due to their excessive proximity to the Government, the risks of an authoritarian exit and a weakening of the already weak Colombian democracy are great.
P. Which one do you lean on?
We are in an ambiguous situation where both readings have real elements. I would like the correct interpretation to be the first, but I recognize elements of truth in the pessimistic reading. We are in a complex crisis that can go either way, without a clear exit.
P. How do you assess the leadership of President Duque at this juncture? Is it comparable with other historical moments in the country?
R. Colombia has experienced very serious crises, what I do not remember is a serious crisis with such intense citizen mobilization. It is that combination that is new. Before, we experienced crises due to violence, terrorist attacks, armed conflict, but a crisis that is caused by persistent social mobilization for more than two weeks is new in Colombian history for the last 50 years. The government triggered the crisis for various reasons. In the 2019 marches, which had already been very intense, he tried to deactivate them with the so-called national conversation, those dialogues in the Palace or in Bogotá that really did not lead to anything. The only thing that was accepted was to defend the approval of the Escazú agreement [el tratado regional sobre asuntos ambientales que puede frenar los asesinatos de ecologistas], but it was not even able to make it pass in Congress, so there remains that accumulated that in the face of massive mobilizations this Government is going to respond with delaying tactics. And then he unleashed the crisis by proposing a tax reform that had some positive elements, but which nevertheless hit the popular and middle-class sectors with new taxes in the midst of a pandemic. Leadership has been lacking.
P. Does the government stigmatize social mobilization?
A. Yes, it stigmatizes it. Despite the fact that the government’s speech always begins by saying that it recognizes the right to peaceful protest, which is fine, because in Colombia it was not always like that. Former President Álvaro Uribe does not go to the extreme of talking about a dissipated molecular revolution [el concepto de un teórico chileno que los analistas consideran un instrumento para justificar la violencia policial], but it gives the same impression at certain times. It has been an essentially peaceful mass mobilization, although there have been totally unacceptable acts of violence, such as the attempt to burn police officers on one of the hardest nights in Bogotá. At many times the president and his officials have had stigmatizing readings of the crisis.
P. The generational key has been very marked
R. The generational issue and the participation of young people is very strong. With many students, but it is not May 1968 either, it is not a student movement that generates a crisis but rather a leading participation of the youth in the protests. It is something that is not so easy to interpret, except that it is a youth that does not see a clear future. One part has accumulated rages. Despite the fact that those who take to the streets are essentially young, as in many cases in the world, I believe that the pandemic also weighs. Many older adults refrain from going out because we are at the worst peak of the pandemic, with 500 deaths a day, very high infections and the health system on the brink of collapse. That inhibits some people from going out. But with those nuances, the generation gap is real. Which could give universities an important role.
P. What are the outputs? What can we expect at this point?
R. There is no magic formula, and there will not be something convincing and sufficient as the constituent in Chile. There is not. But there are a series of measures and mechanisms that must first help to de-escalate as quickly as possible in the short term, to de-escalate violence, and at the same time generate negotiations that allow a mobilized citizenry to be maintained but not with permanent and prolonged stoppages and blockades . To de-escalate, you have to escalate human rights and put them at the center of crisis management. That may sound rhetorical, but it means concrete things. The president, who has already made a very weak statement, must say that abuses by the public force will not be tolerated – they must be investigated and punished. In turn, the promoters of the strike must say that they are against acts of vandalism – which must be investigated and punished.
P. And what should the Prosecutor’s Office do?
R. The Prosecutor’s Office must really investigate all these facts instead of saying nonsense like it is going to stay with the unemployment trucks. Due to the distrust of the Prosecutor’s Office and the control bodies, especially those who protest, a kind of truth commission can be created for these events. An international commission as has been done in other countries that, under the protection of the IACHR or the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, could in a few months produce a report that will not have judicial value, but would allow clarification with greater impartiality the facts. That this allows those who promote the strike to agree to lift it without meaning to speak of impunity for these crimes. These de-escalation mechanisms are very important. Also the need for negotiations and deliberations at the local level. That is to say, that everything is not played at a single national table, but given that the protests have been multiple and diverse then one can revive instances of local democracy – such as open councils or territorial peace councils – to give citizenship that wants to keep mobilizing spaces that then allow either local solutions to certain issues or stagger those demands at the national level. There is no easy way out, in the singular, but there are democratic ways out.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.