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More Than a Battle for the Walls: Social Unrest and Duque's Repression in Colombia

15 Jul 2021
By Saúl M. Rodriguez

In Colombia, civilians have taken to the streets to protest government´s unpopular actions and economic instability. Led mostly by young Colombians, the protests have been characterised both by social mobilisation and artistic resistance.

Social unrest has grown exponentially across the world in recent months, mainly due to COVID-19 fatigue, poor governmental responses to the pandemic, and viral discontent shared via social media. From Cuba to South Africa to Colombia, people have taken to the streets to demand quick and effective governmental actions to counter a hopeless scenario, as well as structural changes to the ways countries are ruled currently. COVID-19 has taken millions of lives, but it has also acted as a catalyst, deepening inequality, showing the negligence of governments regarding health and welfare systems, degrading quality of life, altering social relations. In doing so, social movements have been awakened. Although, community ties were broken because of strict lockdowns, curiously these have now been mutated and re-shaped thanks to common claims in several countries.

In this critical scenario, recent police brutality against protestors in Colombia shocked global audiences, governments, and international institutions across the world. The shock was not only because of the lack of political management of the crisis in a country that has been hard hit by the pandemic, with more than 100,000 casualties, but also because Colombia is known as an unconditional ally of the West in denouncing authoritarianism everywhere. For instance, Colombia is known for helping Venezuelan refugees who escaped from  President Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime. By contrast, recent events have shown the crude civilian-militarism of Colombian political elites.

In Colombia, the state is run by civilians who act militarily without clemency against its own population while claiming to an international audience to act in the name of democracy. Viral videos transmitted on streaming and social media platforms showed how Colombia’s highly militarised National Police attacked without mercy unarmed civil society protestors following Ivan Duque’s presidential orders. The police used heavy weaponry that has killed at least 90 people and two police officers, gravely injured 250, and harmed thousands more Colombians. Likewise, paramilitary and death squads backed by authorities and self-described “gente de bien” (good citizens) have tortured, threatened, and terrorised protestors.

Colombians first took to the streets in reaction to an unpopular tax reform presented by Duque’s government in late April 2021, which came in addition to other reforms of the health and pension systems that will harm low- and middle-income earners, pushing many of them under the poverty line. Protests quickly became a demand for massive political, economic, and social reforms against an unpopular government that has handled the pandemic and social unrest in the worst possible way – trying to hold onto power for the ruling party, Centro Democratico, restricting the role of political opposition, and acting against general will. Likewise, the government has accused protestors and civil society of being part of an international communist complot against one of oldest democratic regimes in the Americas in an effort to vilify the legitimacy of people’s demands on the streets.

Protests have been ongoing for almost three months, mainly led by young people in different cities across the country. In metropolises such as Cali, Medellin, and Bogota, and in small cities, Protest activities have included demonstrations, cultural and art activities, workshops, music and dancing activities, cyber activism via political cartoons and video clips, and murals on prominent walls. In particular, the murals have aroused the anger of political elites and gente de bien for the sharp critiques and public denouncements of the government’s brutality. According to authorities, these monumental murals harm government´s ability to attract international investment and loans, and are considered damage to public spaces.

In this respect, recent clashes in Colombian have become a dispute between old-fashioned political and economical elites, the “oligarchical democracy” that has been attached for almost 180 years to the power, and the broader Colombian society, particularly young people. The government can easily be defined as a “narco-paramilitary regime” due to its links with questionable actors and support of illegal civilian vigilante groups. Duque’s government has deployed a set of militaristic practices to attack social movements via repression, stigmatisation, and a terror campaign with a retrograde anti-Communist discourse, without notice that the post-COVID-19 world has changed. Now, wide sectors of Colombian society, particularly the young people, are on guard.

Uncertainties about the future have drawn people to the streets. With little to lose and much to gain, young people are demanding a better and more inclusive democracy with economic possibilities for everybody, in contrast to the historical restrictions that have characterised the capitalist system in Colombia. Although critics cite a lack of cohesion and spontaneity of this social movement, it has become a milestone in Colombian history with respect to people’s participation in politics and the empowerment of majorities, who for decades have been excluded.

These protests have helped to strengthen ties among young people, creating a political awareness and national conciseness that have been absent for decades in the country, in part due to the restricted political regime, internal war, political corruption, and soft-militarisation. The battle for murals is just one of the clashes playing out between young people who wish to express respect for people killed in the protest, sentiments and hopes about a new Colombia, painting huge and colorful pieces of art, and traditional sectors of society, supported by Colombia’s army and police forces who have erased these murals with grey paint in different cities. The funny thing is that once painted over, another more colorful and dissident piece of art is produced within days, becoming a powerful “weapon of the weak” for millions of citizens tired of Duque´s exclusionary and corrupt regime.

Despite the Centro Democratico campaign to delegitimise the social movement abroad due to their fear of sanctions, international condemnation for excessive use of force against unarmed protestors has come from being exposed by actors such as Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the Interamerican Court of Human Rights, which recently presented a report accusing the government of brutal human rights violations against Colombian citizens during the protests. In this respect, the support of the international community is critical to guarantee the survival of Colombian democracy, not just for its relevance for the region, but also for the country itself, which despite of a long history of violence, has built a powerful civic culture.

Saúl M. Rodriguez currently is a PhD candidate at Political School in the University of Ottawa. He has been author and researcher for more than 20 years, including an extensive field work in sensitive zones across the world. His main academic interests are global politics, military, political regimes, peace & war and counterculture. He is author of two books and dozens of peer-reviewed articles and chapters. Recent publications have been published in Routledge Companion to Global Cyber-Security Strategy (Routledge, 2021) and Counter-terrorism and civil society: Post-9/11 progress and challenges (Manchester University Press, 2021).

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.