Maria Antoinette rules in Colombia
as the masses protest against inequality

By Fabio Díaz Pabón & María Gabriela Palacio

Since late November, Colombia has seen unprecedented mobilisations. These protests constitute the longest mobilisation since 1977. These protests illustrate the awakening of a muffled civil society that has reclaimed more space for expressing their voices in the wake of armed violence.

Protests taking place now in Colombia relate to a Latin American “spring” as demonstrations swept the region since September 2019 from Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Panamá, Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia to Chile. However, these mobilisations are not merely following a regional trend nor can be attributed to a single ideological leaning. Whereas the occurrence of protests in neighbouring countries could have made a Colombian uprising possible, enduring grievances are at the core of the claims of protestors.

Colombian are protesting against inequality, as this is the most unequal society among OECD countries. In addition to enduring inequality, recent government measures, e.g. cuts in taxes to wealthy investors and increase in taxes for the middle classes, have generated a significant backlash in a failed attempt to implement a Caribbean version of ‘trickle-down economics’. Though the Colombian economy has experienced resilient economic growth despite the fall in commodity prices, there is little to no redistribution currently taking place. The richest 1% of the population in Colombia captures more than 20% of the total labour income. Considering income after taxes and transfers, that is, disposable income, Colombia remains an unequal society when compared to other OECD countries. Furthermore, there has been a reversal in poverty reduction, as the rate of urban poverty has increased in the past years.

As measures recently adopted by the government most likely exacerbate existing inequalities, peasants, student groups, urbanites, labour unions and indigenous groups have turned onto the streets. Whereas their grievances might differ, the persistence of inequality has led to a reduction of their tolerance to measures that maintain the status quo.

Besides, protestors are demanding the implementation of the provisions signed in the 2016 FARC-EP Colombian government peace agreement. For some factions within the government, demanding the fulfilment of the promises of a constitution and demanding peace is seen as a subversive act. Yet, Colombians are not demanding a revolution: they are demanding the right to a dignifying life and the fulfilment of the promises made by the government.

In a country that remains in the middle of armed conflict and is home to one of the highest shares of internally displaced populations in the world, the dismissal of protestors’ grievances constitutes a threat to civil society and democracy itself. The number of assassinated social leaders, indigenous leaders and social activists illustrate these risks.

Whereas the motivation for protests relates to the deepening of inequalities and levels of precarity in terms of access to education, health, social protection; as well as the weariness of society with armed conflict; the strength of the mobilisations can be explained as the result of the transition of the Colombia society towards peace. The peace accords with paramilitaries in 2006 and guerrillas in 2016 opened different venues for political participation. This, together with the strengthening of social movements, explains the increase in the number of protests.

The response from the government of Ivan Duque has been one of denials, accusations and failed attempts to regain control over public discourse.

Duque took office thanks to the political backing of politicians and sectors within society who opposed the peace negotiations with guerrillas and the state reforms taking place since 2010. Once in power, Duque found himself having to comply with state policies his support base did not agree with.

However, and despite the echo chamber effect, these groups do not represent the majority of the population in Colombia. Because of this, Duque faces a 70% disapproval rate and only 24% approval rate according to a recent Gallup poll. This also means he has no control over the congress, posing a dilemma to his government. Either Duque tries to clear his policies to receive the broader support of society facing the alienation of his core group, or he loses the capacity to lead the country. Because of this, outlets like the Economist have depicted Duque as a president without direction.

Given this limited political space, the government attempted a failed propaganda campaign that tried to cast protestors as not contributing to the development of the country and drove Duque to plan the first meeting after the national strike with the industrials and businesspeople of the country as opposed to protestors.

These amateurish reactions illustrate that the government cannot see that the mobilisations in Colombia span across race, location and class. Protests have managed to bring together diverse actors that have found in the streets a space of encounter. Social groups are refusing government measures concerning social security, pensions and labour reforms, as they would have a pervasive effect on the livelihoods of the majority of the population. As such, these protests are an important signal about the demands of a significant segment of society, as 74% of Colombians support protests.

