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Colombia: Regulating protests, organizing consciences

The incoming Colombian president has called for "leaving hatred behind" and "joining forces" to undertake a new chapter in Colombian political history. However, this unitary discourse results in an act of inevitable political coercion. Español

Students protests in the pedagogica University in Bogota, Colombia on September 27, 2017. (Photo by Daniel Garzon Herazo/NurPhoto/Sipa USA). PA Images. All rights reserved.

Even before President Ivan Duque had taken office, the incoming government was already hinting at what could be expected in the months and years to come.

Following the resounding victory of the candidate of the ‘Centro Democrático’ (Democratic Centre) party on June 17th during the second round of the presidential elections, the team that the now ex-senator would bring with him to the Casa de Nariño were becoming visible to the public.

Led by Alberto Carrasquilla, (Álvaro Uribe’s former finance minister) an uncompromising neoliberal economist, friend of extractivist multinational corporations, and part of the infamous Panama Papers scandal, the new government would come to represent what the public had been expecting: social conservatism and liberal technocracy.

Following this, the incoming president has called for "leaving hatred behind" and "joining forces" to undertake a new chapter in Colombian political history.

This transformed unitary discourse not only calls for the consensus of political actors, but also results in an act of inevitable political coercion. 

However, this transformed unitary discourse not only calls for the consensus of political actors, but also results in an act of inevitable political coercion. This is exemplified in the statements made by the new defence minister, Guillermo Botero, during the Concordia Americas Summit.  

He assured, without hesitation, that "we respect social protests, but we also believe that they should be orderly and represent the interests of all Colombians and not just a small group".

This neoliberal technocracy, which the new government whole-heartedly represents, marks a crucial challenge for the opposition on both an institutional and social level, who have witnessed the assassination of 123 (and counting) social leaders in what General Comptroller Edgardo Maya has called "a dark night.” 

"Leaving Hatred Behind"

On March 11th, 2018, the legislative elections for the new congress took place. Two opposing coalitions held ‘consultas’, a vote between different potential candidates to choose the unitary candidate for the presidential election in late May.

On the one hand, the so-called Grand Coalition for Colombia brought together Iván Duque, Marta Lucía Ramírez, and Alejandro Ordoñez, gathering most of the conservative, entrepreneurial and Christian sectors.

The other coalition, Inclusion for Peace, brought together a variety of progressive social organizations and movements and pitted Gustavo Petro against Carlos Caicedo. The former, in which Duque was victorious with more than 70 percent of the vote, had mobilized the majority of the electorate who had voted against the plebiscite to approve the peace accords between the government and the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), two years ago.

Meanwhile, Gustavo Petro won the vote in the Inclusion for Peace vote, leading forth his movement ‘Colombia Humana’. Since then, both the polls and the voters had made a tacit pact, in the face of what seemed to be a gradual truth: Duque and Petro would move into the second round and compete for the presidency in June.  

There are many factors which led to the electoral triumph of Duque and his party, the ‘Centro Democrático’, which had been led with 'a firm hand and a big heart' by former President Uribe.

In this election, as in so many cases concerning human relationships and decisions, there was a certain degree of incomprehensibility and uncertainty, of unresolved variables and of problems yet to be explained or understood.

But beyond understanding why, it is fundamental to decipher and discern the meaning, not only of his victory, but also of things that were said during the campaign and will continue to be said throughout his time in office.

The notion of modern technocracy that Duque has tacitly and explicitly championed is a mode of governance resulting from of the rise of Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism.

The logic that neoliberalism imprints onto the state is that of the business enterprise: an aggressive model whose purpose is to safeguard private property which interprets the very act of governing as a form of administration.

As Wendy Brown argues, the logic that neoliberalism imprints onto the state is that of the business enterprise: an aggressive model whose purpose is to safeguard private property, the creation and accumulation of capital, which interprets the very act of governing as a form of administration.

