On November 21, 2019, Colombia became the latest country in Latin America to take to the streets. Following protests in Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador, unrest in Brazil and Argentina, and ongoing if sporadic demonstrations in Venezuela, Colombians found their public protest voice. Once the protests began, they continued for 7 straight days before there was a pause. There were daily protests in all areas of the country, including the major cities of Bogotá, Medellin, Cali, Barranquilla and Bucaramanga.
The demonstrations in Colombia have been in general peaceful, which is not to say that there haven’t been outbreaks of violence, intense confrontations between the police and protesters, destruction of public property and at times looting. Cali and Bogotá have both had curfews, a first in living memory for many.
The marches have attracted hundreds of thousands, but many many hundreds of thousands more have participated in the so-called caserolazos, the banging of pots and pans along the sidewalks and from the windows of buildings from one end of the city to another. The cacophony of sound in unsettling and sends a clear signal of the widespread sense of dissatisfaction that exists across the country. The protests across Latin American have tapped into a nerve of discontent that is undeniable. The status quo of inequality and corruption has finally run its course, protesters are saying.
The general stoppage on November 21 was originally organized by student, union and indigenous groups. Demonstrators rallied for more money for education, for better health-care and against a proposed rise in the pension age, a plan that President Duque denies. Protesters want more job opportunities, and the clamor to weed out corruption in government has been impossible to ignore. Protesters are also demanding that the government take action to stop the murders of Colombian social leaders; according to INDEPAZ, an NGO based in Bogotá, the number of social leaders murdered in the country as of April this year was a staggering 837. And the assassinations did not stop in April.
Many protesters are angry at Duque’s slow and unenthusiastic implementation of the 2016 peace deal negotiated with the FARC by his predecessor, President Santos. In essence, the protests have become an indictment of Duque’s rightist government’s short reign in power; he took office on Aug 7, 2018. In recent polls, Duque’s approval ratings have continued to decline; only 26% of those polled approve of his presidency. The latest Gallup poll released on Dec. 4 ,shows that the number who now disapprove of his presidency is at 70%, an all-time low.
Colombians woke up on the morning of Nov. 26, to learn that Dilan Cruz, a 17-year-old who had taken a direct hit to the head of a tear gas canister fired by a member of the riot police ESMAD on Nov. 23 had died. The news galvanized many. You can now add the dissolution of ESMAD to the demands of those demonstrating. ESMAD has been accused to using excessive force since the demonstrations began, dislodging legitimate and peaceful demonstrators from the central plaza of the city and from the National Park with water cannon. Newly elected mayor-to-be of Bogotá, Claudia López, has called the ESMAD actions an abuse of power and a misunderstanding of the rights of citizens to protest.
Reports are now estimating that more than 300 members of the security forces have been injured in these protests throughout the country, some in critical condition.
And in Bogotá and other cities, the protests are taking their toll in other ways. Transportation has at times been chaotic. During the height of the protests, many transit routes shut down by mid-afternoon, meaning that thousands upon thousands of people had to walk to get back home from their places of work. For many this meant a walk home of 2 to 4 hours of more. Protest leaders have announced an unrelenting and continued national strike/ work stoppage schedule for the foreseeable future.
The latest national stoppage was December 4. This demonstration was by far the most peaceful of all, almost celebratory at times with many participants drumming rhythmically and dancing. Perhaps this being Colombia, music and dance have played a big part in the demonstrations. Even so, many lines of the citywide Transmilenio fast transit service shut down by midday.
Facing the most critical moments of his presidency, President Duque has been slow to react. Just three days ago on Dec. 2, he finally reversed position and agreed to direct dialogue with the protest leaders. As of now, the when and the where of those meetings have yet to be nailed down.
The toll of the protests on doing business in Colombia has been immediate. It’s estimated that as long as the protests continue, businesses across the country will continue to lose millions of dollars daily. Shopping? You want to go shopping? No, of course not. Forget shopping when the goal is simply to get from point A, often a workplace, to point B, more often than not home. Eating out? Nope, not that either. Many restaurants in Bogotá reported a 90% loss of business per day during the most intense days of protest. More critical, the Colombian peso fell to a historic low against the dollar last week. The repercussions of the protests on how Colombia does business internationally are extraordinary.