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Solutions for Colombia’s Social Unrest Are in Short Supply

As negotiations between the government and the strike committee stall, what can Colombia expect in the last year of Duque’s presidency?

By , the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy in Bogotá, Colombia.
Demonstrators use makeshift shields as they clash with riot police during a new protest against the government in Medellin, Colombia, on June 16.
Demonstrators use makeshift shields as they clash with riot police during a protest against the government in Medellín, Colombia, on June 16. Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images

After more than a month of sustained civil unrest marked by street protests and road blockades, negotiations between the Colombian government and the strike committee, a coordinating organization that draws from unions and student groups, have reached a dead end. Last week, the strike committee announced it had unilaterally ended its negotiations, and this week, it said it would pause demonstrations for now, announcing a protest set for July 20. Each side is now accusing the other of political brinksmanship. There is little appetite for making concessions that could portray weakness ahead of elections, which may create a highly polarized election cycle.

The government has been waiting for economic losses and fatigue to make the protests unsustainable—a strategy that comes with its own major costs for Colombia President Iván Duque Márquez. More than 3,000 road blockades have been recorded, and although they may be slowing down now, the damage has accrued. According to La República, economic losses amount to $1.3 billion in May alone. Negative international press has critically compromised Duque’s reputation abroad. During the past month, images of police abuse and criticism of the failed tax reform that sparked the protests became uncomfortable front-page news for the government.

After more than a month of sustained civil unrest marked by street protests and road blockades, negotiations between the Colombian government and the strike committee, a coordinating organization that draws from unions and student groups, have reached a dead end. Last week, the strike committee announced it had unilaterally ended its negotiations, and this week, it said it would pause demonstrations for now, announcing a protest set for July 20. Each side is now accusing the other of political brinksmanship. There is little appetite for making concessions that could portray weakness ahead of elections, which may create a highly polarized election cycle.

The government has been waiting for economic losses and fatigue to make the protests unsustainable—a strategy that comes with its own major costs for Colombia President Iván Duque Márquez. More than 3,000 road blockades have been recorded, and although they may be slowing down now, the damage has accrued. According to La República, economic losses amount to $1.3 billion in May alone. Negative international press has critically compromised Duque’s reputation abroad. During the past month, images of police abuse and criticism of the failed tax reform that sparked the protests became uncomfortable front-page news for the government.

Meanwhile, the government’s negotiation strategy has required buying time, extending negotiations as much as possible, and presenting unilateral solutions to protest demands. Although there have been concessions—such as shuffling the cabinet, granting subsidies to low-income university students, improving youth employability through tax breaks, and introducing police reforms—the government is not keen on giving the strike committee credit for any of these policy changes despite the fact they have been long-standing protest demands.

Yet the strike committee is presenting a less than unified front. Although they have acknowledged road blockades and extended strikes are hurting the economy, the committee does not have the ability to end blockades nationwide, a constant demand from the government, as some blockade leaders do not recognize the strike committee. The committee has also made a series of demands that are highly unlikely to be met, including dismantling the anti-riot police unit, issuing currency to hand out additional COVID-19 subsidies, amending the country’s trade agreements, and admitting culpability for human rights abuses committed by police during the protests. Additionally, some members of the strike committee have taken advantage of their time in the spotlight to launch political endeavors of their own, making it easy for the government to dismiss their demands by arguing they should be preceded by an electoral victory and channeled through legislation.

It is unlikely the government will be able to reverse its favorability trend in time for the May 2022 elections.

Duque will serve through the end of his term, but his government has effectively ended. My firm, Colombia Risk Analysis, uses a Presidential Favorability Aggregate Index based on the results of several surveys. It suggests while Duque had a significant surge in approval during the pandemic, the protests have made a significant dent in the government’s image domestically and internationally. Colombia is grappling with a soaring rate of cases and deaths from the continued pandemic and a difficult economic recovery ahead. It is unlikely the government will be able to reverse its favorability trend in time for the May 2022 elections.

Duque’s final year in office (starting August this year) will likely be marked by frustration and brinksmanship as he is unlikely to muster enough support in Colombia’s Congress to pass the rest of his ambitious legislative agenda, including health care reform. Despite a cabinet shuffle, the government still does not have the widespread credibility needed to present solutions to the crisis. Although some members of the ruling party have suggested a national unity cabinet, it is unlikely opponents would save the government—in doing so, they would be frustrating their own political aspirations in 2022.

In Colombia, the pandemic worsened all existing social tensions, aggravating unemployment, increasing dropout rates for schools and universities, and exacerbating a lack of economic opportunity. Inequality goes beyond just economics alone. The poor are more vulnerable to the pandemic since their often informal work cannot be conducted from home and their access to vaccines hinges on government effort. As elections approach, social groups will look to restart demonstrations, which are also likely to regain strength should the government fail to make significant changes in substance and tone.

This cycle of policy standstill and protest adds pressure on political parties to deliver for 2022 as campaigns across the ideological spectrum gear up for a protracted fight for voters. It will be very difficult for the ruling Democratic Center party to push forward a candidate that will represent the incumbent’s goals (Duque himself is ineligible due to a one-term limit), as momentum in Latin America does not currently favor that party. In Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Mexico, ruling parties were either defeated or have significantly lost power this year as voters demonstrate strong discontent with establishment politicians and the handling of the pandemic.

Frustration with the system and with economic and political elites is becoming more prevalent in Colombia, part of a trend across Latin America. There is a high degree of awareness among young people of inequality, lack of opportunities, and a broken social contract. Rampant corruption as well as deficiencies in infrastructure, education, and the judicial system are likely to be capitalized on by opposition politicians who will present redistributive proposals and lofty promises of economic growth as anti-systemic bona fides. Populism and broad solutions are appealing at this moment, particularly ahead of the electoral cycle—opposition politicians are not accountable to their voters to keep their proposals grounded in practical limitations. For their part, the ruling party’s electoral narrative will likely gravitate around fear, alluding to enduring concepts like Venezuelan-style socialism and the role of Colombia’s left-wing guerrilla groups, a strategy that is unlikely to connect with younger voters.

Conflict between the government and opposition is politically profitable for these parties in the short term but does a disservice to voters and citizens.

Conflict between the government and opposition is politically profitable for these parties in the short term but does a disservice to voters and citizens, who are not presented with a long-term road map that addresses structural issues. The 2016 peace agreement, most known for achieving the demobilization of the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, presented such a road map in its wide-ranging reform policies, but Democratic Center politicians have spent a significant portion of their time in office attempting to undo it, especially the chapters on judicial reform, political participation, and drug policy. The government has also selectively implemented other components, such as rural reform. The agreement, which might have presented a start toward addressing public demands on economic inequality and lack of political representation, has largely foundered.

Candidates hoping to succeed Duque in 2022 will face a polarized electorate, a dismal fiscal situation, weak and politicized institutions, and an obstructionist Congress. This will increase chances that the next government will be weak and ineffective at addressing growing social demands. In Peru, this month’s second-round presidential runoff featured two extreme candidates unpopular with much of the public. The winner, leftist Pedro Castillo, is expected to be blocked at every turn by the legislature, an undesirable outcome for those who wish to see real change in the wake of the pandemic. Colombia has a little under a year to avoid such a scenario.

Sergio Guzmán is the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy in Bogotá, Colombia. Twitter: @SergioGuzmanE

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