If the state itself becomes an apparatus that simply administers, it follows that its rulers would be administrators, economists, and, ultimately, technocrats. As a result, the different spheres of society are left at the mercy of a logic that dehumanizes; health and education become luxuries, and therefore privileges.

Ultimately, human beings are transformed into nothing more than mere consumers, information providers, and a means of exploitation.

To administer, among other things, is to regulate. A government which embraces the logic of neoliberal technocracy, in other words aims to regulate the economy by liberalising the market, providing tax breaks to the property-owning classes, and therefore solidifying the material status quo of society, reflects the already evident economic inequality.

But this logic does not remain solely in the field of economics, and although there are countless examples, few are as clear and evident as the statements made by Minister Botero, who has publicly proposed regulating social protest.

It should come as no surprise that a business administrator and career bureaucrat wants to regulate popular movements that have been growing and becoming increasingly visible over the past decade.

This is not a new proposal as it follows the same style of governance that Alvaro Uribe defended in the past and that Ivan Duque will preserve. In fact, this goes hand in hand with the idea of national unity and consensus that Duque insisted on during his inaugural speech of August 7th.

It was not the first time that Duque’s unitary discourse, heard in the ‘Plaza de Bolívar’ in the heart of Colombia’s capital had appeared.

This was one of the clear discursive lines of the electoral campaign: the call to unity, that is, to diffuse differences, to silence antagonisms, and, in his own words, to ‘leave hatred behind’.

The incoming president assured during his inauguration speech that he will be the leader of a generation "called to govern free from hatred, revenge, [and] pettiness.”

But to what extent does this discourse reflect a different way of thinking and understanding national politics? What impact will this language have during his government, and how will it be expressed in the social field? And finally, in what way is Botero's proposal an example of this unitary discourse?

The problem with unity and consensus is that they mask the fear of difference. Unity never exists in a neutral location; in any case, it is always nourished by hegemony, the regime of political power, and the social norm. The new unitary discourse does not call for a consensus from an impartial platform, nor does it invite dialogue to form a neutral point of view.

The discourse of national unity means no more than co-opting and devouring the entire political spectrum, swallowing democratic plurality, and rendering invisible anyone who presents themselves in opposition to the regime. Social protest is an unquestionable symbol of decades of struggle and of the power of collective civil disobedience.

If Duque and Botero’s government decide to regulate this, it will lead to an official discourse which will undoubtedly permeate different spheres of society like the media, and will condemn, criminalize, invisibilise the opposition which organizes and operates outside political institutions.

"Leaving hatred behind", as President Duque would say, is nothing more than leaving politics behind and replacing it with technocracy.

When opposing and disobeying is a criminal act, less by law and more by social and political norms, taciturn authoritarianism will be cemented. "Leaving hatred behind", as President Duque would say, is nothing more than leaving politics behind and replacing it with technocracy.  

"The force that unites"

It is not surprising to learn that the logo of Fenalco, the business guild once chaired by the new defence minister, reads: "the force that unites". This same marriage of unity and force, or rather union by force, strengthens and consolidates the notion of governance championed by Duque and the ‘Centro Democrático’.

For this reason, it is also no surprise that his defence minister is a business leader, and even less that Botero, in his managerial logic, has decided to put forth a proposal to regulate social protests.

More than a mere legislative initiative, regulating protests is also a social requirement; regulating means organizing and ordering, and in a territory where free political expression is regulated, conscience, too, can be organized.

Organising consciences means erasing history, as Ernesto Macias, the new president of the Congress, intended to do during Duque’s inauguration, assuring that in Colombia "there has not been a civil war or an armed conflict, but a terrorist threat against the State".

This preaching has not only been repeated countless times in recent history, but curiously resembles the events following the massacre at the banana plantation in Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, where the military religiously repeat that the massacre "was surely a dream... in Macondo nothing has happened, nor is it happening, nor will it ever happen. This is a happy town.”

