For me, Colombians have the best parties. More than the laughing and the dancing, there’s that sense of enjoying the moment, like there’s nothing else.
It’s the wise and relaxed celebration of those who know that life is not guaranteed and that anything can happen after that endless moment. The way I see it, Colombians have always been so close to death that they squeeze the most out of life.
Colombia has just emerged from a 60-year-old war that left more than 260,000 dead.
Until relatively recently, the Cali and Medellin cartels were terrorizing people with car bombs, kidnappings and the cold-blooded murders of those who refused to cooperate with the drug trade. And the period known as La Violencia, an endless cycle of assassinations 1946-1958 among political enemies, still mark the memories and history books of Colombians.
Today, death continues to prowl the country.
More than 40 people have died and hundreds were injured during recent protests around the country. For now, there seems to be no solution to this enormous social conflict, which started some weeks back with an absurd and unjust tax increase and has now turned into an unstoppable movement to change almost everything.
What happened? Why this sudden social explosion?
“Oh God, this is a social debt of long standing,” singer-songwriter Adriana Lucía, an activist who has refused to participate in a dialogue with the government of President Iván Duque – “I cannot take a seat that is not mine” – told me in an interview during one street protest in Bogota. “This is a historic debt. Many governments have been delaying this social crisis. And obviously there’s a pandemic … Now there are disgruntled people all over the streets.”
To try to understand what’s happening in Colombia, I spoke with three close Colombian friends and co-workers at Noticiero Univision for more than a decade.
“We were all surprised by the size” of the protests, Felix de Bedout, a Medellín native and director of the evening news program. “What that tax reform uncovered was that there was a much larger accumulated anger. Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America, one of the most unequal regions of the world.”
From Miami, Felix tweets – @fdbedout – frantically at night urging people to stay safe. “Nights in Colombia are terrifying,” he told me. “It might turn out like the Arab Spring, which ended in a deep winter.”
Ilia Calderón, my co-anchor on the Univision news program and a native of Istmina in the Chocó region, agreed. “I think it’s all the result of the inequality,” she told me before a broadcast. “The protests taking place now go far beyond the (tax) reforms the government wanted to impose. The dissatisfaction is so profound, and society is so divided. This pains me deeply, because in some ways I identify with those who are tired or asking, of demanding what they deserve … As a country, we have been through so much, and I want to see that we have learned something. And it seems we have not learned. We are still killing each other.”
Instead of listening to the protesters, the Duque administration chose to repress. The social networks are full of examples of police brutality and more. Unlike the rest of the world, the Colombian police is part of the Ministry of Defense, and sometimes behaves like a parallel army, unpunishable and abusive.
“President Duque has been totally overwhelmed by the situation,” I was told by Daniel Coronell, president of Noticias Univision and Sunday columnist in the popular Web page LosDanieles.com. “And the answer to the protests has been massive repression … President Duque is infinitely weak because he was elected because of an endorsement from his political mentor, former President Alvaro Uribe, who is the one who really controls the levers of power in Colombia.”
Duque in fact won more votes than any other president in the history of the country. But that did not turn him into a visionary leader. “The government has no solutions, or the leadership needed to search for them,” said Daniel, who believes the protests, although less intense, will dog the Duque presidency until he leaves office next year.
Nothing is clear in Colombia these days. Not the diagnosis of the problem, not the possible solutions. And least of all the leaders who could rescue the country from this new period of inequality and violence. “Colombia is a country that endures too much,” Daniel told me.
“I believe Colombia will in fact come out of this. But it will be profoundly traumatic because of one reason: the key actors are not really in control of the situation,” he added. Daniel also does not believe that a new constitution, like in Chile, is the solution for his country.
The problem in Colombia is not in writing, but perhaps in hearing.
“This is a country that does not listen,” the singer Adriana Lucía told me. “It’s a country that talks a lot, but does not listen. Sometimes people tell musicians, ‘You can be the voice of those who have no voice.’ But the people do have a voice. What they don’t have are ears.”
Perhaps the solution in Colombia is something as simple as sitting down to talk, to listen. No one has to die on the street. Colombians have suffered so much that perhaps the starting point is the pain. All of us who love Colombia are waiting for the party.