Tag Archives protest

Why are we blocking a highway as scientists? It is a justified response to the violence of climate change

How can scientists help engender societal change, and when is it effective to take the road of activism? This question has become increasingly relevant in the face of the urgent need to  address the implications of climate change. In this blog (that first appeared on 1 June 2023 as an op-ed in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant), Professors Thea Hilhorst and Klaas Landsman – both recipients of the Spinoza Prize, the highest scientific award in the Netherlands in 2022 – gave a speech during the occupation of the A12 by Extinction Rebellion. Why did they choose to participate in this action as scientists?

On 27 May, an estimated 8,500 activists blocked the A12 highway in The Hague. There was no misunderstanding about the illegal nature of the action. Right from the start, the police shouted through megaphones to demonstrators that there was no legal permission for this demonstration and that those who stayed ran the risk of being arrested. Water cannons were already spraying large quantities of water over the crowd from four military vehicles placed at the head and the rear of the mass of people. Indeed, the demonstration took place without a permit, and blocking a highway is against the law. Nevertheless, we then considered and still consider the action to be legitimate.

The effects of climate change are already being felt all over the world. Rich countries emit most of the greenhouse gases inducing climate change. Poor countries, and in turn the poorest and most vulnerable people in these countries, bear most of the consequences – those people who can hardly afford to eat meat or to buy new clothes at every turn of fashion, who don’t own a car, let alone ever take a plane. They pay the highest price for climate change. They pay with their health, their residence, their livelihoods, their safety, and increasingly with their lives.

Heat waves make places in India reach temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius. People with fragile health in an urban poor area living under a corrugated iron roof may not survive. The shepherd in Kenya who loses his goats due to drought has lost everything; he has no savings to buy new goats. Last summer, large parts of Pakistan flooded, destroying 8,000 kilometers of roads and 105 bridges. Even before these can be repaired, there is likely to be another flood. Increasingly, people lose their land to the river, the sea, or excessive drought. We – residents of rich countries- owe a debt of honor to these vulnerable people in poor countries.

A basic principle of civilization is to take responsibility for harm inflicted on one another. The polluter pays. Rich countries must compensate poor countries. But that is not happening. There are no concrete agreements on compensation yet. The USD 100 billion per year that rich countries have pledged for climate adaptation has not been fully delivered. What is paid partly flows back as profit to Western companies that offer technologies for climate adaptation to poor countries.

Even the most immediate humanitarian aid to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change falls short. On 24 May, a UN summit on the drought in the Sahel failed. Rich countries pledged only USD 2,4 billion of the USD 7 billion needed to address starvation. That is a stark contrast to the estimated USD 30 billion with which Netherlands subsidizes the fossil industry annually, mainly through tax benefits.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres equates climate change to ecocide. This is his statement on Twitter of 5 April 2022: “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.” The occupation of the A12 was aimed at protesting fossil fuel subsidies.

Extinction Rebellion stands for nonviolent civil disobedience in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Bertrand Russell. A non-violent blockade of a highway, with a demand consistent with UN appeals, represents in our eyes a legitimate response to the violence of climate change exerted on defenseless people, animals, and ecosystems. Politicians linger, listen to the lobbying of the fossil industry, and hope for innovation to solve all our problems. But there’s no time to waste anymore.

Listen to science. Listen to the IPCC, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change . More and more scientists are joining Scientist Rebellion – a group of academics linked to Extinction Rebellion. We, too, will join again next time.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.




Klaas Landsman is the Chair of Mathematical Physics, Institute for Mathematics, Astrophysics, and Particle Physics at Radboud University Nijmegen.

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In praise of flatness. On campus protest and academic community

The response to the OccupyEUR protest and an invitation to a survey on the university as a ‘brand’ are provocations, writes professor of Social Theory; Willem Schinkel. They flatten what a university actually is.

Source: Femke Legué

Two recent events afford a clear view of what the administrative leadership of Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) thinks a university really is. More precisely, these were two provocations. They made me think of Edwin Abbott’s novella Flatland. A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884), that tells the story of A. Square, who lives in Flatland, a world in 2D in which he can only experience a 3D-shape like a sphere as circle. Analogously, at this university the capacity to see in more dimensions seems missing, and everything that does not fit in the ‘strategy’ of administrators and their bureaucratic squares is rendered flat.


First provocation: protest versus ‘academic community’

First there was the response of the university board to the occupation of the space in front of the university’s auditorium by students of OccupyEUR on February 7 and 8. They demanded an end to the university’s ties with the fossil fuel industry, to precarious labour, to student debt, and to the lack of campus accessibility. During a previous occupation in November 2022 the board immediately called the police. This time they did so after one day. This response testifies to an utter incomprehension of campus protest, and to a kind of housekeeping reflex, a neurosis of security and hygiene. When students were unwilling to, on day one, dilute their protest to a ‘dialogue’ on the administrators’ terms, the administrators’ response was, entirely in keeping with the corporate identity of the university: get the fuck out of hEUR with your attempts to make of this place something more than a factory for credentialization and a lobby lounge for suits and ties intent on doing what their daddies did before them: cashing on the planetary plunder called capitalism.

This response testifies to an utter incomprehension of campus protest, and to a kind of housekeeping reflex, a neurosis of security and hygiene


Whoever seeks to return to normal this quickly, rests on shaky foundations. In a decretal dripping with childish frustration, the occupation was dubbed ‘illegal’, and not a protest. What is more, it was declared not befitting an ‘academic community’, which, after all, cannot be disturbed ‘just because a small group has a certain opinion’. As the board said: “In no way have you shown an openness to dialogue. This attitude does not suit an academic community and Erasmian values, nor does it contribute to real solutions.” What a spoiled habituation to being found important. And what a pathetic impatience when, for once, you don’t immediately get your way. Apparently, administrators fail to recognize protest unless it is flattened to ‘having a certain opinion’ and expressing it in a format they determine (a ‘dialogue’). And with a historical and political-theoretical amateurism that is almost touching, they believe a protest is something that doesn’t disturb anything. Finally, and this is an important yield, it turns out they cannot conceive of the climate catastrophe in anything but technocratic terms, as if it were a ‘problem’ requiring a ‘solution’. Of course, that solution could never be anything that changes existing relations of power. Anything else would be ‘a certain opinion’. ‘Leadership’ is a generous concept if all roads automatically lead to the same order-hugging technocracy.


Second provocation: the university as ‘brand’

And then came the question, by email, to partake in a ‘reputation survey’. That went as follows:

Give your opinion on Erasmus University Rotterdam


What is already going well? What could be better? We are curious about your vision. This will help us further develop our brand and better meet the wishes and needs of future and current students and staff.”

Right. So this is the kind of opinion about the university we are encouraged to express: what do we think of the university as ‘brand’? There’s a flattening going on here as well. As a brand the university is reduced to an image of the university, a marketing image, flat like a 2D-picture. Despite the anti-intellectual stink such invitations give off, here too there is a housekeeping neurosis at work. In replacing the university by a branding image, the university in all its complexity, multiplicity and beautiful messiness is ironed out, whitewashed like so often. And nobody seems to have figured out that such a message – the university as brand – is a provocation and an insult to anyone with some inkling of the history of universities.

These two provocations – the reduction to ‘opinion’ and to ‘brand’ – deserve an answer. Actually, they really don’t, but there is a certain need to answer them for whoever advocates another idea of the university. Or rather for whoever has an idea of the university at all. How to understand the buzz about ‘Erasmian values’ and ‘positive societal impact’ in light of these two provocations? If administrators feel free to unload their anti-intellectual bullshit on students and staff, then it is time to face the flatness of their favorite kind of newspeak.


‘Erasmian values’ and the academic community

Let’s first note that the history of academic communities is not written by vice-deans coordinating a new procedure for exam evaluation with program directors and exam administration. That history is written by precisely the thing administrators think is incompatible with it: protest. Feel free to mail me if you want reading tips (but not for a ‘dialogue’!).

The history of academic communities is written by precisely the thing administrators think is incompatible with it: protest.


The values a university has are better uncovered by looking at its actions than at what it decides to print in glossy magazines and flyers. And it would seem that Erasmus University’s actions bespeak the following ‘Erasmian value’: whatever isn’t recognized as ‘academic community’ in the anti-intellectual and ahistorical narrow-mindedness of the administrative frames is repressed by police violence.

