EL COLOMBIANO, December 4, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The Gustavo Petro administration has tried to show its closeness to the protesters in this country, opening the doors of the President’s Palace to them, and attending the demonstrations.
The blockades in Chocó and Buenaventura, the formation of the Dissidents in Puerto Asís, the fear of a truckers’ strike in Cesar, and the protests about Hidroituango are just some of the flare-ups that are being ignited in these first months of the administration.
Gustavo Petro was elected by hoisting the flags of the defense of social struggles, but—after exactly 150 days since his inauguration—the marches in different regions have stayed the same and some of them have even intensified, because of the complex economic situation that the country is experiencing.
Evidence of that has been that there are at least 11 locations where social dissatisfaction is concentrated, and that could blow up on the Chief Executive at any time.
Even though these complaints have been growing for a long time, and in many cases they are about the government’s historic obligations to the communities, Petro promised that the hallmark of his administration would be “real change”. He took on the challenge of furnishing effective and urgent solutions to the people’s complaints through “social justice”. However, when he took the wheel for the country, he realized that the task would not be quick and easy, and that the change he promised will take time and money.
In these four months, the President has not only had to lead with the two giant gatherings and marches by those that oppose his way of governing, but also with strikes by motorcyclists, truckers, miners, indigenous communities, and also with blockades on the road to the port of Buenaventura—the principal port for foreign commerce in Colombia—which left losses that are rising to some 50,000 million pesos (roughly USD $10,400,000 at today’s exchange rates), according to the Inter-Union and Business Committee of Valle del Cauca.
Protests that are breaking out
This wave of protests increased the eagerness for answers because of the high expectations for the solution to social problems that Petro expressed in his campaign. The situation has turned into a kind of “hot potato” for the President, whose main solution has centered on the idea of immediate reaction to the complaints by sending a representative—sometimes his Ministers—to calm the protesters down.
This strategy of immediate reaction was in evidence in Petro’s attempt to get ahead of the motorized protests, as the announcement that the price of Soat (Compulsory Traffic Accident Insurance) would be reduced by 50% came only 24 hours earlier, but that didn’t avoid the protests that unfolded in Bogotá.
“I don’t know what they intend by trying to say that this administration has abandoned them. They’re wrong to say that and to call a strike, when the administration, headed by President Gustavo Petro, has stated that we are going to reduce the cost of Soat by 50%,” said Reyes.
Besides getting ahead of complaints, the administration made an attempt to show their closeness to the communities through populist activities, a situation that has not been without criticism. That was evidenced last September in the Municipality of Padilla in Cauca Department, where the Interior Minister, Alfonso Prada, was accused of committing funds to urge the communities to support the tax reform bill.
In the midst of the “Regional Dialog for Peace” and trying to find solutions to the problems in that territory in Cauca, Prada stated that they could seek “a popular movement to tell Congress that we need money to get through this. Those that got the message, got the message. We need public support by the Colombian people to be able to do what we want to do (. . .) What we want to do is to make decisions along with all of you.”
Another action completely outside of protocol was taken on October 16, when the President received, with urgency, in the President’s Palace, a delegation from the Emberá Community. They were protesting in the streets of Bogotá about the lack of guarantees for their security to be able to go back to the territories they had come from.
The President received this delegation in the Palace in the midst of criticism by Mayor Claudia López, because of the attacks that several police officers had suffered during the protests, a situation that Petro had also opposed. “The agreements signed by the previous administration (of Iván Duque) will be complied with. The peace in upper Andaqueda, the empowerment of the reservation, will be fundamental in the solutions to the problem of ethnic misunderstanding in downtown Bogotá,” he said.
Besides all those social grievances, the President had a trial by fire on last November 12 because of the death of 23 people in an armed combat between the FARC Dissidents for the control of criminal revenues in the territory between Puerto Asís and Puerto Guzmán in Putumayo.
In spite of the seriousness of that event, and the fact that the number of killings in massacres was already over 40—in places like Cauca, Valle, Bolívar, and Bogotá—all during the Petro administration, the President preferred not to issue any statement about this explosion of violence, and he only mentioned it 48 hours later in Barrancabermeja, in Santander Department.
“What we saw in Putumayo is the conflict among the Dissidents that say they are the now-defunct FARC, massacring in a Dante-esque manner,” the President said. He then announced his first big military deployment and sent 400 soldiers to that Department.
Potential protests in Colombia
- Riosucio, Chocó–blockades
- Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca—blockades
- Puerto Asís, Putumayo—combat by Dissidents
- La Mojana, Sucre and Córdoba—complaints by farmers
- Marmato, Caldas—miners’ strike
- San Alberto, Cesar—truckers’ strike
- Cajibio, Cauca—blockades
- Medellín, Antioquia—protests about Hidroituango
- Caloto, Cauca—protests about energy service
10.Cali, Valle del Cauca—protests about gender violence
11.Popayán, Cauca—protests about gender violence
Promises are not enough
This spate of protests has implied that the administration is promising millions in funds to try to calm down the dissatisfaction of different social sectors, as was part of their plan to subsidize 50% of the cost of Soat for low-cylinder motorcycles and vehicles like taxis, urban microbuses, microbuses for urban public transportation, and microbuses for inter-municipal public transportation.
It’s estimated that the cost of this subsidy to Soat will be as high as 2 billón pesos (roughly USD $412,000,000), which represents 10% of the recently approved tax reform legislation. The funds made available in that legislation as the administration insists, without further explanation, were to be destined exclusively to social causes such as subsidies for poor families, mothers who are heads of families, and older adults who lack pensions.
“Those 2 billón pesos were going to finance the additions to the budget for next year. In any case, it’s important to keep in mind that, of the revenue collected, 53% supports the Soat and the other 47% finances other line items in the health sector,” stated Minister Reyes.
Added to that are the 1.8 billón pesos (roughly USD $270,000,000 at today’s exchange rates) invested in what the administration authorized as trying to find a structural solution to the flooding in the La Mojana area. That’s been a problem for years, and it’s what led farmers of Córdoba and Sucre to go on strike in November because the situation had not been prioritized.
The farmers’ indefinite strike arose—provisionally—last November 23 after arriving at a series of agreements with Minister Prada, who insisted that the administration wanted him to find a solution as soon as possible to the differing impacts that the winter weather had had on the region.
These million-peso “blank checks” that the administration had promised to the communities and the transportation workers to solve their problems promptly could not necessarily assure Petro that the protests would stop, as there was still a tense calm, and in the case of La Mojana, the farmers warned that if there were not quick results, they would go back to their protests, just like the motorcyclists and the taxi drivers, that they would go back to the streets if the price of gasoline continued to rise.
At the beginning of his term, Petro had made clear that he preferred to take on ambitious commitments to try to put out the fires, and thus be shielded from the hard hits of public opinion, but he will have to take account of carrying out what he promised to all of the communities and sectors whose complaints remain silent, but are heating up, and there are people motivated to go out into the street to make demands.