In Colombia, protesters are demanding that President Ivan Duque address concerns over economic inequality, corruption, the Venezuela crisis and implementation of the 2016 FARC peace accord in what USIP’s Steve Hege calls the country’s “largest mass mobilization in four decades.”
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Tim Farley: There have been national protests and strikes—they call it the “Pots and Pans” in Colombia. Finally, they have direct negotiations. This is taking place in Colombia, which is a hotspot that we have talked about before. It's not something that gets a huge amount of attention, but on Sunday, thousands of Colombians gathered on the streets of the country's biggest cities to talk about what they want from the government there.
Tim Farley: Let's discuss and put it in perspective because it was three years since a peace deal was ratified in the Congress in Colombia. Where do they stand now? Steve Hege is senior expert of the Colombia peace process at the United States Institute of Peace. He is tweeting @stevehege and is joining us. Steve, welcome back. Thanks for being here.
Steve Hege: Thanks a lot for having me, Tim.
Tim Farley: The “Pots and Pans,” kind of an interesting symbol, if you will, of the protests.
Steve Hege: Absolutely. We've had two weeks, coming up on two weeks as of tomorrow. There's another round of national strikes scheduled for today. Really, the largest sort of mass mobilization in four decades here in Colombia, representing a whole range of issues from frustration about potential tax reform, pension reform, corruption, education investment. But also, some real frustration and misgivings about the Colombian government's position on the implementation of the, now as you said, three-year-old agreement with the FARC rebels.
Steve Hege: Part of that has been focused into now direct negotiations with the government as it started yesterday, but President Ivan Duque is also laid out a calendar for a broader national conversation, which I think is in general terms quite positive, demonstrating receptivity to this broader discontent which is really authentic and genuine within the Colombian context. There's been numerous indications that the governing party has not been able to rally popular support. Polls have been down in local, regional, and mayoral and gubernatorial elections. The governing party of the President Ivan Duque has not fared as well as they would have liked. So, there is a generalized discontent, but peace and the issue of peace is certainly a big part of that, although it's not exclusively the ultimate driver.
Steve Hege: And as you said, that pots and pans have been symbolic of this general expression to the government that they want to be listened, they want to be heard. For the most part, these strikes have been, and the protest has been, absolutely peaceful. The pots and pans are the most symbolic of that peaceful movement, but there have been moments, particularly Friday, November 22nd, where they was generalized insecurity in major cities like Cali and Bogota. And for the first time in Bogota, a city of 8 million people, the government had to declare a curfew, and that was the first time since 1977.
Steve Hege: So things are quite serious, but there are some indications that we're moving in the right direction in terms of potentially an end to these strikes that have really paralyzed the country in many ways.
Tim Farley: Steve, to the point you were making, this is not restricted only to the peace process, the three-year anniversary of what was undertaken three years ago is now sort of under examination. But in addition to that, there is also the problem of economic inequality, indigenous populations, and this is something evidently that is not restricted to Colombia, but to some of its neighbors as well.
Steve Hege: Yeah, absolutely. I think President Ivan Duque has demonstrated and planned out that Colombia is an anomaly in terms of economic growth. They projected 3% growth, but unemployment is very high, unfortunately, and there's a lot of frustration amongst youth and students fearing that they don't have the opportunities that are before them that they would like to have, and they're not seeing the investment in education and opportunities for them.
And this is not exclusive to Colombia. This is a phenomenon of frustration. We've seen broad protests in neighboring countries like Peru and Ecuador and Chile, here recently with the crisis in Bolivia, and of course in neighboring Venezuela. The unemployment issue and the competition for jobs is really touching upon a very sensitive issue of the nearly 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants that are in Colombia today as a result of the massive historic economic and political crisis plaguing Venezuela for the last four or five years.
And that leads to a certain sense of tension, social tension. We've seen worryingly during these protests an increase in xenophobia against Venezuelan migrants. The government just expelled 69 Venezuelan nationals, saying that they were behind some of the violence that I alluded to on November 22nd. This has led to an increase, as I said, in a certain sense of animosity, and I think that's really concerning.
It's really concerning that this hospitality that Colombia has demonstrated for those Venezuelan migrants is potentially fraying, and that we may see other incidents of tension, violence and broader animosity towards Venezuelan migrants that, for the most part, have been widely accepted and supported under very difficult circumstances here in Colombia, and led by President Duque really making a clear effort to support those Venezuelan migrants.
But it comes to a point where a lot of issues are just unsustainable over a period of time, and it calls to the real need to look at how do we resolve the Venezuelan crisis. In addition to implementing the FARC accord, the Venezuelan crisis really looms as it overshadows the real issues of peace and security in Colombia as well.
Tim Farley: Steve Hege, with us, senior expert at Colombia peace process at the United States Institute of Peace. And you're in Colombia right now, I guess, right?
Steve Hege: I am, yes.
Tim Farley: Okay. I wanted to ask you, you mentioned allegations and accusations, and we do have the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this week had accused Cuba and Venezuela of trying to hijack democratic protests in Latin America, and I'm assuming he meant capturing Colombia and all of that. Is that an allegation with or without merit? And what is the U.S. position on what is taking place in Colombia right now?
Steve Hege: Well, I think the official position has been in support of democratic processes, dialogue, engagement with civil society, unions, education, student movements. That that has been very clear. I think behind that, there is certainly a concern around statements that have been made by individuals high up in the regime of Nicolas Maduro claiming some degree of credit for expanding some of these protests across the region, and that's one thing that they can pretend to claim credit for. It's another thing to actually say that they are really the ones galvanizing.
Steve Hege: And I think it very clear in the popular support, the “Pots and Pans” issue is something that nothing could be instrumentalized. It's very authentic. A demonstration of real popular discontent, frustration with this government, whether it be rightly placed or inaccurately placed is a separate issue. But the fact that there is a popular discontent that is authentic to Colombia and not related to any potential outside orchestration, be from Cuba or Venezuela, I think would be really inaccurate as an assessment. I think most people in Washington understand that.
Steve Hege: I think it's a question now of how do politicians here in Colombia deal with that authentic discontent, or do they wish to simply disregard it as being something that's imposed or manipulated by external actors, particularly from Venezuela. And I think that's an inaccurate reading of the current context in Colombia.
Tim Farley: Steve, I appreciate your joining us on POTUS today. Thank you so much.
Steve Hege: Thanks a lot for having me, Tim.
Tim Farley: Steve Hege, senior expert Colombia peace process at the United States Institute of Peace, joining us today from Colombia on the latest demonstrations there, which are more than just as a result of what has been happening since the Colombia peace deal was ratified three years ago.
Tim Farley: He is tweeting @stevehege.