Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Colombia’s “Progress” Leaves Millions Behind

Black and Indigenous citizens have been excluded from the country’s narrative of growth.

By , an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, and , a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University.
Indigenous Minga leave the city of Cali, Colombia
Protesters from the front lines bid farewell to members of the Indigenous Minga leaving the city of Cali, Colombia, on May 12. Luis Carlos Ayala

Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world. So it’s no surprise extreme inequality has been a major catalyst for the national protests that started in April and continue to spread throughout the country. The demonstrations, which initially began as a response to proposed tax reforms, have evolved into a mass critique of the country’s economic policies.

Yet while citizens rally against the country’s economic problems, Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez has exalted its economic performance. Meanwhile, he’s deployed military police to suppress the movement in the name of protecting the country’s economic growth.

Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world. So it’s no surprise extreme inequality has been a major catalyst for the national protests that started in April and continue to spread throughout the country. The demonstrations, which initially began as a response to proposed tax reforms, have evolved into a mass critique of the country’s economic policies.

Yet while citizens rally against the country’s economic problems, Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez has exalted its economic performance. Meanwhile, he’s deployed military police to suppress the movement in the name of protecting the country’s economic growth.

These two economic experiences are direct products of Colombia’s model of economic development, which elites have equated with progress. This model is rooted in neoliberal policies that prioritize economic growth over structural equality and disproportionately benefit the urban elite. In other words, Colombia’s story of national progress reflects a deeply segregated reality among its citizens.

On one side is the view that, because of its relatively robust development and macroeconomic stability over the past 30 years, the country is a model for the region. This version of the nation’s history is boasted by economic and political elites who call themselves Colombianos de bien (“goodwilled Colombians”) to proclaim their law-abiding and hard-working character. According to these groups, the protests are obstacles to continued development. Protesters are simply “vandals,” and the movement is infiltrated by criminal groups benefiting from chaos—a characterization that allows elites to diminish demonstrators’ demands and justify suppression.

Colombia’s story of national progress reflects a deeply segregated reality among its citizens.

On the other side are those on the losing end of extreme inequality, which has only been exacerbated by the global pandemic and the economic crisis it brought. Indeed, Black and Indigenous Colombians, who comprise about 15 percent of the population and are now at the front lines of the protests, are left outside of the country’s narrative—and experience—of growth.

How can one explain these seemingly distant realities in Colombia?

First, it is important to recognize inequality goes beyond wealth. It is deeply intersectional, meaning it is experienced along racial, gendered, and territorial—not only economic—lines. The marginalization of Black and Indigenous communities has been central to elites’ visions of national development since Colombia’s independence era in the early 19th century. Although many Black and Indigenous groups fought against colonial rule, Creoles successfully ensured their control over the nation-building process. This colonial legacy is protected by economic and political elites who defend that social hierarchy to this day.

Now, Black and Indigenous citizens experience extreme poverty at much higher rates than other Colombians and are less likely to receive adequate public goods. Similarly, their communities face greater environmental extraction and attacks on their land. And when Black and Indigenous leaders push back, they are met with disproportionate levels of violence. In 2020, out of 331 activists murdered in the world, 177 were Colombians.

Protesters in Cali, Colombia

On the first day of militarization, an armed police officer surrounds protesters in Cali, Colombia, on May 2. Luis Carlos Ayala

It is no accident the Cauca region of Colombia—an area that’s predominantly Black and Indigenous—is at the center of recent protests. There, demonstrators are pushing back against the vestiges of colonial power. Activists have responded to military suppression by toppling colonial statues and calling for public recognition as equal citizens of the state, since many protesters feel the government only sees marginalized ethnic groups as objects of cultural heritage and second-class citizens.

These aren’t particularly novel demands. Before the protests, Indigenous activists called for state action amid growing violence against their communities. Similarly, Afro-Colombians have organized in recent years against systemic anti-Black violence throughout the country.

The problem is that previous protests—for instance, labor rights movements in the 1920s and 1970s and land rights movements in the 1950s and 1960s—haven’t been met with reform. Instead, the state responded to demands for land reform or improved labor conditions with violent suppression. Many Colombians viewed these tactics as necessary to protect national growth from groups they believed were obstructing it.

The armed conflict between the state and militant groups that characterized the second half of the 20th century in Colombia helped the government reinforce the narrative that national progress relies on coercive state power. Between 1960 and 2016, social mobilization and citizen’s demands for equality were stigmatized and linked to leftist insurgencies.

The epitome of this idea of progress came in 2002, during the peak of the conflict against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—at the time, the longest and most powerful standing insurgent group. The strengthening of guerrilla groups led Colombians to support former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s Seguridad Democrática (Democratic Security), a policy agenda that doubled down on the government’s model of progress by prioritizing militarization to combat terrorism and pursuing economic development with a deeply neoliberal agenda. The rhetoric of that agenda continues to frame the way many Colombians understand national progress.

Protesters and military police clash in Bogota, Colombia

Protesters and military police clash after 21 days of demonstrations in Bogotá, Colombia, on May 19. Luis Carlos Ayala

This way of thinking was most recently apparent in the public’s opposition to the 2016 peace accords between the Colombian government and FARC, which were led by Uribe’s party, Democratic Center, and also in the election of the center-right Duque in 2018. In both cases, public discourse was framed along the same axis: in favor of or against forgiving “terrorists” and the threat they posed to the country’s progress.

Fear surrounding armed insurgencies continues to frame receptions of the protests today. Many Colombians view the current movement as a debate between order and chaos, security and vandalism, and progress and stagnation.

Yet the wave of protests could signal a turning point in Colombia’s history.

Unlike previous moments of social mobilization, the protests are widely supported by Colombians, especially young people. A recent poll conducted of a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 people by the National Consulting Center, one of the largest consulting and marketing firms in Colombia, found 73 percent of respondents support protesting in general, 76 percent support today’s particular movement, and 70 percent sympathize with its demands. Support for the protests suggests economic growth at the expense of marginalized communities is no longer a sustainable or popular strategy for national progress.

The wave of protests could signal a turning point in Colombia’s history.

We have yet to see how this wave of protests will shape the future of Colombian politics. But as of now, many politicians have released statements apologizing for misunderstanding the motives behind the protests and recognizing the pervasiveness of inequality in the country—some for the first time.

Of course, these events aren’t particular to Colombia. Extreme structural inequality is a global phenomenon that has become a focal point of contention in Latin America. The protests in Colombia share similarities with Chile’s 2019 “Estallido Social,” where thousands of Chileans took to the streets to demand a change to the model of national development imposed under former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet. A similar narrative has played out in Peru’s recent election of Pedro Castillo, a leftist presidential candidate characterized by his rejection of neoliberal policies instated in the 1990s under then-Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori.

It is perhaps no surprise that Colombia and Chile, upheld as success stories of neoliberalism, are now epicenters of popular mobilization. Beyond their borders, protests in these countries signal growing resistance against the economic policies of the 1990s. As inequality rises worldwide, Colombia’s moment of unrest has much to offer for understanding the future of the development economy—and how citizens will respond to it.

Arturo Chang is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, where he conducts research on Black and Indigenous revolutionary movements, post-colonial theory, and decolonial politics. Twitter: @ArturoChangQ

Laura García-Montoya is a postdoctoral research associate at the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice and the department of political science at Princeton University, where she studies the causes and effects of structural inequality in Latin America. Twitter: @LauraGarciaMo

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