The mist is low over the mountains and as the rain falls in Bogotá, the weather appears to reflect my feelings about the current scandals and political situation in Colombia. I’ve been scouring the news since 5.30am and despite being a news junky there is so little broadcast to really suggest the miasma of trouble in which Colombia finds herself at this precise moment. Colombia has always presented herself as the ideal breeding ground for social discontent and revolution (in whatever form this takes). But, I would like to suggest that there is an evolution to this rebellion now. What has traditionally been a manifestation of feudal vs serf and rural vs urban has changed significantly. For better of for worse, the revolution has evolved in Colombia.
On the one hand you have the traditional forms of protest. There are the protest marches, social disorder (the guerrillas taking up arms) and politically inspired graffiti – bursting onto the scene with a claustrophobic halitosis in an airless room – and on the other, a new rippling of an undercurrent of disgruntlement expressed by those in opposition to the feudal class and the cult of dinero rapido inherited from those halcyon days of the boisterous and visible excesses of the cartels. There is too much access to information and communication in today’s world to blindly proceed as if Colombia were rooted in the 1950s. The general populace, el pueblo, if you will, is aware that there are benefits to be enjoyed, there is education to be digested, there are loopholes to take advantage of and that they cannot be muzzled further.
The presidential elections on May 25 are almost upon us and one gets the feeling of a general lethargy and unbridled ennui towards the political class, call them whatever label you choose, Conservative, Liberal, Green, Communist, whatever. Far from the listlessness that you might expect, Colombians are politicized, debate is good, but the options are just not there to offer a change from the norm. The Colombian electorate feels impotent and this is reflected in the struggle for the elections. President Santos has played his only hand, that of suggesting that he is the only candidate who will be able to secure “peace” with the FARC. Somehow he has survived wiretapping, accusations of corruption, J.J. Rendon, Petro and an unfortunate outburst from his vice German Vargas Lleras. Zuluaga has been outed in a dirty tricks campaign of bugging members in or close to the negotiating team in Havana, even the president’s email and kowtowing to the Uribe bugbear. I would venture their neither Santos, nor Zuluaga nor Peñalosa knows much more about the campo (countryside) than the interior of the confines of their exclusive country clubs and golf courses. And while we are on the subject of Peñalosa, how is it that he has been unable to benefit – significantly at least – in the polls in the wake of this cataclysmic catalogue of scandals shrouding Santos and Zuluaga?
“An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport,” argues Enrique Peñalosa in his TED talk of September 2013. I would venture that his statement that, “Buses represent democracy in action” is a nice idea but that it only tickles the surface of what is needed in Bogotá let alone Colombia. Therein is the unelectability of Peñalosa, he simply cannot represent the country beyond the urban educated electorate. What can he possibly offer a colono in Guaviare or a farmer in northern Antioquia? Sure, you may argue that these examples are hardly representative of Colombia as a whole, but what have we heard from Peñalosa, regarding the agricultural strikes in Huila?
In theory, as we all well know, there should be a feel good factor in Colombia right now. Unfortunately for Santos though, the World Cup in Brazil begins after the elections and he cannot benefit from a wave of euphoria should a fit Radamel Falcao or James Rodriguez steer the cafeteros into the second round. Were I a Colombian politician running for office I would be keeping a close eye on the developments in Venezuela and perhaps more importantly the demands of the rightly irritable legions of Brazilians demanding that funds be directed at education and health rather than towards white elephants in Cuiabá, Recife and Manaus.
Colombia has a growing middle class, this is an educated and well-traveled sector of society who can no longer be denied the demands that they so crave. Pay is low, rents are high and costs are increasing here. Put bluntly, low pay means higher staff turnover, higher absenteeism (imagine that with all of the puente bank holidays here!), poor morale and lower productivity. And this is what we are seeing here, right before our eyes. I am still ploughing through the campaign promises of the presidential candidates to see if they have some response to this. Santos claimed that he will create a further 2,5 million jobs should he be elected for a second term between 2014 and 2018. It was interesting to note that there was no explanation how this might be achieved. Hasn’t Obama been trying to do the same in the US with some fuzzy maths?
And all the while there are those who remain confoundingly stuck in the archaic thought processes of the past. Only the other day we were discussing university education here in Colombia and I was relating a story of how a friend of mine was obliged to increase the grades of some students so they wouldn’t fail the course. One person about the table blurted: “I have paid for the course,” suggesting that naturally, by paying for the course, he should be receiving a degree. Education is of course a right, but it must be treated as a privilege, perhaps something that needs to be reminded to those in their ivory tower. Everyone should be able to have access to an education, but with that access comes the responsibility of the student to better themselves. In becoming a better individual indicates a willingness to be socially responsible. Incidentally, the same person demanding his “paid for” degree, also mentioned that he would be buying a second car to bypass the pico y placa traffic restrictions.
Protests will increase, hacking will become the norm and information will remain key. The families in charge cannot rein in the press forever, the truth emerges at some point or another and this discontent has created a public that is craving representation. Watch this space. Whoever is installed in the Palacio de Narino after May 25 will be responsible for overseeing a massive social transition in Colombia. The Colombian 99 per cent is awake and is aware.
The revolution has evolved in Colombia