In terms of its intellectual contribution to the history of campus protest and the conceptual development of the concept of ‘academic community’, this administrative Flatland reflex has the quality of a fart. The scattered whining that the students did something illegal because university buildings are ‘private property’ is part of one and the same genre of anti-intellectual ghastliness. But that is saying too little. For this anti-intellectualism has a reason, and it produces something. In We Demand. The University and Student Protests (2017), the American scholar Roderick Ferguson illustrates that universities have been a crucial site for social struggle and change throughout the 20th century, and that university administrators have simultaneously worked hard to trivialize and securitize student protests, and to surround them with suspicion rather than to see them as chances for change. As he says:

“(…) anti-intellectualism, not an accident but the intention of certain social projects, is the mature and defensive expression of dominant institutions, one that retaliates against past and present political and intellectual uprisings.” (p. 87)

Historian Howard Zinn already spoke of the ‘danger’ of students for university administrators: students disturb things and make connections that cannot be registered as valuable in bureaucratic academic accounting logics. This, in the case of Erasmus University, despite the Erasmian value ‘connecting’ (marketing icon in the Strategy 2024 document: four puzzle pieces).

What happens in Rotterdam is thus not at all unique, and its predictability makes it exhausting, but also makes it possible to differentiate between person and position, between the administrator and the academic that can be more than administrative executive of a script elaborately recorded in research on campus protest.

Meanwhile, there appear to be suggestions of making it mandatory to announce campus protest, and to then allocate a designated room for it, rendering it part of the logistics of the academic business corporation rather than a disruption and an actual protest. Protest then becomes flattened to every other lecture on ‘fiscal economics’, ‘law and finance’ or ‘art and market’. I suggest the Erasmian value of ‘no protest’ here (icon: muzzle).

Erasmian values appear to be the latest form of flattening the university. Last year I and many others were asked to participate in the process of drafting a new ‘educational strategy’. The idea was that the previous one was not yet informed by ‘Erasmian values’, as it was five years old and the world has changed, according to Creating the Education vision 2023. Working together on world-class education. Makes sense to then takes one’s cue from the ‘values’ of someone who lived five hundred years ago. By the way, in what relevant respects had the world changed in the last five years? Well, the document makes clear that that change mainly lies in the normalization of ‘online education’ (posh name for bullshit on a screen that is conveniently cheap, flexible and – not unimportant – hygienic). Teaching on a screen, nicely flat. Let’s no longer talk about ‘online’ and ‘on campus’ education, but about 2D and 3D. To miss an entire dimension and call it teaching; you don’t survive in the university without a heavy dose of resistance to the absurd.

Talk of ‘values’ is, in fact, always a poor substitute for something substantial, at most it’s the pinning of marketing labels after the fact. The real question is what happens in the case of value conflict. Erasmian value ‘engaged with society’ (icon: three people with their heads in the clouds) doesn’t necessarily go well with ‘entrepreneurial’ (icon: light bulb). Read: OccupyEUR doesn’t go together with Shell. And that was precisely the point. And don’t be fooled by the board’s claim that its ideas aren’t that far apart from those of OccupyEUR. The strategy documents for the ‘convergence’ with the Technical University Delft mention as first future corporate connection (icon: four puzzle pieces): Shell.

Thankfully, the values of the antisemite Desiderius Erasmus were never the reason this university got ‘Erasmus’ as semiofficial name. How that did go about is recounted in the book Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam 1973-1993 [Erasmus University Rotterdam 1973-1993] (1993) by the historians Davids and van Herwaarden. If you open it, you will see in the colophon on page IV a brand logo at least as strong as that of the university, namely a shell, with the caption: “This publication is made possible in part by the financial support of Shell Netherlands Ltd.” Two years later financial support by Shell helped make the hanging of the Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa possible. He led the nonviolent  ‘Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People’ (MOSOP), but his protest disrupted the Erasmian value ‘entrepreneurial’ (icon: light bulb).


‘Positive societal impact’

It is clear that university administrators want the university to be an integral part of the contemporary order, the order of the planetary plunder euphemistically called ‘climate change’ – indeed, that euphemism, which comes out of the climate skeptical lobby, issues from the infrastructure of that plunder. ‘Positive societal impact’ is a name for the compulsive desire to do whatever the established order expects and deems proper. The yardstick for ‘positive’ lies with that order. The possibility that this established order itself – including the university – is a case of catastrophic impact cannot be registered in the repertoire of ‘positive societal impact’. But whoever sends the police to students connecting their engagement with the earth with their bodies, makes clear that ‘positive societal impact’ is an all-too fluffy name for nihilism.

The possibility that the established order itself – including the university – is a case of catastrophic impact cannot be registered in the repertoire of ‘positive societal impact’.


Strategies such as Creating Positive Societal Impact: The Erasmian Way assume consensus about the state of the world – there are ‘complex challenges’ – but they forego the fact that ideally, as Julia Schleck writes in Dirty Knowledge. Academic Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism (2022), universities themselves are arenas of struggle. Struggle over what the world looks like, and struggle about change and about the language we use to position ourselves. That struggle is hygienically removed in flattened notions of ‘positive societal impact, the Erasmian way’. The fancy flyer of that strategy can sell this with a picture of – oh, the irony – a climate protest, but the entire thing is an exercise in anti-intellectualism exemplary for the structure of complicity that the university is for its administrators.

Someone taking a critical look at EUR might just surmise that it is an institution in which young people are mostly taught to manage, pathologize, and exploit other people. A production machine with minds as raw material, graduates as semi-finished products and as end product their participation in a thanatological order. Thank god for activist students falsifying such a horrendous image of the university!

Source: Femke Legué

The hollow phrase ‘impact’ appears by now to have replaced the tautologous ‘excellence’. Last year an invitation came to take part in ‘A dialogue on a vision of impact learning’. Another dialogue. This time, significantly, at the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship (icon: light bulb). Those who wanted to go there from campus could take the ‘Impact Tour Bus’. You would have to go to the ‘Student Wellbeing Tent’ to assemble under the banner ‘World Class Education’. I heard afterwards that you could have speed date conversations with an ‘impact coach’ on board the bus (they wore vests saying so). But if it looks like satire, sounds like satire, and behaves like satire, it’s got to be satire, right? Yet as the Strategy 2024 document mentions: “Dialogue at all levels will be a vital part of measuring our success.” Vertical measurement dialogues is one I’m throwing in for free for the consideration of the strategic strategy strategists.



In at least one respect the university cannot be reproached for its flatness: it is indeed a vertically oriented organization. An extremely hierarchical bureaucracy, based largely on autocratic government, delegated or not, in which self-government by students and staff is a joke no one finds funny. The Dutch university is archaically hierarchical, were it not for the fact that the differentiation in assistant professors, associate professors and professors in the Netherlands dates back to the early 1960s. What was then a temporary measure to deal with rising student numbers became permanent, and is taken seriously down to the most ridiculous details by means of what is fittingly called ‘UFO profiles’: detailed descriptions (in fact mostly lists) of what professors can do more than assistant and associate professors. Of course it is clear to anyone that’s been in a room with a professor for more than a few minutes that this is a fiction (UFO’s: these professors fly so high it cannot be identified what makes them so brilliant). This was the reason for a recent plea to abolish this hierarchy by the dean of law in Maastricht.

Once more, rising student numbers have been the reason for creating a new category of laborer at the bottom of the hierarchy: tutors and other flexible staff in precarious positions


But what happened in the sixties is being repeated. Once more, rising student numbers have been the reason for creating a new category of laborer at the bottom of the hierarchy: tutors and other flexible staff in precarious positions. A reserve army of academic laborers has been created to lower the production costs of teaching even further by way of exploitation and an even more uneven distribution of protections and privileges. As serious scholars in the field of academic freedom show (mail for references, not for dialogue), this Uberfication of teaching is the greatest threat to academic freedom.

Guess who are the only ones in this university, apart from tutors themselves, to have recently spoken up for this cause? The activists of OccupyEUR, who demanded abolishment of precarious positions. The fact that their protest was thus also a fundamental defense of academic freedom is entirely lost on the bureaucratic squares who believe the university is first and foremost a ‘brand’. Yet that protest can be of peripheral interest to no one who thinks academic freedom matters. Next time, look up from your tenth paper this year, walk out on your meeting.


Walking tall

On the second day of the occupation by OccupyEUR I read an article by Nobel prize winner Annie Ernaux in Le Monde diplomatique, titled ‘Walking tall again’. She describes how the French 1995 strikes and protests against neoliberalization ignited her enthusiasm and made her proud, despite her working-class background, to walk tall again. I envisage the administrators of Erasmus University Rotterdam writing her a letter to teach her that such protest is illegal because it disrupts things, and that she’d be better off engaging in a ‘dialogue’. Walking tall? Flatten it down, madame Ernaux!

