Stigmatization of protest movements in Colombia.

23rd of May 2021

By: Leslye Dias

Strikes and demonstrations in Colombia are not rare. Throughout our history as a national republic, from the so called ‘Great National Strike’ (Gran paro Civico Nacional) which occurred on the 13th of September 1977 at midnight, to the national strike movement of November 21st of 2019 until today, protesting on the streets has been the mechanism for the people to highlight their generalized unsatisfaction to governmental actions.

However, as experts point out, the protest movement that has been taking place in Colombia since the 28th of April 2021 is unprecedented. A massive protest movement that, although mostly peaceful, has also escalated into clashes between protesters and public forces, especially the ESMAD (the Colombian anti-riot police unit), which have left dozens of civilians dead, hundreds missing and thousands of reports of human rights violations according to several NGOs.

Several media and opinion leaders conclude that the national strike was called to reject a tax reform that sought to raise 23 trillion Colombian pesos (about US $6.3 billion) promoted by President Iván Duque and his finance ministry, run by Humberto Carrasquilla. However, after more than twenty days of strike -and counting-, to talk of the reasons for the protest in such simple terms would mean to ignore the deeper reasons for the discontent of the Colombian population, which after the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, has reached a poverty level of 42.5% of the population. This means that approximately 21.02 million people live on less than $331,000 (USD $89) a month.


In a recent column in the news website La Silla Vacía, the columnist and political analyst Héctor Riveros wrote something interesting about the strike: that underneath all the reasons for the social outburst we are experiencing -poverty, inequality, lack of opportunities for the young, lack of trust in the institutions, corruption-, there is one in particular aspect that adds to the fuel, and that is the frustration of having lost the hope of a better country after the Havana Peace Agreement of 2016, which today is falling apart:

"What remained then was an enormous hopelessness, (...) that state of mind that happens when what is desired is unattainable, which increased with the stance of the Duque government, the negative and quarrelsome attitude towards the [Peace] Agreement, accompanied by terrible incidents that they never firmly condemned, such as the death of hundreds of social leaders and ex-combatants."


Riveros points to the fact that the country's current situation is the result of the agglomeration of many factors that have been occurring in the country for decades. From the consequences of the 60-year-long internal armed conflict with the guerrillas, the 6,402 Colombians murdered by state forces (extrajudicial executions) between 2002 and 2008, the systematic murder of social and environmental leaders in the most forgotten regions of the country, which according to the NGO Indepaz reports, in 2021 alone 85 leaders and ex-combatants of the former FARC were murdered, and the growing socio-economic inequality, to name but a few. Added to this, we have the current administration's appalling handling of the pandemic, and to top it all off, their attempt to pass tax and health reforms that would further cripple the middle and poor classes... right in the middle of said pandemic.


Under all these conditions, it is not surprising that such indignation has summoned -and sustained - thousands of people onto the streets, despite the risk of infection and of being shot by the police and army forces. According to Mauricio Archila, an expert on social movements, the coverage and endurance of the protests have been unprecedented. For us Colombians, protesting and striking is the way to demand attention from the state, and we have achieved it to some degree with mobilizations throughout the country, but also with the collective presence of the Colombian diaspora in different countries abroad, and massively on social networks. 

To talk about it in general terms, a protest is a movement that aims to defend or fight for the recognition of rights through channels usually considered 'non-institutional'. As a social movement, protests appeal to the need to build a collective identity united under discontent, but above all under hope.

While it is true that rage is an element that we have been able to observe in the thousands of videos and images captured in recent weeks in cities such as Bogotá, Cali, Pereira, Medellín, Buga, Yumbo and others, we have also witnessed a movement that believes in change and demands it. In a way, the social protest balances itself between pessimism and optimism.

However, the government's response has been, first, to ignore the protesters and, when no longer possible, to respond to their demands with excessive force. All this on the premise that the protesters are 'vandals'. The effect of this stigmatization is highly concerning, as it provides the military with justification for the use of increasing lethal force, and worse, it polarizes the population into two ‘factions’.   


And while the right to protest exists within the legal framework in the 1991 constitution, it also assumes a willingness from the State to accept non-institutional means as legitimate ways for the population to claim their rights. However, this is not happening. Instead, the government has implemented legal, military and terminological instruments to try to repress it, such as attempting to militarize certain cities and copiously dismissing people's complaints. 


At the extreme end of these instruments, there is the concept of the 'dissipated molecular revolution' that has appeared on social media and the news in recent weeks in the wake of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe Vélez's tweet. The greatest problem with this ideology - put forward by the Chilean Alexis López Tapia - is that it aims to exhibit social protests as "expressions of vandalism" by "revolutionary subjects" who, due to a "lack of criteria and loss of values", become "empty and resentful" actors, which facilitates their manipulation by extremist groups - or, rather, groups belonging to the so-called communist left.


If we look carefully at the vocabulary of these statements - which in fact appear in an editorial article on the website of the Colombian National Police colonels' college - we realize that the police and military forces are being instructed with the idea that the protest has nothing to do with popular discontent; that it is not about any social outburst, but about extremist groups using a population with weak capacity for judgement for their own ends.


This combination of paternalism and disdain for the ideas, demands and arguments of hundreds of thousands of protesters from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds, socio-economic levels and diverse disciplines of study cannot be less than strongly reproached. This stance reflects itself in the government's strategy to approach the upheaval. Since the protests in 2019, they have confronted the crises with a binary vocabulary ('them/us', 'good/bad', 'vandals/good people') and their only clear measure has been to increase the presence of the police and army in the regions with the highest influx of protesters, which naturally, has led to bigger outbursts of violence. 


Certainly, it must be stated that the protesters resorting to aggression against the public force is not conducive to a sustainable solution. In fact, it ends up being counterproductive because it gives the necessary arguments to the detractors of the strike and to members of the military forces for their otherwise empty stigmatizing ideologies. Nevertheless, establishing strategies to de-escalate a crisis and reach a point of negotiation is a task that a state governed by the rule of law is obliged to fulfil.


While it is clear that the problems that continue to fuel Colombians' indignation have no simple or quick solution, the government must begin by listening to students, indigenous people, farmers and land workers, formal and informal workers, the self-employed, the elderly and teachers. But to really listen, and only then, to propose.


While that happens, the strike continues. 

Notas:

1- Informe hecho desde el 1 Enero al 29 de Abril de 2021.


References:

Temblores ONG documenta 2.387 casos violencia policial y 43 homicidios desde el inicio del paro nacional (18 mayo 2021). Disponible aquí. 

Salazar Sierra, C. (30 Abril 2021). Más de 21 millones de personas viven en la pobreza y 7,4 millones en pobreza extrema. La República. Disponible aquí.

Riveros, H. (15 mayo 2021). Siembra vientos y recogerás tempestades. La Silla Vacia. Disponible aquí.

Indepaz. (29 Abril 2021). Informe: Líderes Sociales, Defensores de DD.HH y Firmantes de Acuerdo Asesinados en 2021. Disponible aquí.

Pardo, D. (5 mayo 2021). Colombia: por qué el país está en un escenario sin precedentes (y qué puede significar para su futuro). BBC News. Disponible aquí.

Revolución Molecular Disipada – explicación sociopolítica de nuestra violencia urbana (2 Octubre 2020). Disponible aquí.

Morón, M. (2015). Movimientos Sociales, Nueva Razón de Estado y la Estigmatización de la Protesta Social en Colombia. Jurídicas CUC, 11(1), 311-326. doi