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Post Bogota Report: Why No Protests in Colombia?
Created by John Eipper on 10/30/19 3:02 AM

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Bogota Report: Why No Protests in Colombia? (José Ignacio Soler, Venezuela, 10/30/19 3:02 am)

In my recent post on the protests in Ecuador and Chile, John asked a very interesting question.  He asked why Colombia, a country with a tradition of social turbulence, has so far remained immune to the unrest experienced in other countries of the region.

I visited Colombia very recently for several days, because I used to live there and had to deal with some family issues.  I also took advantage of the opportunity to visit some old friends. I will try to share my impressions and provide my opinion regarding John's question. I only visited Bogotá, the capital,and several nearby beautiful places, surroundings (landscapes that look somehow like scenery in Switzerland) and villages, so my impressions are mainly limited to these areas. 

The last time I was in Bogotá was almost 20 years ago, but as always the first impression you receive when arriving is of a palette of gray pastel and dark colors everywhere and of the humid atmosphere.  The sun is occasionally present during the day as in other Andean cities of the region.  It can also be very hot sometimes; the temperature is normally about 15º - 22º Celsius during the day but it might turn very cold at night (average day temp is about 14.5º C), and the temperature changes rapidly and frequently.  Another perception and small discomfort you can usually feel at first is the lack of oxygen, the city is at 2630 mts (8016 ft), until you get adapted after few days. 

With a population of 7.1 million, the traffic is hell in Bogotá.  It is chaos during most time everywhere in the city, maybe because the urban area has grown rapidly, without enough development of infrastructure.  The streets are poorly maintained, but the problem is mainly because the main arteries are used primarily,with little space for other traffic, by Bogotá's unique bus transport system, the TransMilenio.  The only other cities in the region with a similar transport system are Quito (Ecuador) and Curitiba (Brasil). As perhaps a response to this chaos, people widely use bicycles for transportation, taking advantage of the exclusive cycling lanes everywhere.  This high number of bicis reminded me of some cities in Europe, Amsterdam or Berlin. 

The pollution from the heavy traffic is disgusting. I immediately notice it with allergies and it is common to see people with face masks for protection.  

Another impression I had when visiting the city and the surroundings was a feeling of apparent prosperity, well-being, a sense of modernity I had never experienced when living there in 1960s. New buildings, constructions and modern vehicles abound; there are at least 6 or 7 mega malls and retail stores and small businesses everywhere, which I could only imagine possible if the power of consumption is relatively high among the people.  Nevertheless Bogotá is an expensive city and the gasoline is sold at international prices. Of course I did not have the opportunity to visit the southern areas of the city where there are abundant poor neighborhoods and slums, which are inevitable parts of any large city.  In any case, I did not see many beggars (except some Venezuelans I will refer to later) and homeless people in the places I visited.  

The security in the urban area is good.  I did not feel unsafe and the people in general seem to feel safe with an abundant presence of police and army forces in the streets.  However the crime rate is said to be high.  A curious thing is the presence of great many dogs for surveillance to detect explosives when entering malls and other public places.  Regarding security on the roads outside the urban area, I did not notice any special threat, fear or concern from the population, though again in some places the army was vigilant. I spoke with friends about the controversy of the Peace Agreement with the guerrillas, and though the sample of people is not by any way representative, they all told me that this was not  just or fair.  The main reason was because many criminals got off unpunished and undeserved privileges were granted (I referred to this subject in a previous WAIS post).

I also asked about the small number of dissidents in the FARC, if they and the ELN (the other important guerrilla group) were a real threat.  Apparently their action zones are very limited to more isolated countryside areas, Los Llanos (east), El Cauca (west) and la Guajira (north), and nobody seemed to be concerned as if they were used to that kind of situation and nothing new or different might happen.  

As used to be in my times, the people in Bogotá ("rolos"), as in general in the Andean region, are cordial, gentle (in general always welcoming foreigners) respectful, serious and showed good manners but not necessarily in an outspoken way.  I appreciated this very much, as I am oddly accustomed to the informality and the usual extreme casual "confianza" of the Caribbean Venezuelans and the Colombian coastal people ("costeños"). This gentleness gave me the opportunity to talk with a variety of people about social, political and economic issues in Colombia.
Colombia seems (at least Bogotá) to have a sustained period of economic prosperity.  Inflation is low, 2%-3%, the foreign exchange rate has been stable for a long time, it has a GDP which is among the highest in Latin America, even greater than Chile, at a constant growth (around 3% and 4%) for some years now.  The national debt is 50% of the GDP; minimum salary is about US$250/month which is 4th or 5th in the region; trade balance is almost in equilibrium; foreign international reserves are around US$53 billion, the equivalent of almost one year of total imports; real estate has been increasingly on the rise and, in general, most of the macro economic indexes are fine. One thing curious and different from any other place, a still a recurrent phenomena in Colombia, is that the official rate of exchange is higher than that of the black market.  The reason is probably money laundering.

Another interesting statistic is that Colombia's oil production (1 million barrels/day) this year surpassed for the first time  Venezuelan production (700,000 B/D).

More interesting are the Colombian Poverty and Inequalities Indexes.  Though they are still high in comparison with developed countries, they are better among other countries in the region, and both indexes have been progressively improving in recent years. The political institutions seem to be solid and resistant to social turbulence, though the phantom of corruption inside them is very present as in any other country in the region.

Although the social class differences in Colombia still are strong, social mobility has been positively improved in recent years, whether by education or wealth.   The regional (Departmental regions and Municipal) institutions are very important for the population, because they represent the possible urban development and well-being of the citizens. There were great expectations with the regional elections held on October 27.  In Bogota there was a close contest between three possible major candidates, two conservative and one leftist.  Though electoral violence is not expected in the major cities, in some remote towns and villages events of this type could occur.  

Now I'll try to answer John´s question.  I believe there is a seed of social unrest in every country in this region. Education problems, sanitary and health services problems, and other problems are very significant and remain unsolved. Colombia is not an exception, but according to what I perceived and the information I gathered, though it is not yet a mature democracy, at the moment with the progressing economy, strong institutions, police and military strength and the control on the radical left activist movements, it is unlikely the unrest would ever reach levels such as in Chile and Ecuador.

Nevertheless the same would have been said about Chilean a few weeks ago before the riots. Regardless, I feel that in Colombia the ambition, hope and need for peace is stronger among the population than in those countries despite the social inequalities and poverty in some sectors of society. 

One last comment on the massive Venezuelan immigration effect in Colombia. It is said that more than 1.5 million Venezuelans are now settling in Bogotá and other Colombian cities. The exact number is really unknown, as many of them came illegally as beggar sin the streets or doing some informal jobs. Many other professionals and technicians have found formal jobs and receive good salaries; but what impressed me more was that I did not feel signs of xenophobia among the population. On the contrary they seems to accept and help them in whatever way they can. If true, that is an extraordinary attitude of social solidarity.

JE comments:  Nicely done, Nacho.  My observations from a June 2018 visit to Bogotá line up with yours, except I did perceive some anti-Venezuelan xenophobia among the population.  The Bogotanos were probably too polite to acknowledge as much to a distinguished Venezuelan guest.  You, in turn, no doubt heard the occasional anti-Yanqui remark I was immune from.

One tiny correction:  Cali, Colombia has a rapid-transit bus system (with fixed stations) very similar to Bogotá's--the Masivo Integrado de Occidente (MiO).

My first-ever WAIS post, from 2006, was a Colombia report.  Professor Hilton, who first visited in 1942, remarked that Bogotá is a "grim city."  I cannot agree--although it does tend to be cold and rainy.


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