Thankfully the university still provides space for much more than the square suits and ties on its boards would have us believe. Space for activist students, for instance, despite everything. If you weren’t there: you should have seen the books they brought with them. Inspiration is what you get from students that refuse to waste time in chatter sessions with university power a brand. I am thankful to these students for the reminder that the knowledge we produce and the relations we engage in are inseparable from the struggle for our lives. They may be, in the words of the university board, ‘a small group’, but they are walking tall. And they lead the way in the experimentation with what an ‘academic community’ can be beyond the brand of an anti-intellectual impact rental shack.


This article was first published in Erasmus Magazine.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Willem Schinkel is Professor of Social Theory at Erasmus University Rotterdam and a member of the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

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Sri Lanka’s Disastrous 2022 Ends With A Sliver Of Optimism – Analysis

Last year, Sri Lanka faced its worst economic crisis to date, accompanied by political upheaval that left its population reeling as they struggled to make ends meet. In this article, Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits briefly outlines how things played out in 2022, showing that while the crisis has had a devastating impact on the country’s stability and prosperity, 2023 signals a time for action – and change.

Protesters in front of Sri Lanka's Presidential Secretariat. Photo Credit: Jayanidu Nilupul, Wikipedia Commons

Sri Lanka entered 2022 beset by economic crisis and political upheaval. The economic crisis culminated in Sri Lanka defaulting on payment for the first time. This led to the government being completely cut off from most sources of international funding, including from official multilateral and international commercial sources.

The government’s effort to blame its debt default on the lost revenue from tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic and increased fuel prices resulting from the war in Ukraine did not carry much weight. One analyst stated that ‘this is the most man-made and voluntary economic crisis of which I know’.

Although many Sri Lankans did not understand what default meant, the effects of the crisis were keenly felt. The foreign currency crunch that followed progressively restricted imports of food, fuel, fertiliser, medicine and other essentials. By August 2022, the annual inflation rate had reached nearly 70 per cent and inflation of food prices had reached nearly 85 per cent — the sixth highest food inflation in the world. 750,000 people have already fallen into poverty. One UNICEF report shows that the food crisis has already taken its toll on young mothers and newborn babies.

The economic crisis has also hit the previously well-off middle class, who now struggle to eat their usual three meals a day. In rural areas, heartbreaking stories have emerged of children fainting at schools because they have not had breakfast. The emergency aid, including food and fertiliser, received from the World Bank, UN World Food Program, Australia and India, was not enough to feed everyone. Food shortages were exacerbated by declining local agricultural output.

Urban Sri Lanka became plagued by lengthy queues for fuel and food, with Sri Lankans waiting under the scorching sun and in torrential downpours. The crisis triggered mass protests by thousands of people from all walks of life. The main protest slogan, GotaGoGama (Gota go home), pointed toward former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s personal responsibility for governing Sri Lanka directly into a crisis and demanded his resignation.

The mass resignation of cabinet ministers jeopardised the former president’s attempt to cling on to power. As a last resort, he formed an all-party government, but this lacked support from other politicians who were aware of the political costs of taking part. Still, the former president showed no sign of stepping down and instead made his brother, prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, resign.

Before resigning in May, former prime minister Rajapaksa wasted no time mobilising his political supporters to attack peaceful protesters outside his home and at the main protest site, Galle Face Green. The anti-government protesters retaliated by targeting the Rajapaksa supporters’ properties and businesses. Some went even further by burning down the Rajapaksa family’s ancestral home and a museum honouring their parents. In response the state rolled out a variety of repressive measures, including Sunday curfews, social media blackouts, tear gas and water cannons. Presidential orders prohibited any public gathering and protest leaders were arrested.

The peak period of protests from March to July was followed by a massive anti-government march held at Galle Face Green in Colombo on 9 July. Gotabaya Rajapaksa finally fled the country and sent his resignation from Singapore via email on 14 July. As the former president fled his residence, people flocked to occupy it. Some even had a dip in the presidential swimming pool and took selfies while relaxing in the president’s bed.

In the absence of the president, the perpetually unpopular Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed acting president, under Article 37 (1) of the Constitution. This was announced via an extraordinary gazette notification. Sometimes nicknamed ‘the Eel’ (Aanda) for his ability to glide through any political trap, Wickremesinghe’s dream of becoming president finally came true amid Sri Lanka’s worst nightmare.

The public legitimacy of Wickremesinghe’s rule was immediately clouded. While Wickremesinghe was appointed via a parliamentary process according to Articles 40(1) (a) and 40(1) (c) of the Constitution, there have been allegations that the exiting president paid bribes to lawmakers to secure parliamentary approval for Wickremesinghe’s appointment.

Wickremesinghe has managed to bring slight relief to the people as fuel, electricity, medicine and food items have slowly begun to be replenished. Wickremesinghe’s poor reputation among conservative voters, who widely considered him to be an elitist, Western-style cosmopolitan, was dropped — at least for now — when he secured a bailout package from the IMF by flaunting his liberal sensibilities. Wickremesinghe secured a commitment from Japan to lead the debt restructuring talks with Sri Lanka’s creditors, which are essential to secure a US$2.9 billion bailout package from the IMF. Even a subtle attempt to push Wickremesinghe under the bus any time soon will likely provoke a relapse toward another crisis.

2023 comes with some concerns over the conditions on government spending that an IMF bailout will entail, as well as hope for the opportunities it will provide to promote financial stability. One can expect fewer angry protests in 2023, as the cross-class spirit of Aragalaya (Revolution) has already begun to wane since Wickremesinghe started laying the ground work for rescuing the economy and disciplining society.

As global calls for ‘debt justice’ continue to gather momentum, there is an opportunity for Sri Lankans to take the lead in this emerging movement by rekindling their past ‘Aragalaya’ spirit and channelling it towards the global political arena.

This blog was first published in East Asia Forum.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits is an Assistant Professor in conflict and peace studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam.


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Will Colombia ever witness peace?

The most recent wave of state violence against Colombian citizens that culminated in the killing of 47 demonstrators during a single week of protests taking place across the country is extremely worrying given the massive human rights violations it signifies. Yet far from being an isolated episode, the events that recently transpired are rooted in a deeper socio-economic and political crisis that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. State violence that has plagued the country for so long can be interpreted as the expression of institutional imbalances and may signify a worrying move toward securitisation – one that should be avoided at all cost.

Picture taken from El Espectador 01.05.2021.

“If the people go out to protest within a pandemic, it is because the government is more dangerous than the virus.”
Slogan of the most recent (28A) protests

As a country known for having undergone decades of social unrest and political tensions, Colombia has been hurled back into the spotlight in the past two weeks as police and military forces cracked down on protesters. A current national strike against a tax reform starting on 28 April – aptly called 28A – has since escalated massively, leading to international calls for peace as repression fuelled further protests and tensions. Disturbing and painful images and audio clips of the police shooting demonstrators seemingly indiscriminately in different Colombian cities, hitting human rights defenders, and even threatening a humanitarian and verification mission in Cali have now been spread all over the world.

What led to these protests?

The answer is not straightforward. On 5 April 2021, a tax reform was proposed by Ivan Duque’s government. Given the enormous social tensions in Colombia, the proposed regressive tax reforms, through which the upper classes would benefit from tax cuts, and middle- and low-income classes would pay more for public services and consumption, fuelled a runaway fire, leading to a national protest scheduled for 28 April, but lasting much longer. This act of defiance should be interpreted not as a reckless act during a pandemic, but a desperate effort of protesters to protect their own futures. The tax reform proposal was finally withdrawn on 4 May, but only after 31 demonstrators had been killed, 814 had been arbitrarily detained, and 10 cases of sexual violence by police representatives had been reported.

The use of state violence against Colombian citizens is unfortunately not new. The recent round of protests was preceded by a national strike on 21 November 2019 called 21N, which was also met with force. Yet each moment of resurgence of violence is equally devastating for Colombia, a Latin American nation that has been struggling hard to shake its image as politically unstable. What’s more worrying are hints of a move toward securitisation that can normalise violence. Instead of strengthening the independence and capacity of the country’s judiciary and other bodies that are supposed to hold the state accountable for its deployment of force and citizens for the private use of the violence, securitisation would reinforce the vulnerability of social leaders and human rights defenders who play an important role in helping maintain the country’s democratic system and who can press for structural change.

Picture taken from BBC News Mundo 03.05.2021

Why is this so worrying?

Besides protesting against a proposed tax reform, Colombian society is using the 28A protests to urge a fundamental change in the socio-economic policies driven by a neoliberal government logic. Young people are advocating for affordable, good-quality, public higher education institutions and access to decent jobs. Workers and pensioners are rejecting the growing ‘flexibiliation’ of the labour market and the increased age of retirement. Public sanitation workers and health workers are asking for better working conditions and better public health care given the strain placed on them by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was never only about the tax reforms. Citizens feel betrayed by a government that does not seem to govern in their interests.

