As the January 6 riot unfolded, journalist Jake Tapper told a CNN colleague reporting from Washington, D.C., that he felt as if he was "talking to a correspondent in Bogotá." Now that violent protests once again plague Bogotá and the rest of Colombia, however, the odd thing is that they closely resemble last summer's violent protests in Washington, D.C.
While Colombia certainly has a long history of riots, these seldom featured the toppling of statues. It was only after the 2020 twilight of the statued idols in America's capital and throughout the United States that a group of Guambianos, or Misak, an indigenous people from the southwestern department of Cauca, decided to topple the statue honoring Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, the Spaniard who, allied with certain indigenous tribes, conquered much of central Colombia in the 16th century. The Guambianos tried to "cancel" Jiménez de Quesada last month in Bogotá's colonial center, only days after they had struck in the city of Cali, where they ousted the statue of Sebastián de Belalcázar, another conquistador.
Besides importing cancel culture from the United States, the professed anti-imperialists leading the current protests in Colombia have used roadblocks along major highways to prevent goods, medicine, fuel, and even ambulances from reaching large urban centers. In Cali, the third-largest city in Colombia with 2.2 million inhabitants, the local press reported shortages of rice, meat, chicken, eggs, vegetables, and gasoline on May 5, after several days of blockades and complacency by the local authorities. On May 9, when entrapped residents attempted to liberate the roads themselves, they exchanged fire with the indigenous groups carrying out the blockades. The latter even invaded gated communities and launched projectiles at a security drone as it filmed their onslaught.
The systematic use of roadblocks is not new; saboteurs have perfected this hostile tactic against civil society after several decades of constant practice. In Popayán, a city of 318,000 inhabitants in Cauca some 85 miles south of Cali, tradesmen are used to storing additional supplies of food and water to last about 20 days each year. As journalist Fernán Martínez reports, this is due to annual blockades from indigenous groups, which have besieged the city since the 1980s and left its inhabitants regularly without supplies.
The goal is always to extract public spending pledges or grants of additional land from national authorities; indigenous reservations or resguardos, where the law dictates that all property be held collectively, are among the largest land holdings in the country, comprising 31 million hectares out of a total of 114 million according to a 2011 study by the Colombian Institute of Rural Development. As Martínez notes, the government usually sends its inexperienced, city-dwelling technocrats to capitulate in negotiations with wily indigenous leaders, who are "true Ph.D.s in the art of the blockade."
Other professional rent-seekers are now using the same methods at a national level. The country's largest labor unions—comprised of a minority of mostly public sector workers—kick-started the current chaos when they called a national strike on April 28 against a proposed tax reform. They claimed it was an assault on the middle class because it broadened the income tax base, which now consists of a mere 4 percent of working individuals.
The government's tax reform, however, was a quasi-socialist measure that sought to raise the existing wealth tax from 1 to 2 percent, place a 10 percent surcharge on moderately high salaries, and create what one report called "a permanent, unconditional subsidy for 40 percent of the population, a version of the basic income scheme that the left has promoted for years."
Since a majority in Congress was planning to reject the tax bill, President Iván Duque withdrew the measure and fired his finance minister just five days after the beginning of the strike. Nevertheless, the unions are still obstructing the free flow of traffic across Colombia, which proves that their opposition to the tax bill was mere grandstanding. In fact, while the tax reform they opposed sought to raise 14 trillion Colombian pesos (USD $3.79 billion) in revenue, the sum of their demands amounted to more than five times as much in additional spending on free college tuition, basic income payouts, and other statist schemes. Meanwhile, the strike's indiscriminate violence against public infrastructure and private businesses has already cost 10.8 trillion Colombian pesos (USD $2.92 billion) in damages according to one estimate.
The openly socialist teachers union, La Federación Colombiana de Trabajadores de la Educación (FECODE), has been particularly deceitful. While its leaders refused to return to schools and deliver in-person instruction, claiming that their members are vulnerable to COVID-19 infections, they also protested in large crowds and herded closely together during street concerts. Depending on their convenience, they have switched from being COVID bedwetters to nonchalant superspreaders at an astounding velocity. FECODE only announced a return to school after a video surfaced in which one of its leaders, who is planning to run for Congress, openly admitted that the strike was about winning power in the 2022 elections.
Not that the arsonist left is solely responsible for Colombia's turmoil. To the extent that there is legitimate popular discontent, the class of technocratic dirigistes in charge of economic policy is largely to blame. For decades, Colombia's technocracy has pursued a model of low growth, inflexible labor regulations, a weak currency, and high taxes on businesses. While tax revenue has constantly increased, it hasn't kept up with uncontrolled public spending on large welfare programs and a growing bureaucracy. Hence the constant budget deficits and dangerous levels of national debt, which reached 40 percent of GDP even before the pandemic.
Recklessly, national budgets have come to depend on expected oil revenues based on wishful estimates of the following year's price of Brent crude. When the current government prepared its budget for 2020, which Congress approved in 2019, it assumed an average Brent price of USD $67 per barrel. The collapse in oil prices in early 2020, when a barrel of Brent sold for USD $9.12, wreaked havoc on the public finances.
Last April, Colombia's debt stood at 60.4 percent of GDP, as its sovereign bonds sold at junk levels. As expected, Standard & Poors downgraded the country's credit rating and removed its investment grade in May. And although the official unemployment rate reached 15.1 percent in April, the government has shown no willingness to introduce supply-side reforms or relax labor laws, for instance by allowing per-hour work or at-will contracts. In a sense, the labor unions already rule the country.
In its coverage of the protests, the foreign press has centered on police abuse, a real problem that politicians exacerbated with authoritarian COVID-19 restrictions. Just last September in Bogotá, several police officers tased, choked, and then killed a 43-year-old man named Javier Ordoñez, who sought to buy beer while a curfew was in place. On May 17, the Office of the Attorney General announced that it was investigating 278 cases of alleged police abuse during the current wave of protests. It added that 703 officers had been injured since the beginning of the strike, a figure the police itself updated to 1,326 on June 11. Few on polarized social media platforms reject both police brutality and the growing violence against the officers who do their job fairly, but are constant targets of Molotov cocktails and other projectiles.
The country's hard left, led by former guerrilla member and now-Senator Gustavo Petro, wants the world to believe that Colombia is under an illegitimate, authoritarian regime that systematically abuses human rights. Colombia, however, is still a liberal democracy, imperfect and now beleaguered, that is fighting to preserve the republican institutions that its neighbors have either lost—as in the case of Venezuela—or may be about to lose, as in the case of Peru. This is hardly surprising since Petro, after losing the presidential election in 2018, announced that "the people" had to be mobilized against the newly elected government.
Nonetheless, the rent-seekers' rebellion has achieved little beyond dispelling the Marxist notion of class struggle. "In the modern state," wrote Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila, "the classes with opposed interests are not the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but rather the class that pays taxes and the one that lives off them."