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Demonstrators participate in the inauguration of a monument to the resistance built by protesters and locals amid ongoing protests against the government of Colombian President Ivan Duque in Cali, Colombia, on June 13, 2021.

LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images

Ordinarily, images of the Colombian President receiving a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine would offer some respite for the beleaguered ruling party and lift the gloom and uncertainty enveloping the country with a rare piece of good news. However, not long after President Ivan Duque’s bare-arm photo opportunity on June 13, Colombia reported a new daily high of 586 deaths from COVID-19 and brought the country within reach of a tragic landmark of 100,000 deaths from the virus.

There has been scant relief for a political leadership searching for pandemic ideas and also struggling to respond to a nationwide strike, which began on April 28. The protests, largely made up of the country’s disenfranchised youth, reveal a complexity of problems inherent in Colombian society, from corruption to a faltering peace process, and from inequality to violence and beyond.

The challenges will likely not be addressed in this government’s final year with a presidential election on the horizon in 2022. No one party nor candidate will want to make concessions in what remains a highly charged situation, and none will want to lose ground in this pre-electoral landscape.

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“This process represents a simultaneous hatching of various tensions accumulated within Colombia’s society,” said Jorge Pulecio, an economist, political analyst and academic in Bogota. “Even prior to the pandemic, there was a huge issue of unemployment among the country’s youth, but the discontent is broad. People are enraged with the government’s authoritarian behaviour, its failure to act on the 2016 peace accord, the impunity of corruption and the killings of social leaders. With the pandemic, President Duque has been using fear as an instrument of control.”

Previously, the spectre of the now demobilized FARC guerrillas (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the majority of whom laid down their weapons in favour of peace in 2016 after four years of negotiations and bringing an end to roughly 50 years of conflict, was the universally acknowledged object of fear for the majority of Colombians.

With the FARC now gone, the government has painted the unrest as an ideological struggle between left and right, and it points to the political chaos and economic distress in Venezuela as the probable outcome of the current situation should the left win in 2022′s election.

But: “This has never been about left versus right. That is what the government wants you to believe,” said Carlos Moreno, an independent web designer in favour of the protests. “Firstly, we are governed by a completely corrupt political class. Secondly, narco-trafficking and the cocaine business permeates every level of politics and, thirdly, inequality in the country has been accentuated by the politics and politicians here. And finally, the pandemic has brought all of these to the fore.”

Colombia’s youth, which has been out on the streets protesting, is aware of changes in attitude and their movement has been consolidated by the violence witnessed on a daily basis, not only in person but also spread instantly on social media. Local non-governmental organization Temblores has reported 45 deaths of civilians at the hands of the police during the protests in addition to countless injuries.

Both sides have discovered communication and messaging is key. In the face of a damning Human Rights Watch report entitled Egregious Police Abuses Against Protesters, detailing systemic and widespread police brutality used to quell the nationwide protests, the government has launched an international public-relations campaign to improve its and the country’s image overseas.

Marta Lucia Ramirez, Colombian Vice-President and Minister of Foreign Affairs, has been tasked with explaining the government’s position: “We begin each day content in the knowledge that we are a democracy and that we must fight so that this is stronger. We will continue with the task [until] suffering in Colombia becomes a thing of the past with a state that is more efficient, transparent and 100 per cent committed to human rights,” she messaged on Twitter before embarking on an international tour, first to the United States and then to Europe.

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Frustration with Colombia’s government builds in growing protest movement

At home, the messaging is quite different and Alvaro Uribe, former two-term president (2002-10) and political godfather to the current President, is deeply involved. His opinion, citing concerns of a Venezuela-style socio-economic catastrophe, holds significant sway as his Centro Democratico party seeks to dismantle and undermine the legitimacy of the strike.

“The government’s plan has been to prolong the strike, thereby weakening it, and making it an issue of public order and not a social explosion and pointing the finger at the left as the perpetrators of the mobilizations,” Prof. Pulecio said.

The left-wing candidate for the presidency in 2022, Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla member and runner-up in the 2018 elections to Mr. Duque, leads the pack. But with just less than a year until the first round of voting, a considerable distance remains and public satisfaction and trust in politicians and state institutions has fallen to 18.2 per cent, according to the Observatorio de la Democracia. This lack of confidence undermines the argument that it is a battle of left versus right.

“I think that youth are not as ideological as they are perceived to be, instead there is a high degree of awareness about inequality, lack of opportunities and a broken social contract,” said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis. “In that sense, you could argue that their anti-systemic tendencies best align with the left wing, since the left represents anti-incumbency and has never been in power, but even if the left were in power, it will be difficult to address systemic problems and compound inequality.”

As each day passes, Colombia’s death count from COVID-19 rises, unemployment is at 15.1 per cent and 21 million citizens (or 42.5 per cent of the population) are living in poverty. So far in 2021 alone, according to Indepaz, 72 social and community leaders campaigning for peace have been assassinated and cocaine production for 2020 reached a historic high with an estimated 1,228 metric tonnes produced, up 8 per cent over 2019, according to a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

With so many complex issues facing a government, left or right, what can be done to calm the unrest, deflate some of the tensions and offer something of a path for the future?

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“One of the things I believe is completely lacking is a long-term vision for the country, a road map that includes broad systemic changes and addresses structural issues,” Mr. Guzman said. “However, that is not reconciled with a four-year political cycle that promotes friction and discontinuity where any proposed solution to problems will not be planned, voted, funded and executed in time to deliver results.”

The rift in Colombian society continues to grow, and while it is billed as left versus right, with the centre nowhere to be seen, the country faces a situation best described by former British prime minister Robert Peel (1788-1850) in 1834, as a “perpetual vortex of agitation.”

As this scenario in Colombia plays out, so much will depend on the outcome of the 2022 elections and how the victorious party addresses the concerns of the country’s youth.

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