The right to protest (peacefully) to make such concerns heard is thus crucial for many groups across Colombia. Unfortunately, protests have taken place against a backdrop of violence that has haunted the country for decades. Continued state violence against protesters can be linked to the country’s violent history. Repression following the rejection of the 2016 Peace Agreement is also visible in the dramatic increase of other violent events, including recent massacres in rural areas of Colombia fuelled by broken promises of strengthening the state’s civil infrastructure for those residing in rural areas. And after the end of the Colombian conflict, new armed factions have sprung up to dispute the territories formerly controlled by FARC guerrillas. The result has been a predictable resurgence in illegal market activity and violence against civilians. Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and peasant communities are caught in the crossfire or are direct targets.

Pictures taken by Juliana Poveda during the demonstrations in front the Colombian Embassy in The Hague 07.05.2021

What’s worse, during COVID-19, the government has demonstrated a growing inclination towards authoritarianism, imposing curfews and militarising control of the lockdown. The pandemic has exacerbated the country’s socio-economic crisis, and both escalating violence in rural areas and lockdowns in cities intensified ordinary citizens’ socio-economic vulnerability. In effect, a decade of social policies to reduce poverty were reversed in a single year given the government’s erratic handling of the pandemic. Reducing ordinary people’s vulnerability and addressing inequalities were simply not priorities for this government. The proposed tax reform was the last straw, signifying to Colombians a government that was not doing its duty to make their lives better, both when it comes to the safety of civilians and their welfare.

What needs to be explored once the violence has been stopped is whether this inclination toward violent repression signifies the securitisation of state institutions and an even greater risk for social leaders and human rights defenders in the cities and rural areas of Colombia to continue keeping the state accountable. This would be devastating for Colombia, which has long sought peace and freedom, and whose citizens thought that the end of its conflict some five years ago signified a new era in which the state and citizens would be able to co-exist in harmony. The government should also take a long, hard look at whether it is actually actively pursuing peace – recent events seem to indicate the opposite.

Thanks go to Lize Swartz for helping shape this article.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the author:

Juliana Poveda is a lawyer specialized in human rights and international humanitarian law of the National University of Colombia. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree at the ISS. Prior to that, she received her M.A. in Political Studies at the Institute of Political Studies and International Relations (IEPRI).

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#SOSColombia: A call for international solidarity against the brutal repression of protestors in Colombia

The recent surge in violence against Colombian citizens has led to thousands of reports of police brutality in a matter of days as the state cracked down on protesters taking to the streets starting 28 April. This has prompted a global outcry and pressure from international organisations and several countries on the Colombian government to end the violence so that the human rights of the protesters remain guaranteed. In this article, Ana María Arbelaéz Trujillo and Diego Hernández Morales present a brief overview of the situation and propose some ways in which the general public can get involved in raising awareness about the events and what they mean.

Photo: Fabio Tejedor

Over the past weeks, Colombians have been witnessing the brutal repression of their legitimate right to protest. According to reports by non-governmental actors, between 28 April and 9 May, at least 1,876 cases of police brutality had been recorded. This includes 39 deaths (34 caused by the use of firearms)[1], 963 arbitrary detentions, 278 instances of physical violence, 12 acts of sexual violence, and the disappearance of at least 500 protestors. The severity of the situation has led the United Nations, the European Union, Amnesty International, and several other international organisations to express their concern about the situation and remind the Colombian government that in any democracy, the state must protect the human rights of protesters and the public assembly of its people, not prevent and purposefully undermine it. The crackdown was particularly severe because of its swiftness – the police managed to threaten or cause harm to thousands of people in a matter of days.

Why were people protesting?

The spark that ignited the fire was a tax reform. The government upon initiating a tax reform argued that the new package of taxes was necessary to fund social policies to protect vulnerable people. However, the proposal included new taxes on essential goods which would had put additional pressure on the working and middle classes[2] who were already struggling to cope with the economic impacts of the pandemic.

Last year, the living conditions of the population, who already lived precarious lives before COVID-19 swept across the globe, worsened as the pandemic raged on. Colombia is the second most unequal country of South America, with a GINI coefficient of 0.53. In the last year, the monetary poverty rate increased from 37.5% to 42.3%, and 21 million people now live on less than USD 2 per day. Additionally, the unemployment rate for March 2021 was 14.2% and informal workers remain disproportionately affected by the restrictions imposed during the pandemic.

To oppose the tax reform and overall decreases in welfare, the National Strike Committee called for a national strike on 28 April. This call was supported by trade unions, indigenous groups, students, and social organisations that also protested against the persistent killing of social leaders and new proposals to reform Colombia’s health and pension schemes. Thus, what started with a tax reform ended in a massive protest about both old and new problems that led to thousands of people taking to the streets.

Following widespread popular discontent, the proposal was retired, and the Minister of Finance resigned. However, after several days of protests, people continue to protest, in part due to the outrage caused by the state’s violent response to the protest and the persistence of the additional reasons that motivated the national strike.

Why is the Colombian case different?

The introduction of new or higher taxes has led to discontent and triggered protests everywhere. But these changes need to be put into context in order to understand their significance. Social protest has historically been criminalised  in Colombia. The dominant discourse of the political and economic elites of the country is that protesters are violent and associated with illegal groups. This narrative is harmful for democracy and puts at risk the life and health of peaceful protestors.

Recently, former president Alvaro Uribe used his Twitter account to delegitimise the national strike and encourage the use of deadly force against protestors:

Let’s support the right of soldiers and police to use their firearms to defend their integrity and to defend people and property from criminal acts of terrorist vandalism.”

Twitter deleted this tweet due to the violation of its rules – a welcome step.  The former president is also using the controversial concept of a ‘dissipated molecular revolution’ to discredit the demonstrations. According to this theory, social protests, even when peaceful, are deemed crimes against state institutions; protestors accordingly must be treated as internal enemies.

The spread of this hate speech, which defines protestors as military objectives, is especially problematic in a country with a long history of armed conflict where the military forces have been involved in several human rights violations against civilians, such as the ‘false positive scandals’. The violent oppression of protesters thus serves as a stark reminder of the power of the Colombian state and how the signing of the peace agreement may not be a guarantee for peace or political reforms.

Moreover, such rhetoric is especially dangerous in a country in which social leaders are routinely murdered with impunity. The ‘Front Line Defenders Global Analysis 2020’ reported that in 2020, half of social leaders killed in the world were assassinated in Colombia. According to Indepaz,[3] between the signing of the peace agreement in November 2016 and December 2020, 1,088 social leaders have been killed. The stigmatisation of social leaders and human rights defenders increases their level of risk, preventing the social transformation that Colombia needs. It is thus in light of this that the protests and state retaliation should be understood.

How can the international community contribute?

The solidarity of the international community is key for placing pressure on the Colombian government to stop using violence against protesters and to prevent impunity. Raising awareness through sharing this or other articles is a key starting point in getting the message out there. There are multiple ways in which you could contribute:

  • By promoting the creation of a public statement of solidarity at the organisation where you work
  • By sending a message to your government asking them to urge the Colombian state to respect the rights of protesters
  • By signing this petition from citizens worldwide addressed to OAS, OEA, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and President Joe Biden to conduct a thorough investigation of the human rights violations during the recent protest in Colombia
  • By signing this Open Letter to the Colombian Government and the International Community from professionals of public international law
  • By signing this letter from Colombian academics and students calling for an inclusive dialogue to end the recent violence in Colombia
  • By donating to independent organisations reporting the current situation such as Temblores, Cuestión Pública and Mutante 
  • By simply following reliable sources of news and sharing the information with the hashtag #SOSColombia on social media.


[1] According to Temblores and Indepaz, 47 people have been killed since 28 April 2021. Of these cases of homicidal violence, it has been possible to determine that 39 of them were due to police violence.

[2] Among the most controversial points were extending the income tax to people earning more than 684 USD per month, charging VAT tax on public and funerary services, and eliminating tax exemptions on essential goods and products such as eggs, milk, tampons, sanitary towels, and menstrual cups.

[3] Founded in 1984, INDEPAZ is part of the national network of peacebuilding organisations in Colombia. Its work is focused on researching and spreading information about the conflict, and it contributes to the peace process through the promotion of dialogue and non-violence.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the authors:

Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo

Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo is a lawyer, specialist in Environmental Law, and holds an Erasmus Mundus Master in Public Policy. She works as an environmental consultant on climate change policies and forest governance. Her research interests include the political economy of extractivist industries, environmental conflicts, and rural development.

