By Juan Carlos Flórez, SEMANA, May 29, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
In one of the most influential theater works of the 20th century, Henrik Ibsen features a physician, Thomas Stockmann, who, in a small town in southern Norway, exposes, with solid studies in hand, the fact that the medicinal waters at a local health resort that attracts many tourists are contaminated. The work needed to clean up the water would take time and cost a good amount of money. Faced with that challenge, instead of taking the bull by the horns and carrying out the decontamination work, all of the local ruling class, the Mayor (the doctor’s brother) Peter Stockmann—who also heads the resort’s board of directors–, the principal newspaper and the trade associations decide to declare the expositor an enemy of the people, public enemy no. 1. At the end, Dr. Stockmann and his family are isolated, as if this were about lepers in the holy water. With pain and at the same time with fortitude and character, the doctor says to his family: “The most powerful human being in the world is the one who is the most lonely.”
Those were times when an alliance of politicians, business owners, trade associations and the media could silence revelations that had a lot of political and social reach, and condemn the complainers to ostracism. Now things have changed radically. The ruling class is questioned forcefully from Moscow to Washington, from Havana to Santiago de Chile, from Caracas to London. The media have seen their credibility disappear. The business sectors are under the microscope in the entire world. And don’t even mention the politicians, which is probably the most discredited profession anywhere in the world. Now it’s not so easy to silence complaints and protests about the poor functioning of the system.
The process of loss of legitimacy by the establishment and institutions and their means of staying in power is not foreign to Colombia. The profound erosion of the political system demands a decisive and daring program of reforms. Unfortunately, neither the ruling class nor the majority of politicians are aware of the immense risks we run as a country if we don’t get started right away with the changes necessary to modernize the system and get it in tune with the most equitable demands of the citizens. Instead what’s happened is completely the opposite. The majority of those wielding power have resorted to the worn-out recourse of finding an enemy to silence, and delegitimizing the citizens’ discontent. In the past, those enemies were communism during cold war, Castroism in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s of the past century, the guerrillas, and the narcos. Today that libretto is debunked and used up. And in a desperate and suicidal attempt to refuse to see reality, the ones that are steering the ship, with considerable unconcern for what others might say, are trying to create a new public enemy No. 1, refusing to accept that by now nobody will swallow the story. It reminds me of Cecilia Morel, the wife of President Piñera, who, during the Chilean insurrection of October 2019, in a WhatsApp audio, said: “We are absolutely overwhelmed, it’s like a foreign invasion, extraterrestrial, I don’t know what to call it.”
To think, like in the play by Ibsen, that evils can be reduced to the one or the group that is complaining about them is foolhardy blindness. Dumping on Petro all of the citizen discontent, that has been accumulating for decades, without the ruling class doing anything to bring about the reforms that the country needs, is a sovereign stupidity.
On February 18, 2012, Alejandro Gaviria wrote in his blog: “Social mobility [in Colombia] is less than what you see in other countries, like Chile and Mexico, where they do similar surveys. Beyond the comparisons, mobility is insufficient, to say the least. Nearly a third of the population is born poor and dies poor. The others hardly move. Very few manage to ascend decisively. And if they do, they have to deal with classism, a catalog known for insults: wolves, dudes, social climbers, provincials, resuscitated bedbug, etc.”
In our country the social elevator is very small and it doesn’t carry very many people, except on rare occasions, to the upper floors. The citizens got tired of a system that offers so few opportunities for effective social ascent. If political democracy isn’t going to be accompanied by a massive social ascent, it turns into an oligarchy or a plutocracy that, sooner or later, will face hard questions from those excluded, which in our country are the majority. That’s what they are complaining about today in the streets.
It’s political suicide to look at social problems like Marie Antoinette, the French royal consort who, in the prelude to the revolution, had skewered anybody that arrived at the supreme bastion of the privileged, Versailles, demanding bread, and if bread was lacking, why didn’t they eat cake?