ANALYSIS: National strike in Colombia, between rights violations and millionaire economic losses
Despite meetings on way out of crisis, there is still no way to see path to stop violence, blockades, economic difficulties
Thirty-seven days have passed since the national strike in Colombia began and the outlook as of Thursday is bleak.
The strike has left at least 48 dead, more than 2,000 injured, hundreds of disappeared, and numerous abuses by the public forces as well as acts of vandalism that have affected a significant number of commercial establishments and property, both public and private.
The protesters claim as a victory the fall of the tax and health reform projects, as well as the resignation of the Minister of Finance Alberto Carrasquilla and his deputy minister, Juan Alberto Londono, authors of the tax reform that motivated the social revolt. But this was not enough to calm things down and various demands continue to emerge.
Although there have been approaches between the leaders of the mobilizations and the Government of Ivan Duque to arrange a negotiated solution to the crisis, there is still considerable uncertainty.
The National Strike Committee (CNP in Spanish) asks the government to accept a seven-point emergency statement that, among others, requires health intervention, the strengthening of vaccination against the coronavirus, and the approval of an emergency basic income for people living in poverty. For its part, the government insists that vandalism has to cease and that all roads in the country must be unblocked.
On Tuesday, June 1, before the last meeting, government spokesman, Emilio Archila, told Anadolu Agency that the "intelligent and necessary decision that there are no blockades" was expected, while CNP representatives said at the same time that three days ago an instruction had been given in this regard and 90 percent of the blockades had already been lifted.
However, after more than ten hours, the meeting ended without an agreement and was postponed until this Thursday, amid reproaches to the government for its refusal to continue negotiating the pre-agreements, and also to the Strike Committee, for not representing the majorities that continue to protest in the rest of the country.
For now, one of the points that most divides the parties are the remaining blockades, over which the CNP clearly has no authority (the Casa de Nariño insists that until all the country's roads are cleared, no pre-agreement will be signed), and the demilitarization of the cities that was decreed by the government and that for CNP it is a non-negotiable point.
In this push and pull, two major problems have arisen within the framework of the protests: on the one hand, the economic crisis derived from the blockades and, on the other hand, the systematic violation of human rights that has been denounced by national and international organizations.
A strong economic impact
On the economic level, according to figures from the government and the unions, the losses caused by the strike exceed COP 15 trillion (about $4 billion). In fact, the new Minister of Finance Jose Manuel Restrepo reported that the daily costs for the protests are COP 484,000 million ($130.5 million) on average.
Meanwhile, the growth of the gross domestic product (GDP) in the second quarter of 2021 would lose three percentage points, since the estimates would go from 16% to 13%, according to Sergio Olarte, the chief economist at Scotiabank Colpatria, in remarks to the newspaper La Republica.
"The blockades and demonstrations in some way neutralized the rebound after the good news of the first quarter, where the country grew 1.1%," added Olarte.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) stated that although the Colombian economy registered strong growth since the second half of 2020, social protests and the new confinements of April and May of this year will delay a recovery more durable until the second half of 2021.
“GDP is expected to grow 7.6% in 2021 and 3.5% in 2022, driven by private consumption and investment. Vaccine distribution is progressing slowly. The recovery could weaken as a consequence of new restrictions, but also due to the uncertainty about the fiscal outlook,” said the organization.
A heavy blow to human rights
Beyond the red numbers in economic matters, the other negative focus that has been evidenced is the crescent figures of human rights violations.
Organizations such as NGO Temblores and the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz) report, according to their latest balance released on Tuesday, 3,789 cases of violence by the police, including 45 homicides (plus another 29 cases that are in the process of verification), 1,649 arbitrary detentions, 65 victims of attacks on their eyes, 25 victims of sexual violence, 187 cases of firearms and numerous other abuses committed by the public force.
There are also 111 disappeared (according to information from the Ombudsman's Office and the Prosecutor's Office), while unofficial reports and complaints on social networks talk about young people being cremated, torture and detention in clandestine centers, among other serious human rights violations that increase in the nights, mainly in peripheral areas of Bogota and Cali.
For its part, the report from the Ministry of Defense mentions 20 deaths (18 civilians and two policemen) directly related to the protest; 19 additional that "have no connection" with it and nine remaining cases that are "in the process of verification" to confirm whether "they have been in the framework of the protest."