Diego Hernández Morales is a Colombian lawyer with 25 years of experience in various fields.  In Colombia, he was a professor of Democracy Theory at the Universidad Libre of Bogotá, and a professor of Politics and International Relations at the Universidad Santo Tomás.  He has a Master’s degree in Development Studies from the ISS, conducting a research paper on the media representation in the Netherlands of the Colombian conflict.  At this moment he is in the process of publishing a book on his testimonies and his appreciations related to the events in Colombia in the last half-century.

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COVID-19 and Conflict | From the Chilean miracle to hunger protests: how COVID-19 and social conflict responses relate

COVID-19 broke out in Chile last year in the midst of an intensive social conflict rooted in the deep-seated inequalities caused by the free-market reforms in the country. The case of Chile shows how pre-existing conflict dynamics can be strongly intertwined with pandemic responses as earlier protests for greater equality paved the way for a climate facilitating ‘hunger protests’ during the pandemic. In response to growing mistrust in the state, citizens had a strong social mobilization base that drove collective action.

For many decades, Chile’s development trajectory was considered an inspiration due to its positive macroeconomic results achieved following the implementation of neoliberal policies by the dictatorship in the 1980s and supported by democratic governments to present. However, these policies produced deep inequalities among the population (Flores et al. 2019)[1]. With the eruption of protests in 2019 and the COVID-19 outbreak last year, the idea of a ‘Chilean miracle’ started to fade.

The COVID-19 pandemic reached Chile in the middle of the largest social conflict since the end of its dictatorship in 1990. Starting in October 2019, more than a million of people protested each Friday for five months in the center of Santiago, the capital city, to show their discontent and demand improved livelihood conditions. The response of the government to this movement was brutal, leading to high levels of repression, partial curfews, and large, violent clashes that ended in more than 34 casualties and 445 people with eye injuries (from riot guns wielded by the riot police) between October 2019 and February 2020.

As the mass protests proved, the government ignored the socio-economic problems faced by many sectors of the population. A clear expression of the lack of awareness from the government of the conditions experienced in many low-income neighbourhoods was shown in a public statement made by the former health minister of the country, when he stated in an interview that “[t]here is a level of poverty and overcrowding [in Chile] of which I was not aware”[2].

The measures implemented to address the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 were also an expression of this level of ignorance. One of the first measures to address the COVID-19 outbreak was to implement dynamic quarantines[3], which failed to prevent the virus from spreading from less vulnerable to the most vulnerable populations, instead increasing infection levels and mortality rates[4] (Galarce 2020). The failure of this measure is associated with overcrowding in households, the precarity of wages, and the impossibility for people who survive off a daily income to comply with quarantine measures.

In addition to the complete lockdown that followed the dynamic quarantines, another of the early measures was to implement nighttime curfews. This measure was not well received by citizens, nor by the scientific community, which indicated that the quarantine did not have experts’ approval since there was no proof that it reduced the infection rate. They argued that it was intended to reduce civil liberties[5], and, generally, this measure was seen as an expression of the authoritarian nature of the government.

The inability of the measures to counter the effects of COVID-19 led to multiple demonstrations that were known as ‘hunger protests’. This time, people demanded access to food, water, and shelter as many lost their daily incomes due to the lockdown measures. The hunger protests followed the government’s announcement about the distribution of food baskets. People felt that, again, the government did not understand people’s needs—families could not wait to receive food supplies, but urgently required money to obtain (other) basic goods. The government’s response to the protests was highly repressive once more, mirroring its response to the previous protests back in October 2019.

The countrywide social movement leading protests in 2019 and 2020 articulated different demands and had no centralized leadership. It encouraged self-organized local assemblies (asambleas territoriales) composed of young and elderly people and was founded due to mistrust in the existing institutions. These local assemblies embodied collective organization to resist and shape new relationships and solve immediate problems in the neighbourhoods. The movement that led protests months before COVID-19 emerged therefore played an important role during the pandemic, enabling Chileans to solve difficulties the pandemic and the government’s response to it by themselves through collective action.

One of these initiatives is the so-called ‘ollas comunes’ (‘common pots’)[6] through which people helped stave off hunger by cooking for each other. This measure to respond to the COVID-19 disaster is related to previous responses to social conflicts in Chile. As stated by Clarisa Hardy (1986), the ollas comunes initiative is associated with workers’ layoffs and repression suffered after the 1973 coup d’état that brought Augusto Pinochet to power. Therefore it has a strong component of collective memory. This initiative also proved that the self-organization that arose during the protests could solve immediate problems in a context characterized by high levels of mistrust towards the government in a crucial moment for state intervention like a pandemic. It also opened the possibility to act collectively outside of the common frameworks provided by the state and the market.


Hardy, C. 1986. ‘Hambre + Dignidad = Ollas Comunes.’ Accessed August 11, 2020 http://www.memoriachilena.gob.cl/archivos2/pdfs/MC0033331.pdf

Flores, I.; Sanhueza, C.; Atria, J. 2019. ‘Top incomes in Chile: a historical perspective on income inequality, 1964-2017’, Review of Income and Wealth, pp. 1-25.

Tinsman, H. 2006. ‘Reviving Feminist Materialism: Gender and Neoliberalism in Pinochet’s Chile,’ The University of Chicago Press  26(1): 145-188.

Foot Notes

[1] Many estimations had been made using different methodologies. All of them are relatively consistent in suggesting that the richest 1% hold between 25%-33% of the national income. For an in-depth discussion, see the following analysis (in Spanish): https://www.ciperchile.cl/2019/12/10/parte-ii-la-desigualdad-es-una-decision-politica/

[2] For the complete declarations, see the following interview (in Spanish): https://www.latercera.com/politica/noticia/manalich-reconoce-que-en-un-sector-de-santiago-hay-un-nivel-de-pobreza-y-hacinamiento-del-cual-yo-no-tenia-conciencia-de-la-magnitud-que-tenia/5BQZLGLOPVDDPKQ2SNSSSWRGYU/

[3] Dynamic quarantines are those applied to a specific place in a territory (a municipality, for example), and that can be lifted or imposed based on the regular analysis of certain patterns, particularly the number of COVID-19 cases in each place under quarantine.

[4] Galarce, A. (2020, May 19). Experto en salud pública USACH: “Las cuarentenas dinámicas hicieron que el virus migrara hacia una población más vulnerable”. Radiousach.cl.  Accessed August 10, 2020 https://www.radiousach.cl/experto-en-salud-publica-usach-las-cuarentenas-dinamicas-hicieron-que

[5] At the time of publication, the curfews were still imposed, even though the partial lockdowns were lifted and the COVID-19 infection rate diminishing.

[6] “Common pots involve women pooling the food rations of individual families to collectively provide more substantial meals to entire groups of families, workers and neighborhoods” (Tinsman 2006).


This research was part of the “When Disaster Meets Conflict” project. It was undertaken between July and September 2020 and comprised the analysis of secondary sources (news and articles related to the Chilean protests of 2019-2020 and the government’s responses to the COVID-19 crisis). Additionally, five semi-structured interviews were carried out. The interviews included key actors from the Chilean private sector, government, and civil society.  The purpose of these interviews was to know these actors’ points of view on the impact and the government’s response to the sanitary crisis

About the authors:

Ana Isabel Alduenda studied International Relations at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and is a current student of the MA in Development Studies at ISS, major Governance and Development Policy. She has worked in the public sector and as a consultant in topics related to government accountability and human rights. Her research interests focus on anti-corruption policies, open data, and gender violence. In addition, she has developed a genuine interest in the social phenomena surrounding pandemics.

Camila Ramos Vilches studied Social Work at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and is a current student of the MA in Development Studies at ISS, major Human Rights, Gender and Conflict Studies: Social Justice Perspectives. She has worked in local NGOs related to grassroots development, and international NGOs related to sustainable development in the private sector. Her research interests focus on gendered analysis within organizations, diversity and inclusion management and sustainable development.

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COVID-19 | There’s no stopping feminist struggles in Latin America during the COVID-19 pandemic

As the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign draws to a close today, Agustina Solera and Brenda Rodríguez Cortés reflect on the challenges women in Latin America have faced over the past year and how, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, they have stood strong as ever, braving the particularly difficult conditions that they have had to face this year.

During an academic retreat in late August, we reflected on feminist struggles in Latin America during the COVID-19 pandemic. We recalled that the last time we had seen each other in person before the retreat was during the International Women’s Day march in Amsterdam as part of ‘Feministas en Holanda’, a collective of self-identified feminists from Latin America living in the Netherlands. ‘

The foundation of ‘Feministas en Holanda’ dates back to the summer of 2018, when we joined a group of other Latin American women to demonstrate outside of the Argentinian Embassy in The Hague in favour of the decriminalization of abortion. Even though the bill that could have decriminalized abortion in Argentina wasn’t passed, the protest was a moment for feminist women from Latin American living in the Netherlands to meet face to face. It was there where we realized that there were many of us who have the same commitment to gender issues and that we weren’t alone in our struggles; on the contrary, we embraced each other, and from that day on the movement continued to bloom, both online and on the streets.

