Dispatch

Colombia Joins Latin America’s Wave of Protests

After hundreds of thousands of anti-government demonstrators took to the streets, President Iván Duque’s administration faces calls to address a range of demands.

People demonstrate under pouring rain in Bogotá on Nov. 21.
People demonstrate under pouring rain in Bogotá on Nov. 21. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images

BOGOTÁ — On Thursday morning, it was unclear what would come of a call for Colombians to protest against their government. Numerous sectors had joined the original appeal from the country’s unions for a nationwide strike on Nov. 21, but few knew if countrywide marches would follow a wave of sustained demonstrations in other Latin American countries, some leading to a seismic shift in their politics, or if the outcry would fizzle out alongside other Colombian protests in the past year.

On that day, hundreds of thousands of Colombians across the country took to the streets with flags and rallying cries. Indigenous leaders, students, union workers, and anti-corruption advocates took the lead on the streets of major cities. Protesters’ demands include addressing targeted violence against social leaders, implementing key parts of the country’s peace process, putting in place anti-corruption measures, and stopping a range of rumored economic reforms. 

Later in the day, the largely peaceful marches saw some clashes with security forces, leaving a cloud of tear gas hovering over the central plaza of Bogotá. The defense minister said that three people died in the western region of Valle del Cauca on Thursday, with the causes under investigation. As protests continued into the night, it was clear that the strike had become one of the biggest anti-government protests in recent memory. Sporadic protests continued into Friday afternoon, and organizers have made another call for protests and a strike to resume on Monday.

“This protest is different, because it’s not just us students coming out,” said Yineth Echavez, a university student in Bogotá who has joined large protests three times in the previous year. “No, it is farmers, professors, indigenous people, union workers, people with disabilities. And this isn’t just happening in Bogotá, this is national. It’s the boom that this country needed.”

Sergio Guzmán, the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, called the day of protest a “game-changer.” 

“It was a very broad and diverse array of people, with different goals, each one of them, but that diversity gives the protesters much more power,” Guzmán said. “You can’t just toss aside their concerns as being from one left-wing in Latin America.” 

Since the administration of President Iván Duque began a little more than a year ago, the South American country has faced ongoing political turmoil and deepened polarization. Duque has faced a rising tide of violence in different regions of the country, several scandals, high unemployment, and ongoing criticism of the slow and partial implementation of the 2016 peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. The administration has found itself with plummeting approval ratings and anger from many different facets of society, which have lodged individual protests against the government.

Late on Thursday, there were already signs that the protest’s calls would go unanswered for the time being. In a speech after the first day of protests, the president voiced concerns about vandalism and called for a deepening “social dialogue” but offered no solid plans to do so. “I’ve given very precise instructions for the public forces to guarantee the security that’s being affected by the vandals and criminals who want to terrorize our citizens,” Duque said, but he didn’t begin to address the specific demands from protesters.

The reaction was almost immediate. Colombians countrywide sustained a cacerolazo, where people banged on pots in unison from the windows of their apartments for hours as groups chanted in the streets. In that moment, it was clear that Duque’s response “didn’t appease anyone,” Jerónimo Sudarsky, a Colombia analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America, said.

“The general sense is that people didn’t feel heard,” Sudarsky said. “Specifically the leaders of the organizations that made up the protest didn’t feel heard, didn’t feel like their specific concerns were being addressed.”

Protests continued throughout the night and into the morning in Colombia’s major cities, with movement leaders calling for demonstrations to continue next week. 

The march was originally announced in early October by union workers frustrated with rumored economic reforms. But as a wave of protests swept across Latin American countries in the last few weeks, the Duque government faced a high-profile cabinet resignation and a massacre of an indigenous community in Cauca at the hands of illegal armed groups. Amid ongoing unrest, the emerging idea of a unified strike seemed more likely in Colombia.

Colombia’s uproar takes place as other movements have erupted in countries including Chile and Ecuador, where demonstrations began as pushback to one specific issue and have morphed into larger calls against governments and political systems. In these countries, an initial nonresponse from the government has only deepened outrage. 

“The government has an opportunity to shut off the pressure valve if it’s able to read the political moment correctly,” said Guzmán, of Colombia Risk Analysis. “If it doesn’t, it can certainly escalate.”

That was the hope for Echavez, who stood in the Plaza Bolívar, in the heart of Bogotá, on Thursday afternoon as the square overflowed with marchers. “We’re not asking that he fixes everything tomorrow,” she said. “But we want to see him doing the things that we’re asking for today. We want him to realize that what we’re asking for is real.”

Megan Janetsky is a Colombia-based journalist focusing on migration, human rights, and politics. Twitter: @meganjanetsky

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