We should start with modesty, by accepting that any attempt at explanation is speculative. No academic, analyst and journalist foresaw this outbreak, the size and force of what has happened in Colombia in recent weeks. Any explanation is an attempt at retrospective rationalization that lacks (I confess) predictive power.
Unemployment began as a mainly youth phenomenon, concentrated in large cities. It attracted above all the vulnerable middle classes, more the impoverished than the structural poor. Youth unemployment (close to 25%), the closure of face-to-face education and the confinement of many pushed young people to the street more strongly than in 2019. Many feel excluded, without opportunities, without hope. Controlling the pandemic placed an excessive burden on them, exacerbated the problems of exclusion and marginalization.
I am a teacher, I saw despair, impatience and indignation grow. Unjustified curfews. The closings of colleges and universities. The excessive power handed over to the police to control the pandemic. Passivity about the needs of young people. Taken together, all of this fueled a kind of pent-up anger. In Bogotá, in September, there was a first outbreak, violently repressed by the police. Several young people were killed. Nothing happened.
There are other reasons of course, many others, among them: the government’s lack of leadership, its inability to create political consensus, to promote a reformist agenda, to channel the desire for change that the Peace accords with the guerrillas had generated. “The future belongs to everyone,” says the government’s slogan. Unfortunately, the government’s agenda focused on the past, on changing agreements, promoting divisions, and fueling senseless polarization.
Beyond the possible primary causes of discontent, the violent response by the authorities and human rights violations fueled the outrage and created a new cause, a new reason for the protest, a new collective purpose. At the same time, as always happens, many groups joined the mobilizations. There is a dynamic of mutual reinforcement, the more people protest, the more people want to join: transporters, coca growers, unions, indigenous people, health workers, etc.
In addition, the protests have a different regional context. In Bogotá, the capital of the country, they have gathered mostly young people who have found in the street a meeting point and a providential place to shout their frustrations and discontent. In Cali, on the contrary, the protests have unleashed more complex, more violent phenomena: armed civilians who shoot at those who block the streets, youth groups that with intimidation and violence control access to popular neighborhoods, and probably organized crime groups that want to take advantage of chaos.
The protests have been a spontaneous, decentralized phenomenon, without hierarchies. Cell phones solve an essential coordination problem. Some have wanted to see in all this an intelligent design, a great international conspiracy. But there is no evidence in this regard. Decentralization creates, however, a problem of representation. There is no one who can abrogate the representation of young people in the streets. Different groups have different demands. The government wants to negotiate, but is not sure with whom.
There is a group of trade unionists and politicians (the so-called “strike committee”) who claim for themselves a legitimate power of representation. But it’s hard to believe him. His agenda seems anti-youth. They attack educational alternation and represent formal workers, a generation that defends privileges that paradoxically go against the demands of young people. Perhaps it is more productive to open the debate completely, have regional tables and listen to the young people, at least understand their anguish and frustrations.
Most of Colombian society does not want more murder, more violence and more hateful words. That feeling, the majority rejection of our violent past, is at this sad moment our only hope. That should be the first point of any dialogue. Life is what we want. No more less than that.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.