Some of the most pressing issues that women face in Latin America include feminicides and disappearances, gender and sexual violence, racial discrimination, the lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services and rights, violence targeted against environmental defenders and activists, poverty, and the precarization of work and employment for women. The multiplicity of struggles of Latin American women has also brought boundless ways of fighting back and resisting. Examples include the feminist performance ‘Un violador en tu camino’ (‘A rapist on your path’) in Chile denouncing violence against women and state violence, the #EleNão (‘Not him’) movement in Brazil against Jair Bolsonaro’s sexism and fascism, the #NiUnaMenos (‘Not one woman less’) movement that started in Argentina against gender-based violence and feminicides and quickly spread to other Latin-American countries, and Mexico’s #MiPrimerAcoso campaign denouncing sexual harassment and violence even before the #MeToo movement captured global attention.

Importantly, the COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped the feminist struggles in Latin America. While the pandemic has clearly shown us the interconnections between different systems of oppression and its effects on marginalized communities, women and racial and ethnic minorities, it has also magnified and deepened several social inequalities, including gender inequality.

The massive scope of the virus highlights the unequal access to basic services like safe water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as public services such as health and education, access to affordable housing, food and decent work. Quarantine became a privilege accessible only to those who have a house or who could lock themselves up and work remotely. Moreover, in many cases, seeking refuge from the danger of the virus meant being locked up in a situation no less dangerous for some women: a situation of domestic violence and abuse. Protection of life during the COVID-19 pandemic requires that we stay inside our homes. However, this puts many women in greater risk by living 24/7 with their abuser. Unfortunately, due to social distancing and protective sanitary measures, women’s shelters soon reached full capacity, thus preventing women from seeking refuge.

Moreover, household and care work—activities that primarily fall on women’s shoulders—have also increased since the outbreak of the pandemic. Women now have to ensure total hygiene, constantly clean the house, look after their children and elderly relatives, and assist children in virtual schooling, which overburdens them even more. The most is being asked of those who have been guaranteed the least (Maffia, 2020). The pandemic has brought the domestic sphere to centre stage. Many of the issues that feminist movements had already been denouncing and that were not visible precisely because they were in the realm of the intimate today emerge strongly. We see that all of this work is essential for society to continue and, above all, for life to be preserved.

And the pandemic has also disrupted the already limited access to sexual and reproductive health services that women have in Latin America. A UN policy brief reported that an additional 18 million women in the region would cease to have access to contraceptives because of the pandemic (UN, 2020). The ongoing lockdowns, lack of access to birth control and family planning in addition to an increase in gender-based and sexual violence could lead to an estimated 600,000 unintended pregnancies in the region (Murray and Moloney, 2020).

Despite having some of the strictest lockdown measures in the world, feminist groups in Latin America put their bodies on the line and went out on the streets to demand justice for social problems that existed even before the pandemic and those that have intensified because of it.

In Mexico, for example, women and family members of victims of gender and sexual violence and disappeared women, together with the support of feminist collectives, have occupied the headquarters of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) since early September as a response to the inability of the government to provide access to justice and the impunity of such crimes. In Quito, Ecuador, as in other cities in the region, hundreds of women went out on the streets on 28 September, International Safe Abortion Day, to demand access to legal and safe abortion. And in Colombia, feminist collectives started the campaign ‘¡Estamos Putas! ¡Juntas somos más poderosas!’ to support cis and trans women sex workers who have been affected by the coronavirus-related ban on sex work during the lockdown.

These are just some examples of how the feminist movements in Latin America continue to transform society and to enact social change and social justice, even throughout a pandemic. As two migrant women, feminists from Latin America living in Europe and working in academia, we acknowledge our privileges and choose to use our voices to amplify those of our compañeras back home and make visible their struggles and contributions. The enormous efforts by women who, collectively, support victims of gender violence, accompany women to abortions, report police brutality, look for disappeared people and fight extractive industries, were being made before the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to be made. We hope that now women’s fundamental contributions become even more visible and valued by the whole of our society.


Bartels-Bland, E. (2020) “COVID-19 Could Worsen Gender Inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean”, World Bank. In https://eur03.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.worldbank.org%2Fen%2Fnews%2Ffeature%2F2020%2F05%2F15%2Fcovid-19-could-worsen-gender-inequality-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean&data=04%7C01%7Cbliss%40iss.nl%7Cdfad3f9f62124c4b6ab008d89cf034c5%7C715902d6f63e4b8d929b4bb170bad492%7C0%7C0%7C637431902783559546%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C1000&sdata=oFG0rjBqELfmooAtieUHMxzk79Cw7WmpehUCQsVB7Pg%3D&reserved=0

Lugones, M. (2007) “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System”. Hypatia 22(1), 186-209.

Maffia, Diana (2020) “Violencia de Género: ¿La otra pandemia?” In El futuro después del COVID-19. Argentina Unida. In https://eur03.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.argentina.gob.ar%2Fsites%2Fdefault%2Ffiles%2Fel_futuro_despues_del_covid-19_0.pdf&data=04%7C01%7Cbliss%40iss.nl%7Cdfad3f9f62124c4b6ab008d89cf034c5%7C715902d6f63e4b8d929b4bb170bad492%7C0%7C0%7C637431902783559546%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C1000&sdata=I9IPssiI8Rzzzvran9Okzrqa813asSwkZcIDtUkOVkk%3D&reserved=0

Murray C. and Moloney, A. (2020). “Pandemic brings growing risk of pregnancy, abuse to Latin American girls”. In https://eur03.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.reuters.com%2Farticle%2Fus-health-coronavirus-latamgirls-trfn-idUSKCN24W1EN&data=04%7C01%7Cbliss%40iss.nl%7Cdfad3f9f62124c4b6ab008d89cf034c5%7C715902d6f63e4b8d929b4bb170bad492%7C0%7C0%7C637431902783559546%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C1000&sdata=BZZcVyhhahmxGJA6T3GfMZ%2FBtOkPOkjcQtaNB1DN4KM%3D&reserved=0

UN (2020), “Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women”. In https://eur03.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.un.org%2Fsites%2Fun2.un.org%2Ffiles%2Fpolicy_brief_on_covid_impact_on_women_9_april_2020.pdf&data=04%7C01%7Cbliss%40iss.nl%7Cdfad3f9f62124c4b6ab008d89cf034c5%7C715902d6f63e4b8d929b4bb170bad492%7C0%7C0%7C637431902783559546%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C1000&sdata=WGB6vwEiIhYhoZD1FToyYjjfN18NWpL%2Ff%2F64mq%2B5dIE%3D&reserved=0

UN Women (2020) “COVID-19 and ending violence against women and girls”. In https://eur03.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.unwomen.org%2Fen%2Fdigital-library%2Fpublications%2F2020%2F04%2Fissue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls&data=04%7C01%7Cbliss%40iss.nl%7Cdfad3f9f62124c4b6ab008d89cf034c5%7C715902d6f63e4b8d929b4bb170bad492%7C0%7C0%7C637431902783559546%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C1000&sdata=V5koQXaTqs9850PnQF%2Bty5gw%2FL7Btzrjsi357Dmw1ZE%3D&reserved=0

This blog article was first published in DevISSues and has been modified for publication on Bliss.

About the authors:

Agustina Solera is a researcher in Latin American Social Studies and a visiting researcher at ISS.

Brenda Rodríguez Cortés is a PhD candidate at ISS working on issues of gender and sexuality.

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Marie Antoinette rules in Colombia as the masses protest against inequality

By Fabio Andrés Díaz Pabón and María Gabriela Palacio

Since late November, Colombia has seen unprecedented mass protests, the longest since 1977. These protests illustrate the awakening of a muffled civil society. Protests in Colombia are part of a Latin American “spring”. Demonstrations have, since September, swept across Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Panama, Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile. But Colombia’s protests are not merely following a regional trend, nor can they be attributed to a single ideological leaning.

Who is protesting and why

Colombians are protesting against inequality, because the country has the most unequal society among the 36 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. In addition, recent government measures, such as cuts in taxes to wealthy investors and an increase in taxes for the middle classes, have generated a significant backlash in a failed attempt to implement “trickle-down economics”.

Though the Colombian economy has experienced resilient economic growth despite the fall in commodity prices, there is little to no redistribution taking place. The richest 1% of the population captures more than 20% of the total labour income.

