Who are Colombia’s Gente de Bien?
- Hardworking, honourable, respectful, faithful, exemplary citizens.
- The right surname, the right school, the right country club, entitled citizens.
Like most people, I watched the events of the 10th of September 2020 unfolding in Bogotá in horror and outrage as spontaneous protests – sparked by the killing of an unarmed father of two, Javier Ordoñez at the hands of the police – across the Colombian capital descended into violence and mayhem. Javier Ordoñez was the victim of police brutality, there is no doubt at all about this. His death cannot and must not be overlooked, but to blame the killing as having been merely carried out by a few “manzanas podridas,” rotten apples, is to overlook the disillusion and malaise in Colombia entirely. There is so much to decipher and unwrap here that the whole situation has found me struggling to find an appropriate way to do so.
As a population, we must be outraged at the destruction of property and the vandalism which took place and this must be condemned from all quarters as it delegitimizes the protest and completely obscures the reasons (and it wasn’t just the heinous killing of a bogotano) behind the discontent. The unrest comes from months of pent up anger which has been permitted to grow in the absence of political action, in part blocked by the pandemic and in part due to a government unwilling to engage with this sector of society.
President Duque’s flaws, and history will not absolve him as there are too many to mention, are well-documented and I’ll defer on this to the most accurate and scathingly critical opinion pieces of late written by the excellent and courageous journalists Maria Jimena Duzán and Daniel Coronell.
But, this ill-wind in Colombia is inherited from years of disillusionment. While it would be easy to do so, this is not something which can be pegged totally on Duque, nor attributed to Santos alone, nor Uribe’s reign, neither that of Pastrana nor Gaviria and not Samper…this comes from the very roots and foundations of the nation of Colombia itself. Tomes will be authored on this subject and while David Bushnell’s unrivalled work of The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself, is now dated, it remains the most complete publication available in both English and Spanish addressing the issues. James A. Robinson’s, Colombia, otros cien anos de soledad, makes things pretty clear too as does the recent article by Jon Lee Anderson, Cuando Colombia Rompió Su Maldición.
The reality as I see it, is that Colombia as a nation has an unpaid and outstanding debt with the Colombian people. The fact is that each presidency, dating back as far as one can remember, has played its part in increasing this debt irresponsibly, so much so that as we stumbled forwards towards the Covid-19 pandemic and into further years of global duress and uncertainty – visible in many countries – Colombia was already on edge and those of us who have long been observers and participants in society here could feel it coming. And Colombians have a great deal more to be unhappy and protest about that citizens of most other nations.
As I wrote previously in an OpEd published elsewhere:
“Such disquiet simmered before lockdown and has festered during it. In November 2019, hundreds of thousands of Colombians took to the streets in cities and towns across the country to protest the policies of the government of President Ivan Duque.
While a long list of demands was presented to the president, it was clear that the government’s failure to honour the 2016 peace accords with the FARC guerrillas (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army) and to halt the killings of social and community leaders, which continue unabated, were the principal causes for the unrest. Can long-suffering Colombians be blamed for their anger at a government that has shown itself to be unwilling or unaware of their discontent?
President Duque has failed to act on any of the protesters’ demands. This year alone has seen 55 massacres and the killings of more than 200 social leaders. Colombians have also been subjected to possibly the world’s longest Covid-19 quarantine, despite which the number of infected has reached 710,000, with 23,000 dead and the economy in free fall. There is also concern that the government has taken advantage of the pandemic to concentrate power to the detriment of civil liberties.”
We’ve been building up to this point and the protests, which left a dozen people dead, are not going to be enough to ease the pressure on this government from the society it is so gravely disconnected from. Our Minister of Defence, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, in charge of the government department which still inexplicably is in control of the police, appealed to colombianos de bien, those that wish to work diligently and lead exemplary lives, to make themselves be heard and as I read his tweet, my toes curled and my fears for where we may be heading were awakened once again.
That phrase, in any form, can be interpreted in two distinct ways as displayed further up the text. While Holmes Trujillo may have outwardly expressed his desire to reach the “silent masses” at home, viewing the chaos on RCN, Caracol or on social media, the statement also carries a sinister edge to it. It’s a rallying cry to his people or the people in charge of Colombia, the landowners of vast tracts of countryside, the leaders of industry, the media magnates and beyond. It’s a call to political arms, to mobilize public opinion, to show himself as tough on criminals and create the necessary environment for his inevitable run at the presidency in 2022 as the “law and order,” candidate who will take on the mantle of protecting Colombia from the red menace and becoming the next Venezuela. It’s fearmongering from his elevated status.
And then, there’s the Gente de Bien, as declared by Colombia’s Ambassador to Uruguay, Fernando Sanclemente. “Somos gente de bien,” he said after cocaine laboratories were discovered on his family finca. It’s a statement made to differentiate himself from the ordinary criminals and heinous guerrilla groups which, as he sees it, are involved in the nefarious business. This way he can draw on the stigma surrounding these groups in the collective national memory. These criminals of course are not amongst the ambassadorial clique, don’t belong to the set supping overpriced wine in the Club el Nogal and would never ever possess a surname permitting access to las clases favorecidas.
For some time there has been the progressive degradation of Colombian society but, let it be known that this society has always been in a state of degradation, it’s simply that unlike other neighbouring countries, Colombia has not grown out of it, she has neither matured nor evolved. This is why we can point to elements of each presidency as reason enough for the culmination of what is currently taking place and has been expounded by the pandemic.
Carlos Holmes Trujillo needs the unrest, he needs this common enemy as do the people in charge to be able to govern, hence the unrealistic mentions made that members of the ELN and the FARC dissidents and armed groups were behind the violence. It’s highly probable that elements amongst the violent number were affiliated to some militias or groups and used the disorder to their advantage, but pegging the whole series of events and creating a common enemy for the gente de bien is an unrealistic and a disappointing anachronism. Just as Diego Molano director of Departamento Administrativo de la Presidencia claimed that the police CAIs (small command units) which were destroyed, were done so to “favorecer microtrafico.” Again, reaching for a common enemy however far-fetched. Now, of course, micro trafficking will benefit from the destruction and if those involved hadn’t thought of it before…
And so back to this debt to the Colombian people. The outstanding debt owed by those in positions of power – we all know who they are – can begin to be paid into by actions such as travel to the regions to go and see and experience how real people survive, not just to view the next terrain for a massive land grab or business speculation. Now is the time for them to spend days, if not longer, experiencing want and need. To go and teach a class in one of those makeshift school rooms deep in the Bajo Baudó in Choco, but also walk there through the seemingly interminable trocha with some of the students, understand life in rural Nariño, drive all night on the Ruta del Sol as a camionero, staff a health centre in rural Bolívar, work as a raspachin in Catatumbo, there are too many options to mention. This participation will not pay off the debt, but it can start a conversation which goes beyond proyectos de ley, easily passed in congress as a goodwill gesture and then archived never to be heard of again. There are too many complex issues to address in Colombia and I don’t begin to claim to have the answer or any answer. But, I do think this is a jumping off point. How sad that 210 years after independence, we are talking about a “starting point.”
After experiencing a true Colombia, then and only then will they understand what it is to be gente de bien, people who work the land, fail to make ends meet trying to clothe, feed and care for their families, pushed beyond the peripheries of our society. Theirs is not some noble migration in search of pastures green. These are Colombia’s gente de bien and they deserve so much better. Those of us from privileged backgrounds, upbringings and economic security can only dream of becoming gente de bien in the correct sense of the phrase. We have to begin somewhere and by changing the terminology of what it means to be gente de bien in Colombia could be an important if tiny step forwards.
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