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Colombia’s Future Is Up in the Air

After weeks-long massive protests were put on pause, Colombia’s future is more uncertain than ever. The 2022 elections will be critical in determining whether the country will return to the miserable status quo under the thumb of the United States, or blaze a new leftward path.

A group of demonstrators fights a riot armored truck amid clashes between demonstrators and Colombia's riot police (ESMAD), as Colombia marks a second month of anti-government protests in Pasto, Colombia, on June 28, 2021. (Sebastian Maya / Long Visual Press / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Beginning earlier this summer, Colombia was rocked by weeks of unprecedented anti-government protests that left behind wreckage in many of Colombia’s cities, from Cali to the capital Bogotá, reminiscent of the bitter days of its civil war. But despite heavy police brutality, many Colombians felt hopeful that real change was within reach.

Today, Colombia’s cities have returned to a bizarre state of tranquility. Leaving a trail of damaged infrastructure, the protests were suspended in early June amid a surge in COVID-19 cases. But Colombians have pledged to restart the protests on July 20, when the new legislative period starts. Union leaders are already working on laws to present to Congress on that date.

The protests started as peaceful marches on April 28, 2021, in response to proposed tax reforms, which increased food and utility prices, as well as a hike in income tax. But a year into the pandemic that has pushed more than 3.5 million Colombians into poverty, that tax reform — which would have seen anyone with a monthly income of $656 or more affected — only fueled long-brewing anger.

After successfully turning back the tax bill, protests turned into a major uprising, with demands to fix the health care system, fight corruption, scrap university tuition fees, and more. When the Colombian militarized anti-riot police unit Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD) began cracking down on peaceful protesters with the use of tear gas, water cannons, and lethal weaponry, the protests spiraled into violence.

“Day after day, people from all corners of society came together to defend their rights,” Daniela Agudelo Pinta and Jonathan Grajales Delgado, youth activists from Buga, a town northwest of Cali, told me. “And for that, the state was attacking us. No matter how heavily armed your police are, we had to show that we won’t give in. Many people have simply nothing to lose anymore.”

As rising numbers of COVID-19 cases threatened to overburden the country’s fragile health system, protest organizers called to suspend demonstrations. Talks between dedicated strike committees and the Centro Democrático government achieved little to no progress. With a return to the protests set for July 20, Colombia, for now, is at a stalemate.

“The protests have not achieved the desired objective, the objective of real change,” said Diego Fernando Campo Valencia, founder of the NGO Fundación Proyectando Vidas. “Some first agreements were reached, but the national government is just handing out empty words. The government has no real interest in sticking to its promises. And as people realize that, it will be certain that the protests will return stronger and bigger on July 20.”

Meanwhile, the government continues to escape accountability for more than sixty civilian deaths that have been reported as a result of the protests. Human rights groups were quick to express alarm about the “excessive and disproportionate” use of force against protesters. Trained to fight paramilitary groups and the FARC, Amnesty International denounced the employment of “paramilitary strategies” against civilians. Smearing protesters as terrorists and vandals, the center-right government led by President Iván Duque defended the use of heavy police force.

While the death toll is disputed, the real number is widely believed to be much higher. More than four hundred people are reported missing to date. Women and underage girls repeatedly described sexual abuse by police officers.

More concerned to repair the damage done to its reputation, little hope is set on Duque’s Centro Democrático party for a lack of confidence in its ability to engage in a meaningful dialogue with protesters.

“Colombia’s biggest danger is that we forget. Our resistance to this system of inequality is a significant moment in our history. We need to affect a lasting change in our nation’s thinking,” Jonathan said. “The current sentiment needs to be sustained at least until the next election; this is where we must see the real change happening.”

If elections were tomorrow in Colombia, the outcome would likely mark the start of a new era of left-wing politics in the Latin American country that has been controlled by the center-right Centro Democrático party since former president Álvaro Uribe came to power in 2002.

Colombia, a long-standing US client state, is a keystone of US foreign policy toward Latin America. With more than $7 billion spent in aid since the ’70s, largely on supplying military training and equipment, the United States maintains strong interest in ensuring the Colombian president is a trusted ally.

In 2018, left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro lost his bid for president against Duque as the failures of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela helped shift votes away from Petro, after the Centro Democrático party stoked fears of Colombia becoming a second Venezuela. Duque’s government, strongly under control by predecessor Uribe, will attempt to replay those fears ahead of the 2022 election in a desperate cling to power.

“The Centro Democrático party is dividing Colombia by labeling protesters as part of a left radical movement,” said Diego, whose foundation is based in Cali. “They are building on people’s fears of violence and instability from the past, claiming that they are reemerging within these protests.”

President Duque is rallying the party’s traditional base of religious conservatives, rural landowners, and segments of the middle class concerned with crime. His message is that Centro Democrático is the only party that can maintain order and stability in a country with a violent past.

With nearly a year to go until the elections, whether ultimately the fear of instability and rising violence will prevail over anger about the government’s inaction and empty promises is too early to determine. But as President Duque realizes this is unlikely to turn his favorability rating in time for the elections, he may feel inclined to employ more radical anti-democratic measures against protesters. Some of his Cabinet members suggest that he should institute emergency measures giving him greater powers to restore order.

The international community should closely monitor events in Colombia. International solidarity will be needed to protect the rights of protesters.

And when the United Nations Security Council meeting that began this week discusses the situation in Colombia, leaders must put forward solutions that hold the Colombian police and state authorities accountable for the excessive use of force and resulting civilian abductions and deaths. In May, fifty US lawmakers called for a halt to weapons sales to the Colombian national police. This is a step in the right direction.

But more needs to be done. If unequal economic recoveries from the COVID-19 pandemic continue to push people into hardship across the developing world, the path for countries like Colombia will be rocky in the years to come. Downgraded by credit rating institutions, Colombia has lost its status as a reliable investment destination on a continent plagued by defaults. New tax reform is currently on the way to legislation.

With a government that has lost trust in its goodwill and competence to pull Colombia out of its current crises, the 2022 elections will be decisive.

“Colombia’s future is dependent on next year’s elections. We need a different congress with real people in power that work to bring our country forward,” said Diego. “If Centro Democrático continues to stay in power, Colombia will move backward. Whether Petro has the power to unite our country, I am doubtful. What Colombia needs is competence, people with the capacity to unite our country again.”