Because measures recently adopted by the government probably exacerbate inequalities, peasants, student, urbanites, labour unions and indigenous groups have taken to the streets. Their grievances might differ but the persistence of inequality has led to a reduction of their tolerance to measures that maintain the status quo.

Protesters are demanding the implementation of the provisions signed in the 2016 by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Army Colombian peace agreement. For some factions in the government, demanding the fulfilment of the promises of the Constitution and demanding peace is seen as a subversive act. Yet Colombians are not demanding a revolution; they are demanding the right to a dignifying life and the fulfilment of the promises made by the government.

In a country that is in an armed conflict and is home to one of the highest shares of internally displaced populations in the world, the dismissal of protesters’ grievances constitutes a threat to civil society and democracy. The number of assassinated social and indigenous leaders and activists illustrate these risks.

The motivation for protests relates to the deepening of inequalities and levels of precarity in terms of access to education, health and social protection and the weariness of armed conflict. The strength of the protests can be explained as the result of the transition of the Colombia society towards peace — the peace accords with paramilitaries in 2006 and guerrillas in 2016 opened different venues for political participation — and the strengthening of social movements.

Government’s response

The response from the government of Iván Duque has been one of denials, accusations and failed attempts to regain control over public discourse.

He took office thanks to the political backing of politicians and sectors in society who opposed the peace negotiations with guerrillas and the state reforms taking place since 2010. Once in power, Duque found himself having to comply with state policies his support base did not agree with.

But these groups do not represent the majority of the population. Because of this, Duque faces a 70% disapproval rate and only 24% approval rate, according to a recent Gallup poll. This also means he has no control over the congress, posing a dilemma to his government. Either Duque tries to clear his policies to receive the broader support of society and face the alienation of his core supporters or he loses the capacity to lead the country. Because of this, media such as The Economist have depicted Duque as a president without direction.

Given this limited political space, the government attempted a propaganda campaign that tried to cast protesters as not contributing to the development of the country and drove Duque to plan the first meeting after the national strike with the industrials and business people rather than with the protestors.

This illustrates that the government cannot see that the protests span across race, location and class. Protests have brought together diverse actors that have found in the streets a space of encounter. Social groups are refusing government measures concerning social security, pensions and labour reforms, because they would have a pervasive effect on the livelihoods of the majority of the population. This explains why protests are supported by 74% of the population.

The disconnection between self-interested elites and the rest of society is evident. The proposal for a tax break, such as allowing consumption without value-added tax for three days a year and an extended “Black Friday” as a solution to the protests illustrate how little the government understands its citizens. Initiatives such as these reflect the aloofness of Maria Antoinette; a “let them eat cake” response.

Economists have opposed other proposals tabled by the government as lacking any technical basis. Populist economic measures aim to increase the acceptability of Duque’s government but can drive inequality and further grievances. The elimination of a 2% tax for buying houses worth more than $260 000 shows that the government is not undertaking reforms to improve the livelihood of the majority of Colombians, neither are improving state revenues.

Policy challenges

The debate can be framed about the availability of public resources and how to spend these, but data shows that the country is growing faster than any other OECD country. Nevertheless, the gains of growth are not evenly distributed, because the cost of living for the middle class is growing faster than their incomes.

The state is facing a long-standing problem of export-dependent economies. As the global economy cools down, the demand for Colombian exports has declined. In response to an imminent trade deficit, the state must increase its revenues but is afraid of taxing the wealthy — its remaining support base. This scenario takes place in a country in which informal employment is rising, and the size of industrial production is declining. The country is also going through a demographic transition, with an ageing population adding pressure to the pension system. As the population grows older, fewer contributors can sustain the social security system, and the costs for public health and pension fees increase.

One of the government proposals was to reduce employment costs and make youth employment flexible. Driving the most significant segment of the population into precariousness cannot be sound politics or economics, especially if the government is thinking about financing the pension system for future generations. Duque’s government praises the discourse of innovation and entrepreneurship, but it should consider that people in insecure employment are less likely to take risks and innovate.

Policies need to tackle the sources of inequality in Colombia and work to the benefit of the growing youth and middle class. The policy dilemma the government has is either to increase taxes to the bulk of the population, or reduce exemptions to wealthy citizens. Given the little political capital that the government has, increasing taxes for the wealthy might mean the government could run out of support. But failing to create the fiscal space that could sustain the economy and redistribute income might exacerbate inequalities in the future.

Moving towards an equal society is not only an ethical response to the grievances of diverse social groups but also a necessary condition for accelerating economic growth. Structural changes should be considered. The government should shift its attention towards innovation and industrial policies that can internalise and disseminate technological gains while driving domestic demand towards the local industry. Redistributive reforms are a prerequisite for progress because they help to close structural gaps and lead to higher levels of productivity, full use of capacities and resources, a fairer distribution of income and wealth and provide all citizens with the right to embark on the plans that they consider worthwhile.

Transition from violence

Protests remain spaces of uncertainty and crisis, but they also are spaces of representation, democracy and opportunity. Protesters bypass the structures of representation and send signals to institutions when they do not work. Furthermore, they allow governments to hear different voices and provide valuable feedback on the workings of the economy. Yet privileged actors invest energy and resources in preventing positive dissent and protecting the status quo.

Inequality and precariousness hinder economic growth and social cohesion. The mass protests, in the Colombian case, not only demonstrate how public voice emerges when violence is declining, but also how inequalities can be exposed once violence decreases, because people demand basic rights for the losers of development processes. As the country tries to leave violence behind, the nature of the conversations changed from armed conflict to citizens’ rights. Nevertheless, Colombia is a country that remains in fear of violence, the legacy of a 70-year war. The leadership of the government or its lack thereof remains central in blocking the transition away from violence.

Picture credit: Roboting on Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published by Mail and Guardian.

UntitledAbout the authors:

Fabio Andrés Díaz Pabón is a researcher at the African Centre of Excellence for Inequalities Research, a research associate in the department of political and international studies at Rhodes University and a researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands.

200x200María Gabriela Palacio is an Ecuadorian political economist interested in social policy, inequality and exclusion, who works as an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Humanities of Leiden University. She holds a PhD in Development Studies by the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).


EADI/ISS Series | Rethinking inequalities, growth limits and social injustice

By Rogelio Madrueño Aguilar, José María Larrú and David Castells-Quintana

Inequality is above all a multidimensional problem. Yet, the key question is whether it is possible to reduce inequality and to what extent. Recent evidence suggests that the growing divide between rich and poor threatens to destabilize democracies, undermines states’ economies and fuels a variety of injustices, either economically, socially, politically or ecologically. Despite certain variations, this holds true not only for rich economies, but also for low and middle income countries.

Inequality is above all a multidimensional problem. It is by all means a complex issue that requires global solutions in accordance with the challenges imposed by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. As stated in this agenda “the achievement of inclusive and sustainable economic growth […] will only be possible if wealth is shared and income inequality is addressed”.

Yet, the key question is whether it is possible to reduce inequality and to what extent. Recent evidence suggests that the growing divide between rich and poor threatens to destabilize democracies, undermines states’ economies and fuels a variety of injustices, either economically, socially, politically or ecologically. Despite certain variations, this holds true not only for rich economies, but also for low and middle income countries.

When looking a little more closely at the ongoing popular upheavals, protests and street disturbances in different countries, they have something in common: the dissatisfaction of people, mostly youths, with the uneven distribution of opportunities, limited social mobility and issues of environmental sustainability in their societies, to name only a few. After 2008, all these reasons have triggered a wave of global protest in a growing number of countries, such as Chile, Haiti, Ecuador, Spain, etc.

In particular, there seems to be a lack of confidence in the political class and the institutional setting, and their capacity to reverse these negative trends. More importantly, there is a clear awareness that the concentration of market power and wealth in the hands of the rich with linkages to political power is a fundamental problem.

Institutional solutions versus social mobilization

The open question now is whether we should pave the way for reducing inequality through the normal functioning of institutions, or through different types of mobilization and social protest? In fact, we are indeed witnessing many cases which show a preference for the second option.

Again, the aim of fighting inequality faces a daunting challenge: the combination of rising inequalities within countries and an apparent inequality trap seems to be a vicious cycle that is difficult to break; especially in the light of prevalent inconsistencies in policy objectives and institutional implementation at the national and global level: on the one hand there are mechanisms in place that reinforce economic, political or social structures that lead to persisting inequality. On the other hand, efforts are being made to connect the fight against corruption, crime and tax evasion, which may lead to a reduction of social inequalities.

