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Let's Hope Protests Sideline Colombia's Toxic Right, Left — And South Florida's

Colombian protesters and police clash in Gachancipa this month.
Ivan Valencia
Colombian protesters and police clash in Gachancipa this month.

COMMENTARY President Duque's new, moderate tack on Colombia's protests is bad news for his right-wing backers and left-wing attackers — there and here.

Deadly national tragedies can open hopeful national paths.

Colombia is no exception.

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As angry street protests there enter a third week, the country’s human rights ombudsman says the number of people killed in the unrest as of Wednesday is 42, including a police officer. The official figure has almost doubled since last week – and independent rights groups say it’s much higher, noting 168 persons are reported missing.

It’s an awful toll. As in most eruptions like this, demonstrators and government blame each other for the violence. The truth lies somewhere between the trigger-happy cops — who in this case think they’re refighting Colombia’s civil war — and the fringe Molotov cocktail crowd — who in this case think they’re igniting a new one. Meanwhile, the folks who insist one side or the other is wholly to blame are usually opportunists pushing a rightward or leftward political agenda.

But what might be emerging from the flare smoke instead is a more sensible Colombian agenda. One that might even help President Biden and Colombian President Iván Duque — whose party’s politicos openly and rather shamelessly stumped for Donald Trump last year — break the ice and refresh the U.S.-Colombian ties that are critical to Colombian development.

READ MORE: Dear Uribistas: Colombia's Problem Right Now Isn't the FAR -It's You

Duque this week has backed away from his administration’s earlier insistence that the protests were orchestrated by Marxist guerrilla retreads, neighboring Venezuela’s socialist regime and a host of other international left-wing conspiracies. There’s no doubt agitators from that loser universe are delighted to take part in demonstrations against a conservative government like Duque’s. But there’s absolutely no proof they’re the ones who put Colombians on the streets.

What did, as Duque now seems to concede, was Colombians’ exasperation. With the pandemic’s brutal effects on their livelihoods. With the brutal effects of Colombia’s conquistador-style economic inequality on their lives. With the message they felt Duque’s recent and now withdrawn tax hike plan sent them: that they and not the conquistadors would pay most.

Duque realizes tin ears and iron fists won't keep his conservative party in power next year – so he needs to bond with the U.S. leader that party, and Florida Republicans, demonize as a socialista.

What’s now bringing Duque closer to the negotiating table with protesters is the Colombian and international outcry – including in Washington – over an over-the-top police response to the demonstrations that rights groups blame for most of the deaths. Duque realizes tin ears and iron fists won’t keep his party in the Casa de Nariño presidential palace next year.


So if he’s smart, Duque might take advantage of Biden’s simpatico history with Colombia — Biden helped forge the $5 billion Plan Colombia 20 years ago that helped the country beat back its main guerrilla army, the FARC – and score more U.S. help resuscitating his nation’s COVID-crushed economy. Not to mention a yanqui hand repairing Colombia’s larger, grosser social inequities that breathe life into leftist rebels like the FARC in the first place.

The irony is that Duque now needs to bond with the same U.S. leader his party — and South Florida Republicans — demonized last year as a "socialista radical." He needs to devise the sort of reasonable, tax-increase-and-economic-stimulus plan that his red-baiting party and McCarthyite South Florida Republicans adore branding as "comunismo." If politics is the art of the possible, now’s the time to show it in Bogotá.

Colombian President Ivan Duque
Ivan Valencia
Colombian President Ivan Duque

Which brings us back to those political agendas I mentioned. Duque’s revised posture this week is bad news for his right-wing backers and left-wing attackers.

The former hoped to use the protests to remind Colombians and Floridians alike that the FARC and Hugo Chávez and Raúl Castro are coming to confiscate their homes and send them to labor camps — and that Biden and Democrats and Black Lives Matter are inviting those ogres in.

It’s why conservative Colombian expats in South Florida are warning Medellín and Miami on social media that indigenous Colombian demonstrators known as "la Minga" are "the same as Antifa!” (They’re not.) It’s why they’re telling the same bald-faced lie about this year’s Colombian protests that they spun about last year’s BLM marches: that the more violent fringe elements who sadly sometimes crash those events are in fact the movements’ evil heart and soul.

As for the left, like the clownish FARC remnant leaders now making videos in their fatigues calling for Duque’s overthrow — they too lose out if Duque keeps this new, sensible direction.

And maybe, despite all the deaths, Colombia wins out.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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