Colombia protests: What prompted them and where are they headed?

Discontent over inequality, education, Duque’s slow implementation of the 2016 peace deal has been simmering for months.

Demonstrators gesture during a protest on the second day of a national strike, in Bogota, Colombia [Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

Bogota, Colombia – For nearly a week, thousands of Colombians have taken to the streets across the country in some of the largest anti-government protests the country has seen in decades.

What started as a plan for labour unions to strike has since ballooned into more widespread actions by indigenous groups, pensioners and students, among others, against the right-wing government of President Ivan Duque.

Aside from the marches, curfews, tear gas and looting has taken place throughout Colombia‘s cities since the protests began last Thursday.

Many want Duque, who has been in office for 15 months, to step down or make radical changes to address his government’s weak implementation of the 2016 peace deal and issues related to economic reforms and corruption.

Duque has now promised to hold a “national dialogue“, but protesters remain sceptical and have planned more rallies.

As demonstrations continue to rock the country, Al Jazeera examines why they began and what may happen next.

1. What is behind the protests?

Discontent in Colombia has been simmering for months.

Last week’s national strike was initially called in October by labour unions after rumours spread about reforms and pension cuts – proposals never formally announced by the government.

The call for the strike came as university students continued to protest against corruption and cuts in public education.

The call also came around the same time the country witnessed an uptick in violence against indigenous and social leaders, which has been blamed in part on Duque’s slow implementation of the 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), signed during the previous administration.

All of these factors, combined with the energy sweeping across other Latin American countries experiencing unrest, prompted student, indigenous, peace and other groups to get involved.

A man holds a placard reading ‘Duque is not my president’ during a protest as a national strike continues in Bogota, Colombia [Carlos Jasso/Reuters] 

The protests “quickly expanded into something much wider, attracting not only students and workers but Colombians of all stripes, concerned about the poor health system, inadequate pensions, violence, inequality, corruption and other issues,” said Arlene Tickner, a political scientist at Bogota’s Rosario University.

“Social protest in Colombia is not as customary as in other Latin American countries and this has been like a slow cooker waiting to explode for some time,” she told Al Jazeera.

2. What are the protesters demands?

The protesters demands range from more money for public education, higher wages and more job stability to subsidised pensions, a better healthcare system and the implementation of the peace accords, Tickner said.

“But, as in many other cases, the demands have yet to be spelled in a systematic fashion and the protesters are largely leaderless, making this difficult to achieve,” she said.

Protester Jonathan Ramirez said: “Colombia is tired of injustice, bad governance and social inequality.”

The 34-year-old told Al Jazeera: “Colombia is our life, our home and we’re ruining it”.

People take part in a protest against the government of Colombia’s President Ivan Duque, in Cali, Colombia [Luis Yobayo/AFP] 

According to Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, it may be difficult for Duque to implement the protesters’ demands,

“His party doesn’t really support some of these ways of thinking. So in a way, he would be generating much more internal opposition if he were to implement some of these things,” Guzman said, adding that the full implementation of the 2016 peace deal, a pension reform and the eradication of the riot police – ESMAD – are what he sees as the most difficult demands for Duque to fulfil.

But protesters remain determined.

“It’s an awakening,” said retired 66-year-old Fernando Palacios on the sidelines of Monday’s march. “When I was young we were too scared to do this kind of thing, but we have to protest, because things just keep getting worse.”

Colombia protests
People take part in a demonstration against Colombian President Ivan Duque’s government policies, in Bogota [Juan Barreto/AFP] 

Student Lauren Iglesias added that the demonstrations are about more than protesting.

“I want the president to listen to us. I want him to govern well. I want him to fulfil his role,” said 22-year-old Iglesias, wearing a purple scarf representing feminism and holding a sign stating “neither earth, nor women, are territory to be conquered”.

3. How has Duque responded?

Duque has so far offered to hold a “national dialogue” with “all social sectors” through March 15 to address economic inequality, corruption, education, the environment, strengthening government institutions, and improving the lives of those living in the hardest-hit areas of the country’s brutal conflict.

“Our responsibility is to unite Colombia,” he said during a televised address on Sunday.

But protesters left a meeting with Duque on Tuesday, saying their conditions for the dialogue have not been met.

In a statement on Twitter, the National Strike Committee said: “We are going to strengthen and increase protests … the strike continues.” The committee called for another strike on Wednesday. 

Ivan Duque
Colombia’s President Ivan Duque addresses the nation in a televised speech, in Bogota, Colombia [Handout/Nicolas Galeano/Colombian Presidency/Reuters]

“Duque has been slow to recognise the legitimacy of the protests, deaf to the multiple sources of discontent characterising Colombian society, and quick to stigmatise protesters and to claim that there are foreign actors behind the protests,” Tickner said.

“It remains to be seen how sincere he is about this [national dialogue], what this conversation would entail and with whom,” she added.

Guzman, among others, said Duque’s call for dialogue was “too little, too late”.

“Protesters don’t want to be debating this until March on the government’s terms. They want a seat at the table, they want to be recognised for how important their movement has been and by how significant their numbers are,” he said.

Gimena Sanchez, the Andes director at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), called Duque’s response so far a “drop in a bucket of a faucet of accusations and criminalisation of social protest”.

“He is going to have to show with actions, not just words and statements that his government is going to address the grievances expressed by a good part of the country,” she said.

4. What may happen next?

The protests have so far shown no signs of abating.

On Monday night, protester Dilan Cruz died after succumbing to his injuries from the protest, sparking renewed calls for protests. The 18-year-old was hit in the head by a projectile fired by police on Saturday night, protesters say.

“People will be very upset [over Cruz’s death] and it probably give people more reasons to protest,” Guzman said. “Depending on the government’s response, things may even escalate.”

People gather around placards, candles and flowers to honour Dilan Cruz, a teenage demonstrator who died after being injured in protests in Bogota [Carlos Jasso/AFP] 

Tickner believes the protests may become more subdued, like in other counties in the region, “as governments either repress them or gesture towards dialogue and change.”

She added, however, she anticipates that: “Until some form of meaningful political, economic and social reform is enacted, the peace process is advanced more forcefully, and Duque takes popular demands more seriously, social protest will continue.”

For 66-year-old Palacios, who attended the march for the future of his children and grandchildren, demonstrations must continue.

“If we become silent for just a moment, things will stay the same … I’ll keep going until things actually change, not just promises, but real actions.”

Source: Al Jazeera