Will Colombia protests yield blood or bloom of youth?

With adamant young protesters demanding genuine change, government’s response to their requests will shape politics ahead.


Conventional Colombian wisdom says “No hay mal que dure 100 anos, ni cuerpo que lo resista,” or “There is no evil that lasts 100 years, or body that resists it.”

After centuries of fighting for independence against Western colonial powers, Colombians secured their freedom but now struggle to cope with a myriad of social misfortunes.

Three years after solving the perennial insurgency ordeal of Colombia, at least on paper, a wave of protests hit the homeland of notorious narco kingpin Pablo Escobar, where unions and student groups have held two national strikes in less than a week.

In late November, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators decisively raised their voices against rampant corruption, pervasive human rights abuses and unpopular economic initiatives of the government of President Ivan Duque.

Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, the father of aphorisms who died in 1900, once famously said: “I am not too young to know everything.”

Regardless of his distrust of the youth, Anadolu Agency talked to several Colombian university students from the capital Bogota about their take on the ripple of protests that turned into a massive test and the future they imagine for themselves in the Latin American country.

A little background

Colombia, along with Ecuador and Venezuela, emerged from the collapse of Gran Colombia in 1830, when continental hero Simon Bolivar’s anti-colonialist venture came to end.

A 52-year campaign by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels to overthrow the government escalated during the 1990s, but the guerrilla war failed due to a lack of military capabilities and popular support.

Yet decades of conflict have morphed Colombia into one of the world’s worst humanitarian hotspots, with millions of civilians caught up in the crossfire between communist rebels, cocaine traffickers and far-right paramilitary militias.

In an October 2016 referendum, Colombians rejected a landmark peace deal of the government with FARC that would grant congressional seats to its members if they managed to get a clean bill of health from Colombian courts and acquit themselves from criminal probes.

The rejection came as a shock to the government, which had worked for four years hammering out the agreement. Nevertheless, former President Juan Manuel Santos exercised his presidential executive power and signed a revised peace deal with the rebels on Nov. 24, winning him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for spearheading the accord.

Today, the right-wing government of President Ivan Duque Marquez, who was elected to the office in August 2018 as the youngest president ever from the Democratic Centre Party, is under fire for not living up to its promises and campaign pledges.

Rumor has it that the young president even dyed his hair white to look more experienced to voters ahead of the 2018 general elections.

Backed by ex-president Alvaro Uribe, the brains behind his anti-FARC campaign, Duque criticized the peace deal and also promised national tax reform to unions, a pledge he hasn’t kept according to thousands on the streets.

The first wave of protests and a nationwide strike that aimed to slam the government’s lack of action in tackling public corruption and the killings of rights activists was launched last week with a 250,000-person march on Nov. 21.

The mostly peaceful demonstrators also criticized a rise in the pension age and a cut to the minimum wage for young people while a group of demonstrators resorted to violence, destroying mass transit stations Thursday and Friday. The government responded by declaring curfews in Cali and Bogota as well as teargassing the crowds. Three demonstrators died in clashes.

Protests on Saturday took a dark turn when Dilan Cruz, 18, was fatally injured by a teargas canister fired by riot police and succumbed to her wounds Monday.

Duque’s call for a “great national dialogue” that aims to promote conversations with representatives of oversight bodies and government officials fell on deaf ears especially after the death of Cruz, who has since become a symbol of resistance for Colombians. The Colombian Nationwide Strike Committee announced a new wave of protests for Wednesday.

Colombian youth determined to solve problems

Daniel Rodriguez Garzon, a last semester student of Law at the Nueva Granada Military University in Bogota, said he couldn’t participate in the protests but his heart was there with his people.

“My university has suspended classes during the protests, and it naturally changed my exam and graduation dates,” Garzon said.

He urged the government to allocate more resources to public education and fight against corruption in the education and health sectors.

Garzon added that training outside of Colombia, an opportunity he has had, is “undoubtedly the tool to transform” the country by taking the best of each country and adapting it to the motherland.

Edison Penuela, a last year student of Systems Engineering at the District University of Bogota, participated in the protests but was frustrated with what is going on and worried about finishing school on time.

“It is not easy or fair to study under the current conditions of education in Colombia. So in that sense, I share the feelings of many students. And it is preferable to miss a week of class, a month or a semester, as long as the government responds positively to the demands of the protests,” he said.

Penuela added that the public universities have all paused their activities “since one of the demands of the protest is compliance with the agreements which were signed on Dec. 14, 2018, which promises an increase in the general budget for education among other things.”

He said the government has not “respected” the agreement and ignored corruption cases where “millions of pesos have been stolen from the budget line of universities.”

Julian David Ramirez Castro from the University of Andes, conveyed a clear message to the government: “First of all, listen.”

“What happened since the beginning of the strike, there is widespread discontent, and neither stigmatization nor silencing are the correct answers,” said Ramirez, a double major graduate in Politics and Language and Culture.

“The social demands must be met without blaming others. Time runs against the government, and they have to propose real solutions.”

Ingrith Yurani Paez Bernal, a recent graduate of psychology from the Catholic University of Colombia, said her parents’ business was badly affected by the protests and chaos but she nevertheless supported the thousands on the streets. She said even the private universities had to suspend classes during protests.

“We demand that the government listens to us, that it withdraws the bill on tax reform, pension and labor reform…that it complies with the agreements signed with the students, workers and indigenous organizations in 2018,” she added.

Having just joined the pool of the unemployed in Colombia, she said she “would be lying” if she said she would stay in Colombia with the scarce opportunities in the private sector or academic field.

Less corrupt rulers, more justice for all

Aura Maria Alaguna Rodriguez, who studies Economics at the National University of Colombia, said “the police and the ESMAD riot forces have been fighting for several days against students, throwing tear gas and other repellents to prevent them from going out to protest.”

“When I see the current situation in the country, it gives me a feeling of not wanting to be here because the government is full of corruption and a change is not noticeable every time there is a new ruler,” she said.

“But seeing how the strike has been, how the people have joined, I feel that my duty is to stay and support my country because Colombia is worth it.”

Complaining that “Colombia invests more in war than in education,” she said they need “less corrupt rulers and fewer killings of our social leaders who want to help the people.”

“We need a country with less violence in the countryside. We ask for a Colombia where justice prevails for all and the quality of life improves.”

She also said that hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, continues “killing the nature of beautiful Colombia” despite Duque’s campaign promise to avoid it.

“We ask for many more things, but most importantly, we demand a president who listens to his people and finds the best solutions.”

El que persevera, alcanza

“He who perseveres, conquers,” says a Colombian proverb, imbibing a spirit of defiance among millions for centuries in the face of invasions, colonial aspirations and corrupt governments.

Colombians are adamant in their requests from their leaders.

Duque’s test with the protests will manifest its results in the first election.

  • Aicha Isabel Sandoval Alaguna has contributed to this story from Ankara
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