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Latin America Report

In South Florida, Colombia's Turmoil Morphs (Again) Into 'Socialismo' Scare

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Ivan Valencia
/
AP
INFURIATING INEQUALITY Protesters block an intersection in Bogota, Colombia, last week.

Colombia is in its third week of anti-government unrest, sparked largely by economic hardships. At least 42 people have been killed in the protests; major cities like Bogotá and Cali are experiencing food and fuel shortages because of road blockades; and Colombia's government is facing international criticism for the police's excessive use of force against demonstrators.

There could also be political fallout in South Florida — home to the largest Colombian expat community in the United States.

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Both Republican and Democratic politicians are weighing in on Colombia's turmoil, not just as a foreign policy issue but as a domestic debate as well. WLRN’s Luis Hernandez spoke with Americas editor Tim Padgett about the Colombian situation there — and here.

Here are excerpts from their conversation, which have been edited for clarity:

HERNANDEZ: Tim, first remind us what caused these widespread protests in Colombia.

PADGETT: Specifically, it was a very unpopular tax increase proposed by conservative Colombian President Iván Duque. It was meant to aid the economy, which has been hit very hard by the pandemic. But ordinary Colombians felt Duque was putting too much of the tax burden on them — and that matters a lot in Colombia because it has Latin America's second-worst level of economic inequality.

READ MORE: Is Colombia Interfering in the U.S. Election in Florida - With Tactics It Exported to Florida?

Almost half the country's workforce is in the informal or underground economy, and those are the folks who've suffered most during the pandemic lockdowns. On top of that, they have little or no access to government relief benefits. As a result, many of those families right now say they can't afford three meals a day. That sort of thing is only supposed to be happening in Venezuela’s collapsed economy next door.

So where do things stand now, especially regarding Colombia's international image?

More than 40 people have died — and hundreds are reported missing. Duque has withdrawn his tax plan and he now seems closer to negotiating with the protesters on how to fix Colombia's inequality. He's had to move in that direction, really, because Colombia's image has indeed taken a big hit due to the police brutality, which human rights groups blame for most of the deaths.

Last week, a teenage girl died by suicide after she claimed riot police raped her — the government says it’s now investigating that case.

That certainly doesn't mean there hasn't been violence on the protesters’ side. They've set fire to police stations. But the excessive military-style crackdown by Colombian police has made the situation much worse.

Colombia's unrest is about economic frustration, not left-wing conspiracy – but that hasn't stopped politicians from turning it into a fresh opportunity for Florida fear-mongering.

But conservative politicians in Colombia, and Republican politicians here in South Florida, they have their own take on what's behind this unrest, right?

They do. Leaders of Duque’s right wing party and Republican leaders here, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, have been insisting that the driving force behind the protests is the radical left — meaning, Colombia's Marxist guerrillas, socialist Venezuela, communist Cuba, and what they claim is a big international left-wing movement.

There is no evidence to back up that claim. There are, no doubt, some agitators from that orbit taking part in the protests but they are not the driving force. This is about economic frustration, not Marxist conspiracy.

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How, then, does South Florida politics enter that picture?

The same way it entered the picture during last year's presidential election. You’ll remember many of those same Colombian conservatives and South Florida Republicans were scaring Latino voters into believing the lie that if Joe Biden won, he'd let radical socialists take over Colombia, then Florida, then the U.S.

And it worked – and it's still working.

An SEA poll out last week (commissioned by state Sen. Annette Taddeo) indicated Latinos in Florida (if not most Floridians) feel that keeping socialism out of the state is a bigger issue than jobs.

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Florida Senator Marco Rubio (right) on Spanish-language cable news network NTN24 last week claiming 'destabilizing leftist elements' are behind Colombia's protests.

And these Colombian protests raise those fears again?

Right. It's a fresh opportunity for that fear-mongering. They’re on the airwaves and social media telling Latinos not only that Marxist forces started the protests — but that President Biden and the Democrats are allied with those forces, as Senator Rubio suggested last week.

Conservative Colombian expats tell me they believe this could help Republicans in next year's midterm elections — and Duque’s party in next year's Colombian presidential election.

What about the Democrats in all of this?

They still have not come up with an effective answer to this kind of Republican messaging. And they need to be careful about overreach themselves on the Colombian protests.

They have strongly condemned the police response but if they call for pulling too much U.S. aid from Colombia's security forces as a result, they risk giving conservatives another opportunity to call them “soft” on those “socialista” forces they claim are taking over Colombia and the hemisphere.