The disconnection between self-interested elites and society seems evident. The proposal for a tax break, e.g. allowing consumption without VAT for three days a year, as a solution to the protests, illustrate how the current government understands its citizens. These initiatives proposed an extended “Black Friday” to address social grievances, but also re-enacts the aloofness of Maria Antoinette, who according to historical records, in the middle of the French Revolution responded to unrest with the expression: “let them eat cake”.

Economists have opposed other proposals tabled by the government as lacking any technical basis. Populist economic measures aim to increase the acceptability of Duque’s government but can drive inequality and further grievances. The elimination of a 2% tax for buying houses worth more than USD 260.000, illustrates that the government is not undertaking reforms to improve the livelihood of the majority of Colombians, neither they are improving the state revenues.

Whereas the debate can be framed about the availability of public resources and how to spend these, data, in fact, shows that that the country is growing faster than no other OECD country. Nevertheless, the gains of growth are not evenly distributed, as the cost of living for the middle class is growing faster than their incomes.

The state is facing a long-standing challenge of export-dependent economies. As the global economy cools down, the demand for Colombian exports has declined. In response to an imminent trade deficit, the state must increase its revenues but is afraid of taxing the wealthy (its remaining support base). This scenario takes place in a country in which informal employment is rising, and the size of industrial production is declining. The country is also going through a demographic transition, with an ageing population adding pressure to the pension system. As the population grows older, fewer contributors can sustain the social security system, and the costs for public health and pension fees increase.

One of the government proposals was to reduce employment costs and flexibilise youth employment. Driving the most significant segment of the population into precariousness cannot be sound politics or economics, especially if the government is thinking about financing the pension system for future generations. Whereas Duque’s government praises the discourse of innovation and entrepreneurship, it should consider that people in insecure employment are less likely to take risks and innovate.

Policies need to tackle the sources of inequality in Colombia and work to the benefit of the growing youth and middle class of the country. The policy dilemma the government has assumed is either increasing taxes to the bulk of the population, or reduction of existing exemptions to wealthy citizens that have received several tributary benefits with the expectation that reduced taxation will help the economy grow. Given the little political capital that the government has, increasing taxes for the wealthy might mean the government could run totally out of support. However, failing to create the fiscal space that could sustain the economy and redistribute income might exacerbate inequalities in the future.

Moving towards an equal society is not only an ethical response to the grievances of diverse social groups but also a necessary condition for accelerating economic growth. Structural changes should be considered. The Colombian government should shift its attention, towards innovation and industrial policies that can internalise and disseminate technological gains, while driving domestic demand towards the local industry. Inequality is not beyond human control. Redistributive reforms are a prerequisite for progress, for they help to close structural gaps and lead to higher levels of productivity, full utilisation of capacities and resources, a fairer distribution of income and wealth and provide all citizens with the right to embark on the plans that they consider worthwhile.

Mobilisations and protests remain spaces of uncertainty and crisis, but they also are spaces of representation, democracy and opportunity. Protestors do bypass the existing structures of representation and send signals to institutions when they do not work. Furthermore, they allow governments to hear different voices and provide valuable feedback on the workings of the economy. Yet, privileged actors invest energy and resources in preventing positive dissent and protecting the status quo.

Inequality and precariousness hinder economic growth and social cohesion. Social mobilisations, in the Colombian case, not only demonstrate how public voice emerges when violence is declining, but also how inequalities can be exposed once violence decreases as groups demand basic rights for the losers of development processes. As the country is trying to leave violence behind, the nature of the conversations changed from armed conflict to citizens’ rights. Nevertheless, Colombia is a country that remains in fear of violence, the legacy of a 70-year-old war. The leadership of the government or its lack thereof remains central in blocking the transition of the country and breaking away from violence.

Originally published at on December 10, 2019.

Critical social policy. Political Economy. Latin America.

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