Colombia’s protests signal a region primed for a new protest wave

The conditions that led to the wave of protests in late 2019 have only worsened with the pandemic and recession.

Last week, a video shared on social media showed a man in Colombia being abused by police officers. The autopsy of Javier Ordoñez suggests that he was beaten in the police station after the video was taken. The following two days of protests saw thirteen dead, hundreds injured and significant vandalism done to police stations, public transportation and businesses. 

Above: Image from the video of Ordoñez being tasered and beaten by police.

Many of the details of this event are Colombia-specific. For an analysis of those details, I recommend reading this article by Elizabeth Dickinson and this article by Sergio Guzman and Katherine Galindo. My focus in this newsletter are the takeaways for the whole region that echo the protests of late 2019.

Grievances are unresolved and magnified

Before the pandemic, I expected 2020 to see more and bigger protests in Latin America. The health crisis and lockdown obviously changed the political dynamics and reduced the number of people on the streets. Covid-19 did not remove the underlying issues that made me believe there would be more protests in 2020 and arguably made those conditions worse.

During 2020, few actions were taken to reform the systemic inequalities that served as the kindling for the 2019 protest wave. The Duque government promised to speak with the protest movement and signaled it was open to concessions, but the arrival of the pandemic pushed those issues off the agenda.

The pandemic’s impact in pushing other issues off the agenda is true in much of the region. Chile is holding a constitutional referendum in the coming weeks that will finally begin to address one of the main demands of protests. Most other countries have let issues drop off the radar while dealing with the health emergency.

Yet, beyond push the issues off the agenda, the pandemic and the associated recession have magnified many of the original challenges. Poverty and inequality have worsened. Access to education and healthcare is more limited. Corruption opportunities have grown and oversight has been restricted. Governments that are spending to combat the recession, while absolutely necessary during this emergency, may limit their fiscal space to deal with other issues in the coming years. All of those issues create a base level of anger that can drive protests if the right spark occurs.

Protests can organize and worsen rapidly

It took fewer than 36 hours from the time the video of the original police abuse was posted to the point where eight people were dead and dozens of buses and police stations were burnt. It was reminiscent of the beginning of Chile’s protests last year in which dozens of metro stations were attacked with very limited warning. The Colombia protests once again demonstrate public transportation being a key soft target for vandalism and violence by the most radical of protest groups.

While the Colombia protests were sparked by the police abuse video, protesters were angry about a lot of other issues including the recent wave of high profile massacres and discontent over the economic situation. That anger, which is also building in other countries over some similar issues, has had few outlets in recent months due to lockdowns. That anger and the lack of a steam valve for it means protests are primed to move quickly once they begin.

As occurred during the 2019 protests, there are almost certainly dangerous organizations taking advantage of the protests to engage in their own forms of violence and criminality. Some may be ideological, intent on damaging the government. Others may be criminal, using the protests as cover to engage in robbery. The presence of those groups is one reason (along with abuses by security forces) that the violence in protests escalates quickly.

However, those violent groups are not the root cause of the protests and focusing on them will not resolve the tensions and anger that a far larger portion of the population feels. 

Governments mistakenly attempt to focus on those extreme violent actors in part as a way to discredit the broader protest movement and its legitimate concerns. Those attempts at polarization by governments often backfire and make the public feel that the government is out of touch with their legitimate concerns. I expect governments to continue making this mistake if protests break out in other countries in the coming months.

Police abuses escalate protests

In the Colombia case, a murder by police officers was the spark for the protests. But throughout the protests that followed on Wednesday and Thursday last week, police officers used excessive force and were caught on camera. A number of videos posted to social media show Colombian police hitting protesters, firing weapons, and aggressively attacking those who are filming them. These actions escalated the protests and likely brought more people to the streets.

The events in Colombia followed a pattern that was seen in the protest wave throughout the region in late 2019. Abuses by security forces increased the levels of violence by the more radical protesters while also bringing a large number of peaceful protesters to the streets who sat out the initial round of protests. As police use force against peaceful protesters, that simply drives greater public anger and more people to the streets. It becomes a cycle that is difficult to break.

If a new wave of protests hits Latin America in the coming months, it is nearly certain that abuses by police forces will cause escalations.

Protests correlate and can spread

Every protest has its own unique causes. The protests in Colombia are specific to that country and the solutions to resolve the protests will be Colombia-specific.

Yet, it’s also true that protests correlate within the region. The basic conditions that lead to protests (weak economies, anger at structural inequalities) are similar in much of the region. Social media makes it easier for information about protests to spread. The perception of “successful” protests leads to others believing that protests in their own cities and countries may be successful. Organizers take inspiration from each other. Tactics can be shared. 

The protests in Colombia are not going to directly cause renewed protests in Ecuador or Peru or Mexico or Chile. Protests in other countries will require their own incident to bring people to the streets and it is difficult to predict the precise event that will trigger a protest. Yet, Colombia’s protests should be a warning sign to other countries in South America that a new protest wave may be building. Don’t let the common refrain of “every country is different” cloud the fact that these protest events have reasons to group together as they did last year.


Thanks for reading

I tend to analogize protest movements to fires (kindling, sparks, fuel, etc) and that’s awkward when there are large parts of the West in the US and the Pantanal in Brazil burning with real fires. I’m sorry about that and will work on a better analogy. Meanwhile, I hope everyone is staying safe.

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