Photo: EFE

Our Opposition’s Uncomfortable Silence About Colombia

The Duque administration has been an ally against the Maduro regime, but it’s also responsible for human rights violations in the current unrest—a tight corner for the Venezuelan democratic movement

In the past few weeks, violence on the streets of Colombia has recapped the unresolved social unrest that shook the region back in 2019, when the nation took part in the wave of discontent in Latin America. In the pre-pandemic context, protests were framed as a social eruption against inequalities that still persist, and this year the country is dealing with a 42.5% poverty amidst the pandemic, with a limited vaccination program and an economy in tatters. There’s a deepening social and wealth divide, and increasing disparities among the population, with police brutality, a poor handling of the pandemic, corruption, and over 6,000 civilians murdered by the military in what is known as “the false-positive scandal”. President Duque needs to figure out how he will mend the crisis ignited by his botched tax reformafter taking the risk with tax cuts to big corporations, and looking to fix the deficit left in the budget with a failed, and explosive, proposal.

And what’s happening in Colombia resonates in Venezuela for many reasons. One is the lesson hidden in the failed reform; another is how the government’s management of the crisis confronts the Venezuelan opposition with contradictions associated with overbearing allies, such as Donald Trump or Nayib Bukele. 

The shadow of Caracazo 

Colombia’s troubled history can be traced back to the decade’s protracted armed conflict and the alarming record of human rights abuses it still has. According to Ana María Bejarano and Eduardo Pizarro Leongómez, Colombia has been marred by violence, sliding toward a limited or besieged democracy, characterized by a significant deterioration of civil liberties and rights. Hundreds of human rights and community activists have been killed since the Peace Agreements of 2016 were signed, and the military has enjoyed a significant (and historically uncomfortable) leeway. Colombia has dealt with political violence for over five decades, hindering the people’s ability to fully exercise their freedoms.

And that reminds me of Carlos Andrés Pérez and the fallout of his short-lived economic reform package, an IMF-backed shock-therapy that included privatizations and tax reform (just like Duque’s proposal) as a solution to a steep economic crisis. Although Colombian circumstances are different, there are a few common threads with the Venezuelan experience: in 1989, one of the arguments frequently used to justify El Caracazo was the technocratic nature of the Pérez reform. In Colombia, the criticism surrounding the now withdrawn tax reform was the disconnect between a technocratic government and the people. 

The Venezuelan people will forever be grateful to Colombia for the support they’ve given to hundreds of thousands of migrants, but that shouldn’t limit our judgment and we can’t automatically take sides without understanding the context.

See, the divide brought to Venezuela by Pérez and his economic team has had a long-lasting effect: El Caracazo, in 1989, helped pave the way for Hugo Chávez in 1992the rest is history. The massive wave of protests across the country turned into a widespread outcry, where the most vulnerable were expected to carry the heaviest burden of the economic measures. There’s a never-ending debate among Venezuelans about the origins of El Caracazo, but whichever theory attracts you, there’s no dispute about the suffering of the people and the impact that the reform would have had on them. 

The parallels of El Caracazo with Colombia’s current turmoil are evident, and so are the many understandable concerns regarding the political benefit as next year’s presidential election approaches. Some fear that this current wave of demonstrations will end up helping the Colombian left. Early polling (subject to change, of course) indicates that Gustavo Petro is the favorite for 2022,  which is deeply concerning for both Colombia and Venezuela when you consider Petro’s strong admiration for Hugo Chávez.

Yet the characterization of a broad popular reaction taking place in several cities across the country as the orchestration of the Latin American radical left, with direct allegations of Maduro’s involvement, ignores the agency that Colombian people have been trying to reclaim for decades. Ironic, given how Venezuelans opposing chavismo have been falsely accused of being puppets of the empire for years now. Little information or limited knowledge of the Colombian historical and political context could justify that perspective, but our countries share more than a border, and almost two million Venezuelans are living in Colombia and experiencing that economic crisis Colombians are so angry about. 

It’s Not About Ideologies

For the Venezuelan opposition, an ally is responding to social unrest in ways that resemble the regime they are trying to topple (with said government’s help).  Imagine the opposition fails to identify the strain that Colombia’s most vulnerable are suffering, those who have endured exclusion and violence at the hands of political and economic elites. What does it say about the Venezuelan struggle? The Venezuelan people will forever be grateful to Colombia for the support they’ve given to hundreds of thousands of migrants, but that shouldn’t limit our judgment and we can’t automatically take sides without understanding the context and the consequences. This conflict is deeply rooted in the inequality of a fractured society that’s being asked for sacrifices to fix the wrongdoings of its political leadership.

This conflict is deeply rooted in the inequality of a fractured society that’s being asked for sacrifices to fix the wrongdoings of its political leadership.

The opposition leadership in Venezuela has been cautious when approaching the Colombian crisis, evidencing awareness for the consequences that this episode may carry. There have also been attempts, however, at oversimplifying the situation, provoking the obvious reaction on the other side. It’s as if the opposition has a hard time showing empathy, given its own experience as the target for political violence, human rights abuses, and political persecution. As if the accusations against Chávez for ordering violent police forces to subdue peaceful protests are different from what Colombians are going through now.

The rejection of violence is essential, but so is solidarity. If there’s something Venezuelans can understand is the continued abuse against human rights, and the fact that a friendly government is involved as the alleged perpetrator shouldn’t influence our judgment. There’s no question that Duque, and more broadly, uribismo have been supportive of the Venezuelan plight, but there should be no hesitation in recognizing the Colombians’ right to denounce human rights abuses, like those pushing Venezuelans to seek refuge and protection around the world. 

This isn’t ideological; it’s a moral duty, and it shouldn’t be difficult to discern.