As Iván Duque completes two years as President, Colombia faces a new wave of protests

As Iván Duque completes two years as President, Colombia faces a new wave of protests

Like many other Latin American countries, Colombia’s domestic stability depends on a wide variety of factors and one event can trigger a significant wave of social unrest. We saw this for instance in Brazil in 2013 and 2014 and in Chile in 2019, when both President Dilma Rousseff and President Sebastián Piñera, respectively, raised bus and train fares, sparking protests all over the country. These small events are catalysts of something much bigger. After the killing of a civilian by police officers, demonstrations are once again erupting all over the country and do not seem to be solely focused on police brutality. 

In September 2020, Javier Ordóñez was arrested after allegedly trading some disrespectful words with the police. According to local reports and later confirmed by the government, seven police officers in a police station in Bogotá proceeded to assault him, creating severe injuries which eventually and reportedly led to his death later in a clinic. Within hours of the event, protests started gathering around police stations in the capital.  In other cities such as Medellín, police stations were burned and vandalised. Over two nights of protests, 13 civilians, some as young as 17 years old, were killed and a further 300 were wounded. Both the killing of Ordóñez and the confrontation between protestors and the police reignited the discussion regarding police violence in the country. Unlike other countries, Colombia’s police forces are under the Ministry of Defence’s command and not the Interior Ministry, leading to most of the allegations of police abuse and wrongdoing being discussed before military courts rather than civil courts. Furthermore, during the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent national lockdown, police forces had their powers reinforced and protestors claim that the number of abuse cases has been rising. Similar to other countries where police brutality has been a topic of discussion in 2020, President Duque considers violence against any law enforcement to be a criminal matter that needs to be responded to with stronger and tougher policing and military enforcement and announced that 2,000 soldiers would be joining the police in Bogotá

Nevertheless, it would be erroneous to consider these protests to be solely focused on police brutality.  Six months into the pandemic eruption, one can see its economic impact more clearly, with urban unemployment reaching a concerning 25%.  Moreover, the government is also struggling to attain territorial control in Colombia’s rural areas. Duque’s administration is struggling to implement the Peace Agreement negotiated by the previous government with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Several armed groups and drug cartels, most notably the National Liberation Army (ELN), have been capturing communities once controlled by the FARC, looking to increase their influence in both the mining industry and coca plantation market. 

Duque’s approval ratings since he took office in 2018 have been a rollercoaster. In April 2020, his approval ratings reached 52%, despite two months earlier being just over 20%. One can expect his popularity to drop once again in the months following these protests. Despite promises of a national conversation to address the demonstrations of last year, the issues of corruption, inequality and the Peace Agreement’s handling have yet to be tackled. In fact, some of these issues are becoming even more acute with the current pandemic. 

Recent polls have indicated great support for progressive candidates in Colombia, in line with what happened in October 2019 in the local elections. It is important to note that the three candidates leading those polls are part of the peace movement “Defendamos la Paz” focused on promoting the implementation of the Peace Agreement. President Duque will not be able to run for a second term as, according to Colombian law, a President cannot run for re-election and his party, the Centro Democrático, is currently marginalised in the polls. Not all is related to the abovementioned popular discontent regarding the actions of the current President. Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s former two-term President, who is believed to have played a crucial role in Duque’s election in 2018 and who is regarded as one of the most influential figures amongst Colombia’s right-wing platform, is currently under house arrest while allegations of fraud and witness tampering against him are pending. 

With the COVID-19 outbreak, President Duque will most likely change his current political strategy. Attracting foreign investment and creating a strong and healthy private sector can no longer be his main priority. Moreover, in line with the implementation of the Peace Agreement, Duque’s conservative base needs to soften their position on the war on drugs and the conflict with the FARC. Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, the government needs to protect both its citizens and business from both the economic and health crisis if the conservatives want to have a chance in the next Presidential elections in 2022. Even though his approval ratings are not very optimistic and Colombians are, once again, taking to the street to demonstrate their discontent towards his administration, Iván Duque is extremely likely to complete his Presidential mandate. The bad news for Colombian conservatives is that recent polls regarding the 2022 Presidential elections seem to indicate a rejection of Duque’s policies and a support for more progressive figures. The good news, on the other hand, is that the current President has two more years to overturn such predictions.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

About Author

Duarte Silva

Duarte graduated from Faculdade de Direito da Universidade de Lisboa with an LL.B before completing an LL.M in International Law from University College London (UCL). He joined Chambers and Partners as a Research Analyst, going on to work as Senior Research Analyst and Assistant Editor. Duarte is fluent in Portuguese and English and speaks Spanish to an advanced level. His main research interest is Latin American and European politics.