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Colombia is having its largest wave of protests in recent decades. Why?

Here are the 3 things you need to know

Demonstrators attend a concert in Medellin in support of the strike against Colombian President Iván Duque's government on Nov. 30. (Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images)

Colombians have joined others in Latin America by taking to the streets to protest their government. Since Nov. 21, hundreds of thousands of people from all backgrounds have been marching in large and small cities and even in rural areas. Colombia hasn’t seen such protests in several decades. While the protests come alongside others in Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador, Colombians are mobilizing for different reasons. What’s going on?

What happened in Colombia?

The protests started when unions and social movements called a rally on Nov. 21, known by its Twitter hashtag, #21N, against the government’s intentions to reduce benefits for retirees and workers. Supporters argue that these measures will help increase employment and expand pensions to more people. Unions, student organizations and other social groups disagree. Colombians often hold rallies like this one, which come and go without massive participation.

But this time, the government responded with a heavy hand. Right-wing President Iván Duque denied his government was preparing such bills. Former president Álvaro Uribe, the official leader of Duque’s Democratic Center party, claimed protesters were linked to international radical leftist organizers. And the night before the protests, police searched the offices of dozens of alternative media outlets and art collectives, which protesters and other observers saw as attempted censorship.

The government’s tactics backfired. More people heard about — and turned out for — #21N. Colombians have stayed in the streets ever since. That’s true despite — or because of — police violence, which has already killed a student.

Here are three things you need to know to understand why the protests continue.

1. Citizen dissatisfaction with the president

Duque assumed the presidency in August 2018 without much experience in public office, blessed by Colombia’s most powerful politician: Uribe. Uribe’s backing guaranteed Duque’s electoral victory — but Duque lacks his own political base. His team’s legislative track record is poor; in particular, the government failed to get congressional approval for much-anticipated reforms to the electoral system and the judiciary.

Duque is caught between two opposing political forces: on one end, the center and leftist parties, and the radical right on the other. Political parties in the center and the left criticize him for not fully implementing the peace agreement with the FARC, a former insurgent group that, after 50 years of civil war, has become a political party.

The peace accords envisioned FARC members giving up arms and created a transitional justice system charged with investigating and prosecuting crimes committed during Colombia's conflict. In turn, the government committed to ambitious plans to improve conditions for political participation and to promote growth and development in conflict-prone rural areas. But the government’s promises are not being implemented on schedule.

Meanwhile, more right-wing members of Duque’s party are disappointed he has been unable to fulfill several promises. They wanted Duque to reform the transitional justice system, which he was unable to do. Nor has he been able to reduce unemployment or help his party’s candidates in local and regional elections.

Duque’s public approval is at 26 percent, the lowest for any Colombian president since 1998. The #21N protests have included strong criticism of the president himself.

Duque’s response has relied heavily on force, including aggressively dispersing peaceful protests. Research suggests such repression tends to generate more protests. He has further called for a national dialogue about critical issues, but with no clear plans to involve ordinary citizens.

2. Peace with the FARC has opened up civic life

Since the 2016 peace agreement, violence has dropped significantly. With that calm, Colombians have begun to discuss topics other than the conflict and to pay closer attention to corruption scandals, unemployment and cuts to education funding.

The peace process also made it easier to protest. Colombian governments used to accuse any protesters of fronting for guerrilla groups and foreign leftist regimes. In the past 30 years, rebels, paramilitary groups and the state killed more than 4,500 leaders of grass-roots social movements. Protesting was deadly.

When peace negotiations started in 2012, protests increased, as you can see in the figure below. That’s consistent with research that suggests that when countries emerge from war, more people may get actively involved in politics.

3. But with violence returning, citizens are frustrated

The peace accord, however, hasn’t been implemented fully. Shortly after signing the agreement, new groups of disaffected ex-FARC members formed. Old rebel groups like the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or National Liberation Army) and drug-trafficking organizations moved into areas the FARC used to control. These organizations are killing grass-roots leaders. In August, some former FARC commanders announced that they would again take up arms, attracting many disillusioned former rebels.

In October, an armed group linked to ex-FARC members killed and wounded indigenous leaders in the Cauca region. The electoral campaign leading to that month’s local elections left nine dead candidates and 15 assassination attempts across the country. More recently, the military killed eight children who had been forced to join a criminal group. Peace appears to be vanishing, giving citizens another reason to march.

After several days of social media outrage, marches, sit-ins and cacerolazos (protesting by banging pots and pans in the street or from windows), it’s unclear whether the protesters will stay in the streets. No single message unifies them, and traditional leadership appears ill-suited to channel the various demands, including full implementation of the peace accords, better access to health care and protecting the Amazon.

That makes it difficult for protesters to negotiate or for the government to respond, as Erica Chenoweth and several co-authors argued here at TMC; leaderless movements struggle to coordinate their demands and, when they win concessions, can be emboldened and ask for more. Even if the protesters go home, Duque will find it still more difficult to govern.

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Sandra Botero (@sboteroc) is an assistant professor of political science at Del Rosario University in Bogota, Colombia, specializing in law and politics as well as electoral behavior in Latin America.

Silvia Otero Bahamón (@silvia_otero85) is an assistant professor in political science at Del Rosario University in Bogota, Colombia, specializing in inequality, political economy and political violence.

Read more TMC analysis of the Latin American protests: