- Daniel Pardo
- BBC Mundo correspondent in Colombia
Police and transportation stations burned. Roads cut for days. Product shortages. An unknown number of dead and missing. A state of uncertainty and acute nervousness.
Colombia has experienced many delicate moments throughout its traumatic history, but now he seems to be traveling an unknown path in at least three different areas: the social protest, la economics and political representation.
There were moments in the past that broke history in two such as the wave of violence that preceded the signing of the 1991 Constitution or the riots of 1948 after the assassination of candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán that gave rise to the guerrillas.
The outcome of the current crisis is unknown and that is why it is difficult to enter into comparisons about its historical relevance.
What seems evident, according to the experts consulted by BBC Mundo, is that heThe current situation is unprecedented. And that much is explained because the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016 opened a Pandora’s box of demands and problems that were previously prohibitive because of the war.
“I am 74 years old and I tell you that I have never seen a political elite so incapable of reaching resolutions“says historian Carlos Caballero Argáez.
The government of Ivan Duque has launched a new negotiating table to reduce tension and seek consensual solutions. This is what he did in November 2019, when the protests were more peaceful and punctual and the situation in the country less serious.
Today the president has challenges from all sides: in his party, in the streets, within the armed forces, in fiscal matters and in politics.
In exactly one year, Colombia will be holding general and presidential elections: all development at this time has an electoral key.
While violence continues to be the main concern of Colombians, BBC Mundo spoke with several experts to do a distance exercise that allows us to understand what is happening.
A sustained and broad strike
A first new element of this crisis is the dimension of social protest.
“The coverage and sustainability have been unprecedented,” says Mauricio Archila, an expert on social movements.
The protests this time reached small and medium municipalities. They were summoned by young people, but have the support of older adults and minority populations. They have paralyzed production, supply and transportation in unexpected corners.
“This strike has reached places where it was not used to protest before and it has been maintained for several days without giving up, “adds Archila.
And he concludes: “I am very skeptical of comparisons, and I do not want to go into talking about Bogotazo (1948) nor the civic strike of 1977, but it is true that this strike has produced a worker-peasant-indigenous alliance that perhaps it had never been so balanced. “
Indeed, the National Strike is a heterogeneous movement plagued by contradictions and internal conflicts. Its leader is not clear and within it there are representations of almost all sectors. Your future depends on how you manage to get around that diversity.
“But what is evident is that the force of the strike surprised the entire political class,” says Daniel Hawkins, a researcher at the National Trade Union School.
“In the middle of the third and strongest wave of contagion and after the order of the Cundinamarca court that prohibited crowds, politicians never believed that people were going to the streets in a massive way,” says Hawkins.
The protests already had two unexpected effects in a country where social mobilization, which was sporadic and labeled “subversive”, rarely had political consequences: the withdrawal of the tax reform and the fall from the Minister of Finance, Alberto Carrasquilla.
What is difficult to predict is whether this movement, which was originally fresh and novel, will end in a situation that does have precedents in Colombia: that of overwhelming violence.
A destabilized economy
The Colombian economy has been for decades the most stable in Latin America: the one with the fewest recessions in the 20th century, the one without hyperinflation, and the one that has not defaulted on its debt commitments in 80 years.
But now the situation is different.
“Few times – if not ever – had I seen the country in a situation as difficult as the one we are living today“wrote the prestigious economist and former minister Mauricio Cárdenas in his column.
And Caballero Argáez adds: “The last time the country’s fiscal responsibility was questioned was during the Latin American debt crisis (early 1980s), but there Colombia managed to refinance the debt and a monitoring agreement with the IMF that allowed us to be the only Latin American country that did not go into recession or have to restructure debt. “
Today Colombian bonds are classified as “junk” in international markets, the peso is reaching devaluation records and for the first time in years the country’s debt payment and issuance capacity is in question.
“Colombia have a collection problem (fiscal) every time there is a crisis, because their collection in normal times has always been low, “says political scientist Mónica Pachón.
“But they had always been able to solve that with crisis tax reforms with temporary taxes that managed to get us out of the problem.”
“The difference now is that a reform had never generated such a level of opposition, much less without entering Congress, and its fall put us in an uncomfortable place,” explains the dean of Political Science at the Universidad del Rosario.
Duque has said that his priority is to achieve a reform as soon as possible that it can be approved in Congress. Economists doubt that a resolution will not be achieved that will likely collect less taxes, but at least get the country out of the crisis.
However, Colombia’s famous neoliberal and orthodox model of stability showed cracks for the first time in its history.
A radicalized politics
As well as economically stable, Colombia has been a country without many political ups and downs: except for a short period in the 1950s, democracy in its most formal sense – elections every four years and smooth power transitions – has kept intact.
Although violence has not ceased to be a problem since the 1950s, the bipartisanship between liberals and conservatives (who came to alternate in power by agreement) allowed the idea to be generated that democratic institutions were not in danger.
Colombia was always considered, at least abroad, as a stable democracy.
But in this crisis, the political class has been unable to reach resolutions, analysts point out. Duque called on the military to control the situation (although several mayors objected); Some even consider coup d’état scenarios and the leader in the polls for the 2022 elections is a leftist candidate who was a member of the guerrillas, Gustavo Petro.
“The violence of the protests, which is also followed by people from their networks without entering to understand or deepen, makes politics more polarized and more ideological, with the consequence that reaching solutions is much more difficult, “explains Pachón.
One of the effects of the 2016 peace process was the opposition status, a mechanism that gives guarantees to critics of the Executive, but also increases its ability to hinder its initiatives.
“You add to that that Duque is a weak president even within his party and you have the breeding ground of misfortune“says Pachón.
In Colombia, as in all of Latin America, there has always been a crisis of political representation, but perhaps never before has the population’s distrust of the political class been so evident.
“What we are seeing is a generalized and perhaps irremediable discontent, it is almost a pre-revolutionary situation,” says Caballero.
The consequences can be many: from the resignation of the president, unprecedented in Colombia since the 1950s, to the election of a candidate, from the left or right, who breaks with the hitherto stable democratic institutions of the country.
“This is solved with a candidate who can generate trust between the different populations at the same time that can include the isblishment political, “says Pachón.
“But I’m afraid that, now, is further away than ever.”
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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.