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Protests and civil unrest. What is happening in Cali?

“This is just the beginning,” says Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) in Palmira Department of Social Sciences professor Alejandro Pérez y Soto Domínguez.

“There is news of an undersupply situation, high social conflictedness, and reports of deaths and injuries from the rioters and the police on social media and news outlets. Loss of valuable lives and above all great uncertainty, that in some manner deepen the social issues that people want to avoid with these protests. This is turning worse due to the repercussions it is having. The poverty conditions are getting worse, inequality, and access to food is increasingly precarious,” says this economist.

Let's remember that these Valle del Cauca territories including the cities of Buga, Cali, Palmira, and Caloto were the confederate cities that were independent before the capital, Bogotá. Added to this is the strong influence of the people from Provinces of Cauca and Nariño, which have been traditionally warriors during the independence campaigns of yesteryear.

The social deterioration of Cali comes from the strong migrations that live in the city, as it receives people from the Colombian Pacific, from Cauca and the coffee-growing region and the city cannot harbor all these communities which begin to form “poverty belts.” This is why close to 50% of the people have basic needs issues and a vision of an altered city.

The pandemic and poverty

For Pérez y Soto, in the Province of Valle del Cauca, the pandemic has been catastrophic: “If you look at the official figures they were progressing in reducing poverty, as this province has some of the wealthiest municipalities of Colombia and is among the provinces with reduced poverty rates. There is a great distance between what the figures show and the feeling of the people on the streets. For Colombian Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE, for its Spanish acronym) a person that earns Col $ 328.000 is not poor.”

“If you ask anybody on the street if they consider themselves poor, most will say they are as the money is not enough to pay rent, food, or anything. Although the economic indicators show something else, the streets show another reality, and besides the pandemic shut the communication channels due to the lockdown and forced the people to close their businesses, having what is economic is known as a ‘clash between offer and demand’, in other words, production and consumption are stopped. With this, the situation of high social vulnerability erupted and people that ate three times a day were left eating only once.”

“Social conflictedness and socio-economic issues have been incubating with the pandemic and the fiscal reform made it explode, but this is not the real, as the conflict is even more profound and goes beyond a bill that was damaging for the middle class and the workers.”

Professor Pérez y Soto says this situation goes far beyond and it is an issue of political representativeness, as the political power has been isolated from the people and the policymakers make public policies that are far from the reality of the people.

“We’re seeing repercussions of the pandemic in its third wave and now we have more deaths than in any time of the pandemic and this has been shadowed by the news we are having. The authorities know this is going to increase, among others, for the crowds, the shortage of food, and inclusively for the difficulty to pick up the garbage as occurs in Cali and Palmira as the roads are blocked. This could turn into a very serious public health issue and it could get worse than what we now have,” he said.

Poverty in Cali is geographically and ethnically marked: the greatest part of the population is Afro-Colombians, who live on the riverbanks of the Cauca River or the hillsides and for them the rest of the city is wealthy.

Although Cali is the third most important city of Colombia, as a capital it does not receive from the Colombian state income proportional to what it contributes to the country. An example of this is the city of Buenaventura, the main port of Colombia that moves at least 60% of the foreign trade, and even so its living conditions are precarious and unemployment is high.

Beyond the tax reform

What other factors influence that people in Cali to continue protesting and also be some of the more impacted by the situation? Professor Pérez y Soto says it not only the fiscal reform but the manner laws are made in Colombia, as there are also objections to healthcare and pensions bills: “The medical professionals have warned that the amount dues-paying members for their medical services could increase, and it would be subjected to their epidemiological profile; therefore, people would be very impacted and more insecure than they are now.”

Regarding pensions the key issue is if they can be inherited or not; according to that is proposed, the pension inheritance would be lost, which is very grave for the middle class and the workers, and what is most serious is that it was something that wasn’t consulted, as Congress or the Ministries takes decisions without asking the people. They have forgotten the democratic component in the political system; democracy only works during elections, but does not work in daily life, in the way public policies are made.”

For Pérez y Soto, Colombia in many aspects is managed like an authoritarian state where decisions are taken from the Ministries in Bogotá and the regions are not taken into account, therefore the conflictedness has been strong. “There is a great political and representative distance between Cali, Buenaventura, Tuluá, and Bogotá, we are at light-years,” he added.

Civil unrest

According to the Office of the Public Defender, since the start of the general strike last April 28, there have been 116 disappearances, at least 24 dead, 17 of them in the province of Valle del Cauca. This office says in a report that at least in 11 opportunities the allegedly responsible party is the National Police Force. 

Added to this are the attacks from armed civilians which led to several wounded during the Indigenous strikes in Cali. According to Indigenous Senator Feliciano Valencia, “the Cali Police lie because the Indiana Guard is not armed, nor did it attack homes or businesses, we are not thieves or vandals. It was armed civilians protected by the Police who attacked the Indigenous unarmed Minga.”

For the researcher, all this has an accumulated reason even before the pandemic: “What is not occurring is just the beginning and could explode in any part as we come from deep cycles of violence that have hindered the creation of wealth, capital accumulation, and create great employment opportunities. This impacts markets and increases informality in the country.”

“The problem is that not now, as the protests will stop, but surely in a couple of years they will try to make another tax reform as the spending of the state is unbridled, there are no limitations,” he concluded.

Consejo Editorial