Colombia’s protests are threat, test for US
Colombia’s relationship with the United States is hitting its lowest point in decades as the country’s government faces criticism over its militarized response to massive street protests.
The wave of protests risks destabilizing one of Latin America’s most functional democracies and the United States’s closest ally in the region.
While international organizations like the United Nations and the European Union have accused Colombian forces of police brutality in attempting to quell the protests, the Biden administration is taking a more measured approach.
“Police, whether in the United States or Colombia, need to engage by certain rules and respect fundamental freedoms, and that’s not a critique,” said Juan González, National Security Council director for the Western Hemisphere.
Colombian officials have defended their security forces, even as more than 20 protesters have died this week, saying a line has to be drawn between peaceful protesters and those who engage in violence and vandalism.
“If we start separating peaceful protest from vandalism and violence, we start having a very clear dialogue and the dialogue that we as a country have is that this is a country of institutions and of the rule of law, which has to be applied to everyone,” said Interior Minister Daniel Palacios on a call with reporters Thursday.
The protests began as a reaction to a proposed tax hike by the administration of President Iván Duque Márquez, which was withdrawn as public opposition mounted.
But the protests also drew public support as a continuation of discontent that had started in 2019, as well as public discomfort with the economic social and economic side effects of the pandemic.
“The situation in Colombia is unlike anything that a Colombian administration has confronted over the last two decades,” said Dan Restrepo, a former Western Hemisphere head at the National Security Council in the Obama administration.
“[It’s different ] in that you have a set of peaceful protests that were taken advantage of by folks to foment violence and then you had a quite harsh overreaction, at least from segments of Colombian security forces,” added Restrepo.
That overreaction drew the ire of a number of congressional Democrats, many of whom have been critical of Colombia’s human rights record for decades.
And the Colombian ruling party, Centro Democrático, had already rubbed Democrats the wrong way as some of its members — including party leader former President Álvaro Uribe — openly campaigned for or endorsed Republican candidates in Florida in 2020.
Both the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menéndez (D-N.J.) and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), tweeted disappointment at the Colombian government’s reaction to the protests, particularly the National Police (PNC) and its riot-control unit (ESMAD).
“I’m extremely concerned by the brutal PNC and ESMAD response to protests in Colombia. I’m particularly alarmed by developments in Cali and call on President @IvanDuque to deescalate the violence and make clear that excessive use of force is inexcusable,” wrote Meeks.
Meeks did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
And while most observers agree that elements of the country’s remaining guerrilla movements, ELN and FARC, as well as narco traffickers, are likely stoking some of the violence, human rights groups believe the government is overplaying their influence.
“It’s very likely that some of the acts of vandals are part of some of the urban support networks of ELN and FARC. Why not?” said Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a non-profit human rights advocacy group.
“That doesn’t mean they had a planning or commanding or directing role in any of that,” said Isacson.
Isacson added that large-scale protest are rarely 100 percent non-violent, and the government’s efforts to paint all vandals as members of criminal or guerrilla groups “is simply untrue and frankly dangerous.”
“It’s a way to elevate common street thuggery into terrorism,” said Isacson.
Still, Colombia has some of the region’s most advanced autonomous institutions designed to prevent human rights abuses, a product of the country’s reconstruction amid a drug war and half-century communist insurrection by FARC.
While Colombia remains a relatively violent country, its reforms over the past two decades — many funded by U.S. aid through Plan Colombia — have rendered it one of the strongest democracies in Latin America.
“When you analyze Colombia a lot of how things look today depends on where your starting point is,” said Restrepo, pointing to the institutional weakness in the country in the 1990s and before.
But Colombia’s two presidents before Duque, Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos, governed on an upswing of U.S.-Colombia relations where the country went from near-failed state status to a thriving democracy.
Under Duque, circumstances have conspired to cool that relationship somewhat, starting with the Centro Democrático’s open support of former President Trump and Florida Republicans in 2020.
That’s cut down avenues of diplomacy for a country that’s prided itself on two decades of active and successful bipartisan advocacy in Washington.
“I think Ambassador [Francisco] Santos finds fewer open doors in Capitol Hill today than he did two years ago,” said Restrepo.
Santos pushed back on any notion of a rift between Washington and Bogotá.
“The Colombia-US partnership is as strong as ever, and it is moments like this when our friendship is reinforced,” said Santos.
“As the two oldest democracies in the Western Hemisphere, we are united in respecting human and civil rights, and in pushing back on attacks against democratic freedoms. We have been and will stay in close contact with our American friends — from the Biden Administration to Congress,” he added.
And the Duque administration shares with Democrats — even those targeted by Uribe — the fear that destabilizing forces are attempting to undermine Colombian democracy.
Former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, one of two Florida Democrats who lost their seats in 2020 after she was accused of being a socialist by Centro Democrático operatives in Florida, said she fears violence in protests is being stoked by foreign actors, possibly including Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Maduro has historically sheltered FARC guerrillas in Venezuelan territory.
“I think that democracy right now is holding on by a thread in the U.S. and in many countries in Latin America,” said Mucarsell-Powell, who was born in Ecuador.
“What we’re seeing is there’s a lot of discontent by the people in Colombia but we’re also seeing violent actors taking advantage of what’s happening to incite violence and blame it on Colombian citizens,” she added.
Still, Mucarsell-Powell remains critical of the Centro Democrático’s campaign activities in Florida.
“I don’t think it’s beneficial for Colombian officials to get so involved in any elections just like we shouldn’t get involved in their elections,” she said.
And most observers still view an opportunity for dialogue with protest leaders, particularly as Colombians prepare to vote in a presidential election in 2022.
The country’s history of civil strife against communist guerrillas has traditionally led Colombian voters away from left-wing populists who could cozy up to regional leaders like Maduro.
The spectre of left-wing populism has in the past deterred Colombian voters, although in 2018 leftist Gustavo Petro competed in a second round against Duque.
“There are people trying to polarize on both ends of the spectrum,” said Restrepo.
There are legitimate concerns about what a populist leftist government could mean for Colombia, but I also think that there is political intentionality in lifting up the prospects of a Petro government to advance their own political ends,” said Restrepo.
Still, the Biden administration is giving the benefit of the doubt to Duque, encouraging the government to cool down tempers through dialogue with protest leaders.
“The Colombian people need to have this conversation, it’s not an appropriate time for the U.S. to comment when we haven’t gotten all the details,” said González.