Organizing consciences means not only discrediting the opposition, but also devaluing and neglecting the lives of those who struggle. To describe social protest as an impediment to economic development, as Botero has signalled, sends a clear message to activists, leaders and militants of social and political organizations.

Organizing consciences means not only discrediting the opposition, but also devaluing and neglecting the lives of those who struggle. To describe social protest as an impediment to economic development, as Botero has signalled, sends a clear message to activists, leaders and militants of social and political organizations.

More so, it also shows the way in which the government sees its citizens: as producing and consuming subjects, rarely as dignified people who are capable of organizing themselves and expressing themselves politically.

Organising consciences means uniting by force, being the "force that unites" the technocratic and neoliberal state. And when it is united by force, a union does not result from a pact, much less a consensus, but from coercion, always by violent methods, whether symbolic, economic or physical. 

"Holy indignation"

If anything, the past electoral period has shown that there are possible unions and contacts between different social movements and organizations, with the ability to articulate a unitary opposition against Duque’s government.

However, this opposition is not organized solely around institutional representation, which is now led by the former presidential candidate and now Senator Gustavo Petro. His DECENTES coalition party brought together several organizations including ASI (Independent Social Alliance), MAIS (Alternative Indigenous and Social Movement), Unión Patriótica, and Colombia Humana, Petro's vanguard grouping.

Various environmentalist, trade union, indigenous, and LGBTI+ movements which supported Petro have echoed their support for broad convergences on democratic and progressive projects, whilst reiterating their independence and autonomy.

The role of the state within Colombian politics has always been very complex; the internal armed conflict that exploded after the assassination of liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 has shown a state that has not hesitated to use the monopoly of violence to sustain the social status quo.

Figures from the National Historical Memory Centre show that between 1958 and 2012 the conflict has caused the death of 218,094 people, 81% of whom have been civilians.

As the academic Jairo Estrada proposes in his report for the Historical Commission of the Conflict and its Victims, the Colombian state "has been mainly oriented towards the containment and destruction (including physical extermination) of the political (…) and organizational expressions within the popular field, and principally against the projects that have represented a threat to the current social order".

While history transforms political actors and their fields of social struggle, the technocratic government of President Duque and Minister Botero shows the evolution and mutation of those discourses and forms of government that seek to marginalize and exclude alternative political expressions and resistance movements.

Regulating protests, and thus organizing consciences, is not a new or unprecedented discourse in Colombia, but it nonetheless represents an important challenge for opposition movements.   

Perhaps, as Uruguayan writer and activist Raúl Zibechi asserts, it will be necessary to solidify and re-articulate organizational processes. This is especially the case for those who seek to organize resistance against the forces and discourses that, like "the Hydra, devours everything in its path, swallows everything, recodes every 'alternative' in its metrics of accumulation and submission".

For Zibechi, this exercise is not only an act of resistance which involves dialogue, measuring the correlation of forces, and the recovery of land and resources, but also the creation of a "new world", in thinking and acting out different ways of conceiving social and material relations.

There remains, at last, the resounding opinion of Colombian philosopher Estanislao Zuleta, who in one of his works had dreamt of that same "new world" that Zibechi proposes, and from which new forms of social resistance can be inspired: "the routine of a bitter resignation has been broken and now a renewed, holy indignation can freely spring up.

And from the mechanical dispersion of our lives, in the dormitories and workplaces, the community rises up, the assembly that deliberates, shouts, fears and calculates.”

About the author

Sergio Calderón Harker (Bogotá, Colombia) is currently completing an M.A. in Political Philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain. He has been a freelance writer and translator, contributing to publications in Europe and Latin America. Find him on twitter @scalderonharker

Sergio Calderón Harker (Bogotá, Colombia) completa actualmente su maestría en Filosofía Política en la Universitat Pompeu Fabra en Barcelona. También ha trabajado como autor freelance y ha contribuido a publicaciones en Europa y América Latina. Encuéntralo en twitter en @scalderonharker

 


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