The Important Role of Social Protest Groups in Colombia

Recent news reports indicate that Colombian President Ivan Duque has a popular disapproval rating of 70%, according to an Invamer Group poll taken at the end of November. Meanwhile, the poll found that 79% of those surveyed believe the situation in the country is getting worse and only 11% expressed optimism about the government’s handling of the crisis in the country. These figures track with the attitudes of persons a Colombia Support Network delegation met with back in the fall of 2018.

There are certain actions which the Duque government could take to improve the situation substantially. First, President Duque could agree to meet with leaders of the protests that have roiled the country since November 21. The students who have joined the rallies against Duque’s policies have specific demands that the Government could consider. Likewise, labor union leaders, campesino organization representatives and spokespersons of indigenous organizations should be carefully listened to by President Duque. Instead of increasing the retirement age and establishing a salary level below the minimum for young persons, while maintaining a series of credits and tax exemptions for multinational businesses doing business in Colombia, the government should focus its attention on measures to increase resources to the poor and unemployed, while ending give-away programs to foreign businesses and investors in mining and hydroelectric power plants in Colombia. Measures should be taken to reduce corruption in government contracting. But President Duque continues to rely on repression of peaceful protests by sending out the ESMAD, anti-riot police, to disperse crowds. In Bogota an ESMAD policeman killed a young man, Dilan Cruz, engaged in peaceful protest. Negotiation, not repression, is the answer.

Of special importance is the implementation of measures to extend public services, such as access roads, health clinics, and schools to long-neglected rural areas. And the government needs to carry out the Peace Agreement’s commitment to return of lands to those hundreds of thousands of families forced from their homes by the violence in the countryside. It also needs to provide funding for families transitioning from growing and selling coca to productive agricultural activities. Instead of implementing new structures for large-scale agricultural development by rich foreign interests, such as U.S.–based Cargill Corporation, the government should approve and support the campesino reserve zones (ZRC’s), which allow organizations of small-scale farmers to carry out productive agricultural activities on lands reserved for them.

As important as any of the measures mentioned above, the dismantling of paramilitary structures in the countryside must be done. Instead of ending these paramilitaries, the Duque government advances collaboration of these illegal paramilitaries with units of the Colombian Army and Police. We have observed this collaboration in Uraba, where the Seventeenth Brigade of the Army engages in joint patrols with paramilitary forces in the rural areas of Apartado.

From our perspective in the United States, Colombia’s government should not seek to be the U.S. Government’s partner, and an abject partner at that, in providing military installations and listening capabilities to the U.S. Military. Nor should President Duque abjectly follow orders from U.S. President Donald Trump to return to fumigation of coca fields with glyphosate (Round-Up Ultra, produced by Bayer/Monsanto), which has been proven in a United Nations study to cause cancer–the reason why President Duque’s predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, ordered crop- spraying with this health hazardous chemical to be stopped. As a Colombia Support Network delegation to Puerto Asis in Putumayo province learned several years ago, most campesinos growing coca by far do so out of necessity because the government has not provided the infrastructure and agricultural credits needed to make alternative crops viable. Most of the campesinos said they would prefer not to grow coca if a viable economic alternative were available.

And to do Donald Trump’s bidding by adopting a militaristic approach to Venezuela, welcoming self-proclaimed interim President Juan Guaido to Colombia and posing with him approvingly, is not positive for Colombia. Promoting a peaceful resolution of the situation in Venezuela is in the best interest of Colombia. It is important for the Colombian government to provide food and lodging for the people arriving from Venezuela, but as Colombian Attorney Francisco Ramirez has pointed out, Venezuela has over many years received and provided for millions of Colombians who sought refuge in Venezuela from the decades of wars in Colombia.

 In order to lower the astonishingly high gap between the rich and the poor in Colombia, which is demonstrated by the fact that Colombia’s distribution of economic resources is the second most unequal in the Western Hemisphere, as measured by the GINI Index for the country, the Duque Administration needs to carry out the measures needed to make the Peace Agreement work. The sense of malaise that is pervasive in Colombia now springs from the recognition that the Duque Administration’s paramount focus on providing programs for the wealthy to increase their wealth and for foreign businesses to remove valuable resources such as gold, silver and other valuable metals though destructive open-pit projects at a scandalously small cost to them is profoundly wrong—even dangerously wrong. Colombia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world in terms of natural mineral and petroleum resources, and of flora and fauna. The government’s focus needs to be the protection of these resources in the face of climate change. The policies which the increasingly discredited Alvaro Uribe Velez imposed upon Colombia in his 8 years as President are neither appropriate nor wise now. Our hope is that the Colombian government, motivated by the suggestions for change by mobilized students, campesinos, Indigenous communities and Afro-Colombian organizations, will undertake policies in peace to benefit all Colombians.

Jack Laun

Program Director and Co-Founder

Colombia Support Network

Madison, Wisconsin U.S. A.

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