“Wow. It just keeps going,” I said out loud upon leaving Medellín several years ago. Our car was taking us to the airport via the city’s southeast, through El Poblado, its wealthiest sector. And as we drove, the luxury apartment buildings, shopping malls, and manicured parks kept passing by my window for what seemed like miles. They didn’t stop. I’d only been to Medellín a few times, but the fancy part of town was much larger than I’d thought.
It’s the same in Bogotá. Following the eastern mountains 100 blocks north from the financial district around 72nd street—but actually starting below, in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like Chapinero and La Soledad—through El Chicó, El Retiro, Santa Bárbara, Usaquén, and others, there’s a profusion of gleaming shopping malls and condominiums, creative restaurants, arty hotels, brewpubs, espresso bars, armored SUVs, and uniformed security guards. These neighborhoods are mostly affordable if you live on a U.S. wage scale, but even then, many are too pricey. Most of these amenities didn’t exist when I started visiting Colombia in the late 90s. And now, they just keep going.
There is a lot of money in Colombia. Development economists call it an “upper middle income” country.
But there’s even more lack of money in Colombia.
Go to an upper floor of one of Bogota’s condo towers or bank skyscrapers, and you can see vast neighborhoods of self-built brick houses hugging the hillsides, in Usme, Ciudad Bolivar, Bosa, Soacha, Kennedy. The people who live there are Bogotá’s poorest, and they number perhaps three million, maybe more. Many make do in the informal economy, at or below the US$250 monthly minimum wage.
Closer in, you can see thousands of florescent-lit, cramped apartment complexes and housing projects where a similar number of people live. Those are the lower middle class, with enough to eat and their kids in school, probably, but barely making it.
Back on the street, look at all the blue SITP buses and TransMilenio vehicles stuffed with people, packed until they’re pressed up against the windows during rush hour. The sub-compact yellow taxis looking for passengers. The uniformed guards, waiters, maintenance workers, maids, and domestics, just off work and hoping not to have their cash or cellphones robbed during their long journeys home.
The people in those neighborhoods and buses—the “sectores populares”—they see the shopping malls and restaurants, too. (They’re not shopping or eating there, of course.) They see the condos and social clubs. It’s all in plain view, and it just keeps going.
Do they admire and aspire to join those who live there? Or do they tell each other that much of the wealth they see is ill-gotten? Do they believe that most of the “estrato seis” neighborhoods’ inhabitants are simply the most skilled thieves—or those thieves’ descendants? It’s not hard to arrive at that conclusion given Colombia’s decades of drug-trafficking wealth, money-laundering wealth, and incessant corruption scandals.
Either way, the majority who ride the bus and make a living rebuscando (barely getting by) probably don’t believe that the people in those well-to-do neighborhoods are paying their fair share. There’s a lot of money in Colombia. If the tax burden were just, and the resources managed cleanly, surely the rest of the city would have better schools, safer conditions, reliable healthcare, fewer potholes, and yes, a modern subway.
Most of the time, the barely-scraping-by majority will tolerate much from the wealthy minority. Especially when a media-savvy populist leader cracks down on petty crime or rallies behind socially conservative causes. Or especially when there’s a commodities boom, and all sectors see their incomes and services improve for a while. Or especially when an armed conflict is raging, and all who complain too loudly get tarred as supporters of radical and unpopular guerrillas—and thus threatened, spied upon, or worse.
But eventually, the populists’ messages wear out, and tepid technocrats take over. The commodities boom ends, and government budgets shrink to what can be collected through taxation. The armed conflict—or at least the worst of it—ends at the negotiating table. What then?
What then, especially, when a belt-tightening government takes measures—or even considers measures—that hit the already-stretched budgets of the poorest and lower-middle? A pensions cut, a fare hike, a regressive sales tax?
What happens is probably what Colombia is seeing now. A labor union confederation calls for a day of work stoppages and protest—something that’s happened, regularly, since pretty much forever. But this time, dozens of other organizations, representing many sectors, join in. This time, word spreads on social media, and within weeks the whole country is bracing for a national event, an inchoate spasm of protests without a unifying demand but with a generalized anger at those who benefit from the status quo.
I’m surely overstating some of this. The protests that began on November 21 in Colombia aren’t quite a “class conflict.” Many of those out on the streets are from the middle class, not the poorest—although the middle also feels financially stretched, uncertain, and unhappy about what they’re getting from government and from Colombia’s economic arrangement. The poorer neighborhoods, though, are also among those ringing with the nightly cacerolazos, where people go out to their windows, roofs, and balconies to bang empty pots and chant slogans.
Still, nobody is marching on the Centro Andino mall or the Zona Gastronómica restaurants, or raiding the mountainside condo complexes of El Chicó. Other than President Iván Duque’s residence, protesters aren’t massed outside the homes of senators or CEOs. People aren’t directing their anger at those neighborhoods that “just keep going.”
At least not yet.
One way to move the anger in that direction is for President Duque and his unpopular ruling party to behave the way that they have during the protests’ first few days. They’ve issued messages conflating peaceful protesters with masked “vandals.” They’ve sent riot police to attack peaceful protests without warning or provocation, blanketing plazas and intersections with tear gas, killing an 18-year-old, and filling social media with shocking cellphone videos. They’ve deigned to meet only with business leaders and elected officials.
The Duque government’s tone may be changing now, and I hope it does. When a government finds itself this out of touch with the mood of the country, its only real hope is dialogue with its opponents. Iván Duque won only 39 percent of the vote in the first round of Colombia’s 2018 presidential election, his party just got trounced in October 2019 local elections, and now his approval rating is in the mid-20s. To pretend he can govern without dialogue, and without some pretty fundamental concessions about the country’s political and economic model, is folly.
Let’s hope the dialogue that may—may—be getting underway soon is genuine. Colombia has just entered a 29-month stretch with no elections, with the past few days’ protests as a major turning point. The next two and a half years could be a time of difficult but necessary conversations, or they could be a time of intense strife between two very different Colombias, as traumatic as—though fundamentally unlike—what the country endured during 40 years of cartel violence and armed conflict.
It’s President Duque’s call.