The report also indicates that some 1,200 uniformed personnel and just over 1,100 civilians have been injured and that at least 900 commercial establishments and bank offices have been affected by acts of vandalism, as well as thousands of vehicles and public transport stations, among others.
In this sense, the director for the Americas of Amnesty International (AI), Erika Guevara, told Anadolu Agency that "the balance of these days in Colombia is very tragic."
“We have seen how violence against those who demonstrate has escalated. We have also seen with great concern the acts of violence perpetrated by third parties, by citizens, which show this social exhaustion and this inability of the authorities to generate mechanisms for genuine dialogue," she said.
For Guevara, "from day one, April 28, the Government of President Iván Duque has come to pour gasoline into a situation of high tension. People have taken to the streets as the only mechanism to expose their demands not only on the tax reform but also against inequality, discrimination, and violence, how the conflict and the State's inability to provide protection have affected them.”
Guevara also rejected the militarization ordered by the president in 13 cities, including Cali, which became the epicenter of social unrest and where the media registered ‘civilians’ - accompanied by the Police - firing at protesters.
In this regard, the Amnesty International spokesperson stressed that "without a doubt, the State has the responsibility to investigate violence generated by third parties, crimes committed by other people, including protesters who may use violence."
“What we have documented these days is that human rights violations are against people who are demonstrating peacefully. We have seen how the security forces indiscriminately use lethal and less-lethal weapons for the sole purpose of dispersing protests and punishing those on the streets," she concluded.
Government defends its management
In different interventions, the Colombian government has reiterated that it respects and supports peaceful protests and has indicated that the Public Force has acted within the framework of respect for human rights.
Then, on June 2, the president stressed that "the violence that occurs in a society has to be condemned wherever it comes from" and rejected that the cases of abuse of authority were a systematic conduct.
“I particularly believe that the Colombian Police has become professional, it is an institution that has more than 128 years of existence and it is an institution that in a year is carrying out more than 30 million police procedures. So, the question is: Have there been cases of abuse of authority in 30 million procedures? Of course, they have been presented, but they are investigated, sanctioned and that doesn't show a systematic trend,” said Duque.
The Colombian authorities have opened at least 171 disciplinary investigations against uniformed men for cases of homicide (11), abuse of authority (83), physical assaults (32), sexual harassment (2), eye injuries (18), and other conducts (25).
However, the president acknowledged that there is a disconnection and a lack of communication with young Colombians, who have been one of the main protagonists of this strike, considered by many as a historic opportunity to change the course of the country.
"I have to do a mea culpa, we should have maintained that communication, it hurts me ... I have to do a mea culpa, be able to apologize, say: ‘man, we should have done much more in terms of strengthening that communication’, but in these 14 months that we have left in the Government, there is an opportunity to build that great pact for the youth of Colombia, among all of us, without parties, without ideologies, and to leave them resources, a north of investment and a possibility of closing historical gaps so that youth feel empowered to be the generation of hope," he asserted.
The crisis spreads
Given the refusal of the government to sign the preliminary agreements and install negotiating tables, the Strike Committee scheduled two new mobilizations.
The first was held on Wednesday, June 2, but there was a significant decrease in the number of people who attended compared to previous marches. And the second is scheduled for next June 9 and has been called "Taking of Bogota".
However, in the words of Fabio Arias, prosecutor of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), one of the main unions in the country, the government is using a policy to "wear down the forces of the strike."
In addition to criticism for the alleged non-negotiation attitude and for the militarization of social protest, the Ivan Duque administration faces strong accusations from the bulk of the international community.
Governments ranging from the US to Venezuela, and organizations such as the United Nations, the Organization of American States, Human Rights Watch, the European Union, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) have questioned the strong state response to the protests, the excesses of the public force and the cases of armed civilians accompanied by the Police shooting at demonstrators.
These complaints and the human rights situation will be investigated by the IACHR, which obtained the green light from the Colombian government, after two weeks of delay, to visit the country.
The authorization, however, came with an agenda proposed from Bogota, something that has been strongly criticized by different sectors that assure that the Casa de Narino conditioned the visit that the organization will carry out between June 8 and 10.
*Maria Paula Triviño contributed to this story.Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.