This lack of policy coherence is affecting economic growth and redistribution as two key conditions to reduce the gap between the richest and the poorest. It is not only that several regions experience weak growth in per capita income, but there has also been a strong opposition to the introduction of a capital gains tax for the wealthiest across countries, who have become even richer over the past decades. This, however, translates into an emerging pattern where inequality is strongly linked with less sustained growth. At the same time the goal of economic growth itself is increasingly being questioned. Particularly in countries of the global north there are serious doubts about its compatibility with ecological sustainability.

Persisting inequalities or paradigm shift?

For all of these reasons we find ourselves facing a tough situation in which class struggle settings are becoming more frequent and severe in many areas of the world. It seems that we are either moving towards a problem of persistent inequalities or standing on the threshold of a new paradigm shift.

Therefore, there is an urging need to examine and assess the different impacts that the spiral of inequality is causing around the world. While acknowledging that some inequalities might be socially fair to a certain extent, others claim asymmetric responses in order to favour socially disadvantaged groups such as women and children. Markets alone are unable to reach an economically efficient outcome or to create a level playing field for all members of society. This means moving ahead towards a balanced social agenda that takes into account the multidimensionality of inequalities as well as the historical, legal, social, economic, climatic and intergenerational perspective.

If you are you interested in discussing global inequalities, please, consider submitting to our seed panel “Rethinking inequalities in the era of growth limits and social injustice” at the EADI/ISS General Conference 2020.

Our panel aims to find new understandings to the notion of inequalities in order to enrich the contemporary development discourse and explore global cooperative solutions. This involves new ideas, dimensions and approaches, including critical voices from the global south.

This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

Image Credit: Alicia Nijdam on Wikicommons

RMadrueñoAbout the authors:

Rogelio Madrueño Aguilar is Research Associate at the Ibero-America Institute for Economic Research, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, the Complutense Institute of International Studies, and the Spanish Network of Development Studies (REEDES).josemalarru.jpg

José María Larrú is Professor of Economics at the Universidad San Pablo CEU, Madrid.

foto_davidcastellsDavid Castells-Quintana is visiting professor in the Department of Applied Economics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.


‘EleNão!’ ‘NotHim!’ Women’s resistance to ‘the Brazilian Donald Trump’ by Marina Graciolli de Paiva

The run-up to the Brazilian presidential election to be held on 7 October reminds spectators of the coming to power of Donald Trump two years ago. Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing politician, is running for the election, and while many are cheering him on, others are watching aghast as he heads the polls. In this article, Marina Graciolli de Paiva looks at the implications of the election of Bolsonaro and shows how the Brazilian women’s resistance movement is countering the rise of a fascist government.

Leading in the polls

The upcoming Brazilian presidential election is interesting for several reasons. Being in prison, former Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva cannot run as a presidential candidate. When Fernando Haddad was appointed as his replacement, he proved less popular than expected, and now polls show that nationally, only 16% of Brazilians support him as candidate. Alarmingly, far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro now leads the polls at 28%. Seven other presidential candidates share the remaining remaining 56% of votes in the polls.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain, spent 27 unproductive years in the Brazilian Congress before becoming Social Liberal Party presidential candidate in 2018. Known as the ‘Brazilian Donald Trump’, his political career has been fuelled by social media. Even centrists are worried by far-right sentiments in the country. Although Bolsonaro is unlikely to beat a left-wing or WP (Workers’ Party—Partido dos Trabalhadores) candidate in the second round of Presidential elections, many middle- and upper-class voters, who blame Lula and the WP for Brazil’s problems, could ‘carry Bolsonaro in their arms’. The situation remains worrying as his coming to power threatens to shake the liberal foundations laid in the country over the past years, when the politician questions democratic rules, encourages violence, denies the legitimacy of his opponents and shows a willingness to restrict civil liberties.

Why worry about Bolsonaro?

Bolsonaro is an evangelical Catholic, known for his offensive and violent remarks towards almost everyone. His targets include descendants of African slaves, indigenous people, women, and LGBTQI groups, as well as the poor. The Federal Senate (2018) estimates that a woman is raped every 11 minutes in Brazil. Yet Bolsonaro says he will reverse femicide legislation if he is elected. He claims he would rather his son died than be a homosexual. To television cameras, he told one congresswoman that he would never rape her, as she was far too ugly (NY Times, 2018).

As a consequence of such shocking statements, Bolsonaro is often called a fascist. German International Relations teacher at PUC-Rio, Kai Michael Kenkel is worried:

When you live with well-developed antennae for the rebirth of intolerance and fascism, the alarm could not sound more clear than in the case of this man and his supporters. Just replace LGBT, black and woman for “Jew”, and we are clearly in 1933… concentration camps also began with words.

Not happy to confine his comments only to homosexuals, racial minorities and women, Bolsonaro defends forced sterilisation of the poor. He favours the death penalty, and like Trump, he hardly believes that public education or social protection can help economic growth. Instead, he favours deregulation and letting large capital run the show. There is much more: he has mocked torture victims, wants to end land rights for indigenous Brazilians, and claims Afro-Brazilians are ‘lazy’.

Why is this happening?

 What is causing this rise of the Brazilian far-right? Bolsonaro’s main supporters are men coming from a higher social class and schooled backgrounds. Since 2014, another factor has been Lava-Jato (carwash). This became the biggest anti-corruption drive in Brazilian history. Yet it exclusively targets the Workers Party of the Left. As a result, right-wing parties have emerged and now exploit Brazilians’ growing distrust of state institutions. The right promises radical and ‘moral’ solutions for the growing economic and political crisis in the country. From a fight against corruption, this has become a crusade for reaction.

Bolsonaro’s supporters demand changes; they share a few broad ideals: fighting corruption, supporting the military, shrinking government, deregulation, Christian ‘family values’, the right to bear arms; hatred of the left, especially the Workers Party. Among Bolsonaro’s voters, 87% have stated that they place greater trust in the military than in democratic government. They oppose sex education in schools, women and minority rights. Unfortunately, such ideas emerge among the least empowered and represented as well as among powerful elites.

#EleNão #NotHim

Brazilians and friends living in different part of the Netherlands got together at the Hofplaats in The Hague last Saturday, 29th of September, to manifest their repudiation against the presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: Marina Graciolli de Paiva

Interestingly, Bolsonaro is ‘rejected by 49% of female voters’. Only 17%’ of women support him. Not surprisingly, therefore, the resistance movement against Bolsonaro’s ‘fascist’ views started with Brazilian women. On August 2018, the resistance movement was launched, and now includes other social groups (LGBTQI), also artists, journalists, academics and more. The movement uses the popular social media hashtag #EleNão (#nothim). Resisting his explosive mix of machismo, misogyny, racism, homophobia and anti-poor rhetoric, and other types of discrimination, the movement brings opposition by refusing to use the politician’s name. Instead they refer only to ‘Ele’ (Him).

A Facebook group ‘Women united against Bolsonaro’ reached more than 3 million followers in a month. The main idea is to oppose the candidate and to raise voices against intolerance and anti-democracy movements. The group, as its administrators’ rules, is only for posts against the candidate and NOT to post in favour of any other politician. This movement of resistance is a significant step in the growing polarisation. People from the movement have constantly mentioned that this is not only a matter of politics, but it is a matter of moral values and rights. On 29 September 2018 the movement called for marches all over Brazil and internationally, in defence of democracy, tolerance and against the candidate, it gathered thousands of people across the country in more than 30 cities. Although polls show ‘him’ in the lead, studies suggest that the poorest people in Brazil are often the last to decide how to vote. Since the majority of the country’s poorest people are black women, this could be grounds for optimism. Poor women in general will determine the fate of Bolsonaro.

As social justice advocate, and part of the women’s movement, I am cognisant thereof that words by themselves are not just rhetoric, but also action, both for ‘him’ and in the hands of people that resist ‘him’, is necessary. We should be alarmed. In my opinion, to vote for Bolsonaro is to vote for impoverishing Brazil and violating the rights of those frustrated and impoverished Brazilians who may ironically be tempted to vote for ‘him’. The hard-earned democratic political system of Brazil is certainly under threat, as the women’s movement understands.

With all the differences, we have chosen freedom from oppression. We have chosen respect for prejudice. We have chosen equality against racism. We have chosen the diversity of many against the hegemony of one. We have chosen peace against violence’ (Eliane Brum, 2018).

Profile picture copyAbout the author: 

Marina Graciolli de Paiva, former Wim Deetman Scholarship holder, is a Brazilian activist in peace and justice. A graduate of the ISS, she specialised in Conflict and Peace Studies. After graduating Marina worked for GPPAC (Global Partnership for Prevention of Armed Conflict) in knowledge-sharing, peace-building and conflict prevention. In Brazil, Marina worked in CEEB, a small NGO providing educational opportunities for disadvantaged children.