POPAYÁN, Colombia—This nation known as the “Gateway to South America” has become the latest Latin American state to be shaken by widespread, anti-government demonstrations. More than 200,000 marchers turned out across Colombia last Thursday to protest against the administration of the right-wing president, Ivan Duque.
Since then, in major cities throughout this Andean nation, the largely peaceful demonstrators have been met by notoriously brutal riot squads wielding truncheons and firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Troops have occupied the streets in urban areas. Curfews imposed. Borders closed. Foreign “agitators” deported.
After a nonviolent start, by late Thursday night protesters were fighting back with homemade black-powder grenades and Molotov cocktails. A series of clashes over the following days left at least four dead protesters, and hundreds of others wounded and detained. One Colombian soldier even committed suicide after being charged as a "traitor" for refusing to join in attacks on the marches.
The marches continued into this week, as leaders from a diverse array of groups—including students, indigenous peoples, union workers, and small farmers—sought to force a dialogue with President Duque.
“These protests showed more than anything that Duque is completely out of touch with the general populace,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), in an email to The Daily Beast.
“In many ways, Duque represents the old way of doing things in Colombia where those in power are not accountable to the general populace and politics serves as a way to access economic power and advance your personal ... agenda,” Sánchez-Garzoli wrote.
While covering the protests in troubled Cauca state—which remains one of Colombia's most violent regions and an epicenter for drug-trafficking—I spoke with many demonstrators on a wide variety of issues that concerned them. Some spoke of austerity measures put in place by Duque’s regime, such as rolling back pensions, reducing the minimum wage, and cutting government funds for education and health care.
“We don’t have enough lab equipment to go around,” said biology major Miguel Troyano, 18, a freshman at the state-funded University of Cauca. “And what we do have is in bad shape. We don’t even have enough chairs in the classrooms,” said Troyano, his eyes red from teargas, and his cheeks white with milk, which is thought by many to be a remedy against the choking gas. “Now they want to cut the school’s budget again. These are the kinds of things that have driven us [students] out into the streets.”
An indigenous protester of the Guambiano culture, who gave her name as Busrwaira, age 26, spoke of the ongoing persecution of indigenous people. (More than 700 indigenous and other community leaders have been murdered since the start of 2016.) “They must stop invading our territory, killing our people, and stealing our resources,” Busrwaira said. “Those on the right want to silence us, because they say we [indigenous people] oppose economic development. But we demand respect, and we won’t be kept quiet.”
Still others accused Duque and his allies of catering only to big businesses and wealthy elites.
“He’s just another Trump,” said Afro-Colombian demonstrator Alvaro Sinisterra, 28. “He’s corrupt, and racist, and his government is completely incompetent.”
But if there was one topic all of the protesters I spoke with agreed on, it was Duque’s mishandling—some would say deliberately sabotaging—of the historic peace agreement forged by President Juan Manuel Santos that ended Bogota’s 50-year war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016.
Since Duque’s election in 2018, he has failed to implement key elements of that peace deal, according to his critics. They accuse him, for example, of failing to implement ratified indigenous rights protection measures. And of ignoring crop substitution programs for rural farmers who grow coca, the main ingredient in cocaine. Those missteps, combined with the ongoing, unsolved assassinations of social leaders and former FARC officers, have driven many of the guerrillas back into the jungle.
“[Duque] is destroying the peace agreement, and bringing back the war,” says Sinisterra in the midst of the demonstration. He traveled 12 hours by bus to join the march in Cauca’s capital of Popayán. Sinisterra also mentions the return of “false positives”—extrajudicial military killings of civilians aimed at raising the body count for units in the field. The regime’s cover-up of eight minors killed in such a fashion forced Duque’s defense minister to resign earlier this month, and further fanned the flames of protest.
“We know what the guerrillas did to our communities. Nobody knows better than we do. And now, because of this government, they’re taking up their guns again,” Sinisterra said.
WOLA’s Sánchez-Garzoli agreed that disappointment over the botched accords are at the heart of the protest movement:
“A lot of expectations were raised [that] the peace process was going to not only end the internal armed conflict with the FARC but also radically change politics in Colombia,” Sánchez-Garzoli said.
“Supporters of the [deal] were expecting not just a demobilization but a realignment of society so that it was more equitable in terms of politics, economics, representation, and distribution of land and natural resources. They were expecting for there to be an opening of the democratic space . . . [But] the political and economic elites freaked out and joined forces to guarantee their hold on power through the Executive Branch.” That is, through President Duque.
“Duque came in trying to bulldoze the peace agreement,” Sánchez-Garzoli said, “but the seeds of change in favor of peace were already sown.”
Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia have all been roiled by protest movements of late. And in each of those cases, the protesters were able to push their respective governments to enact popular change. Chile and Ecuador were forced to freeze certain austerity measures, while controversial Bolivian president Evo Morales was driven out of office entirely, even as counterprotesters declared him the victim of a coup.
Other recent popular uprisings in Nicaragua and Venezuela were less effective, but still generated massive turnouts and captured headlines around the world.
Some of these nations’ leaders are left-wing, some are right-wing, some authoritarian, some not. So what common themes might there be underlying the spread of these movements?
When I put that question to Sánchez-Garzoli, she said the old populist slogans and ideologies are not working any more. A lack of transparency and credible leadership has led to a fundamental loss of trust.
“Underlying all protests is the issue of corruption,” Sánchez-Garzoli said, and that is regardless of where a given administration falls on the left-right political spectrum.
Another factor is rampant inequality—derived primarily from neoliberal policies that benefit elites and multinationals while promoting “‘us or them’ approach to politics where the winner takes all, demonizes opponents, and grabs on to power at all costs.”
Indigenous protester Busrwaira pointed to another reason she was willing to sally out and get teargassed day after day. Standing on a street corner, dressed in her people’s traditional cape and hat and carrying a ceremonial staff, she said: “We must make them to protect the Earth Mother,” she said. “To stop killing her. To stop raping her in the name of capitalism.”
That echoed something Sánchez-Garzoli had said about ecological concerns also being a common driver of the recent “Latin American Spring.”
“These protests are linked to the unease that younger generations feel about how the older generations are not protecting them from the negative consequences of poor environmental management [and] the changed economic system,” she said, and went on to cite climate change as a motivating factor, especially among the younger marchers.
“Many youths are concerned about their future,” Sánchez-Garzoli said. And so they see these mass protests and the attendant violence that so often comes with them, “as the only way of changing things.”