Colombia: from the failure of the elites to the hopeful rebellion of the young

Colombia: from the failure of the elites to the hopeful rebellion of the young

A group of young people protest against the government of Iván Duque and the police violence used against the massive demonstrations taking place throughout the country since 28 April.

(NurPhoto/AFP/Sebastian Barros)

Over 30 years ago Alonso Salazar, a Colombian sociologist and politician, wrote the book No nacimos pa’semilla, or Born to die in Medellín, as it is known in English. It describes the reality of life for the youth of Medellín, caught up in gang culture and a life of criminality and violence linked to drug trafficking. This No Future existence (an expression popularised by the film Rodrigo D. No Futuro) of the youth who lived through this tragic time in our country has changed little since then.
Colombian politics has been marked by a culture of violence and extermination by the elites against left-wing and social movements, including rural, civic, student, Indigenous and union movements, that called for a redefinition and rethinking of the role of the state, of the economy and of social policy.

This policy of exclusion gave rise to rebel movements in the mid-1960s, which in turn led to a reaction by the big landowners and ranchers in the rural areas in the early 1980s. These powerful figures formed an unholy alliance with the police, drug mafias and the far right, creating the paramilitary groups that escalated Colombia’s humanitarian problems.

The economic model designed by the elites has shaped the business structure and employment market in such a way that new generations now have a pessimistic vision of the future.

The Colombian economy saw some slight development in light industries and in agricultural production, but this faded away with the arrival, at the end of the 1980s, of neoliberalism, which fostered a mixture of illegality and speculation in the business world, while discouraging productive investment in knowledge-based value-adding activities.

Colombia has a low business density with a precarious structure, to the extent that 98 per cent of it is made up of small businesses and micro-enterprises with low productivity and little added value. According to the Colombian Confederation of Chambers of Commerce (Confecámaras), of the just over 1.5 million companies registered in the country, only 0.3 per cent (equivalent to 3,851 companies) corresponds to large companies that account for 70 per cent of the wealth that is created, but contribute to only 20 per cent of jobs. In fact, the sectoral activities that drive the economy, such as the financial sector and large-scale export mining, only provide 2 per cent of employment.

More unemployment and informal labour

This is why Colombia has had relatively high economic growth rates compared with the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, accompanied by high rates of unemployment and informal labour. At the same time, youth unemployment rates and informal employment are higher than the national average. Hence, study and work have not helped social mobility for young people. The only way that some of them manage to overcome poverty and marginality, albeit fleetingly, is by yielding to the pressures of the criminal structures that control the drugs trade, extortion and other forms of illegal economic activity.

The coronavirus pandemic accelerated a trend of rising unemployment, job insecurity and poverty in Colombia that had been developing for several years, with a greater impact on the youth population.

The youth unemployment rate between December 2020 and February 2021 was 23.5 per cent, according to DANE (the National Administrative Statistics Department), which is equivalent to an increase of 4.8 percentage points compared to December 2019 to February 2020 (18.7 per cent).

For women, the unemployment rate stood at 31.6 per cent, an increase of 6.6 percentage points compared to December 2019 to February 2020 (25.0 per cent). The unemployment rate for men was 17.5 per cent, increasing 3.3 percentage points compared to December 2019 to February 2020 (14.2 per cent). Unemployment and poverty rates reached terrifying levels during the pandemic, driving the joblessness rate to over 20 per cent in the official figures for July. The average unemployment rate in 2020 was 15.9 per cent, while in 2019 it was 10.5 per cent.

Monetary poverty in the country, according to DANE, rose to 17.5 million people at the end of 2019, which is 35.7 per cent of the population, almost 5 per cent above the average for Latin America and the Caribbean. Youth poverty was 43 per cent, for women it was 38.2 per cent, and men 34.4 per cent. Job insecurity is more serious for young women, according to an analysis of the country’s socio-labour statistics. At the end of 2020, the population living in monetary poverty (which for Colombia means a monthly income equal to or less than 331,688 pesos, about US$91 or €75) amounted to just over 21 million people, 42.5 per cent of the total population. However, independent economic analysts such as Luis Jorge Garay Salamanca (from MIT in the United States) and Jorge Enrique Espitia (from the National University of Colombia), consider the population living in poverty and in a vulnerable situation to be around 62 per cent.

According to data from the first labour inclusion report carried out by DANE a little over a year ago, the so-called NEET population (young people between 14 and 28 years old not in employment, education or training) went from 2.5 million to 2.7 million, an increase of 21 per cent during 2019. After the impact of the pandemic on employment and income, it is likely that there are now over 3 million young NEETs.

Regressive politics and violence

Faced with high unemployment and job insecurity, growing poverty and inequality, and with hunger as an additional pandemic to that of Covid-19, which has hit young people the hardest, the government has been promoting a series of regressive labour, social and tax reforms, which has created deep discontent among Colombians. Added to this social insensitivity is the mismanagement of the pandemic, with the country having the tenth highest number of deaths per million inhabitants worldwide, and a very low level of vaccination. By early May, it had barely reached 3.5 per cent of the population.

At the same time, the government of President Iván Duque has been violating and sabotaging the Peace Accords with the FARC guerrillas, and has closed any possibility of negotiation with the ELN, which has generated an environment of growing violence against social, Indigenous, and trade union leaders, to the consternation of the international community.

The pandemic, hunger and violence have combined to heighten the sense of hopelessness and lack of opportunity among the Colombian people, especially the young, who see little prospect of building a life through work and education. This situation led organised labour and civil society to call a national strike beginning on 28 April, rejecting the aggressive and negligent tax reform presented by the government, a tax reform that made food more expensive and lowered the income of the workers, all in order to meet the unpayable public debt owed to the financial system. The mobilisation and social protest was so forceful that the government had to withdraw the draft tax reform and the Minister of Finance, the architect of that legislative initiative, had to resign.

The social protest was led by the people in the streets, mostly young people who are spontaneously asking the government and the elites to give them the possibility of building a future based on guarantees for the exercise of rights in the present, such as quality education, decent work and a social security system that addresses the risks that are part of life and work; a system that includes the right to a pension and to be taken into account when decisions are made about the public policies that affect them.

The government’s response to the social demands and cry of anguish from a generation that feels trapped and with no vision of a future has been violence, the murder of young people, arbitrary detentions, disappearances and stigmatisation.

It is the failure of our country’s elites to construct a national project, a project of society, that has today led the impoverished majority and especially the young, to express their discontent in more than 600 cities around the country, and to make proposals so that, within the broad framework of social dialogue, we may build the new social contract that Colombia needs today to manage our state, economy and social policy.

The young want to be heard, the political and business elites must recognise them and allow for the creation of conditions that enable them to live in dignity and freedom. Colombia and its youth demand dialogue and negotiation, and the government’s response to these urgent demands cannot be repression and authoritarianism.

This article has been translated from Spanish.