What problems does Colombia face?

Guest comment: Colombia - a country is sinking into polarization

Seldom has a country lost its international reputation as quickly as Colombia under the government of President Iván Duque. After the celebrated peace treaty with the FARC rebels in 2016, the country is again moving away from resolving its internal conflicts: armed guerrillas, drug gangs and the illegal appropriation of natural resources convey a picture of growing violence, which is often fatal for human rights defenders, environmental activists or indigenous leaders ends.

President Duque is now returning to old recipes in the fight against coca cultivation: the plantations are once again sprayed with the plant toxin glyphosate. The government responded to the immigration of 1.5 million migrants from Venezuela, who fled to Colombia before the suppression and supply crisis in their own country, with an open arms policy and later legalized the refugees' residence status. This decision, which was also celebrated by the UN Secretary General as an "exemplary humanitarian gesture for the region and the world", earned the country a great deal of international recognition, even if there have been hardly any imitators in South America so far.

No mode of non-violent problem-solving

But this phase of growing reputation did not last long. The violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces following the announcement of a tax reform by Duque again cast dark shadows on the image of Colombia - the country cannot find a mode of non-violent clarification of its future questions.

Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, thanks Ivan Duque for welcoming the Venezuelan refugees

For President Duque, the images repeat themselves. The violence and counter-violence that has been taking place in many cities in the country these weeks as part of the national strike called by the trade unions has already taken place to a lesser extent in November 2019: riots and looting, massive use of force by the security forces and then the call of the Presidents for togetherness and dialogue. But the "gran conversación nacional" proclaimed at the time fizzled out, as many observers fear for the recently announced new initiative of a "solidarity consensus" after the president withdrew his draft tax reform and the finance minister announced his resignation.

There is no doubt that Colombia is in a state of financial crisis. The burdens from the peace process, the supply of migrants and the consequences of the pandemic for the state budget are extreme. However, the Duque government has not succeeded in establishing a reliable dialogue with social groups, avoiding mobilization on the streets and consulting the opposition before presenting its own legislative proposal. An attempt is now being made to increase the tax revenue for a limited period.

A destructive polarization

The violent protests of the past few days, however, are about more than just the tax burden for the middle class and particularly vulnerable social groups. The solution to basic social issues is on the agenda that neither the Duque government nor the majority in the country want to tackle at all: How can the wounds of the more than 50 years of civil war be healed and reconciliation between the enemy camps be achieved? How can social equilibrium succeed in an extremely unequal society in which the economic elite and the land-owning oligarchy deny broad sections of the population access to prosperity? How can the dominant role of the police and the military be redefined in such a way that it fits in with the search for peace and non-violent coexistence?

Günther Maihold, Science and Politics Foundation

But nobody is working on solving these and other open questions. The constant renewal of the social and political polarization in the country is politically more productive. Once again, ex-President Álvaro Uribe reserved the right to pour gasoline into the embers: In several tweets he spoke of “vandalism” in the country, against which soldiers and police could also use armed force. With this he is continuing his established strategy of consolidating the dominant role of the security organs as the central political instrument of the state on the grounds of a "terrorism threat".

With a view to the presidential elections in May 2022, positions are already being established on which Uribe, as kingmaker of his political camp, will again have massive influence. It is foreseeable that this will continue camp thinking and will prevail over efforts for a common future and peaceful coexistence. This means that the solution to the country's unresolved questions about the future has once again been put on the back burner

Alvaro Uribe, the man who is still pulling the strings in Colombia today

Failure as an international designer

The current internal conflicts hit Colombia at a time when it could play a creative role internationally. It has taken over the presidency in the Pacific Alliance, the Andean Community and in the regional political forum PROSUR - a temporal coincidence that would offer the best options for dynamising the precarious processes of regional integration. Not least because of the pandemic, many governments are looking inward and are less inclined to get involved in cross-border agreements. However, here too there could be opportunities to cope better with the economic and social consequences of the pandemic.

But the internal situation has now also taken the Colombian government's chance to provide new impulses here and to take on a role in shaping foreign policy. President Duque faces a difficult final year in office, one that has been marked by missed opportunities and unresolved challenges, both nationally and internationally. Five years after the peace agreement was signed, a lot is at stake for Colombia.


Prof. Dr. Günther Maihold is Deputy Director of the Science and Politics Foundation. Latin America is his work and research focus.