More than a million marched in Colombia against President Petro

One of the many placards during the anti-Petro protest on April 21. Photo: María Claudia Peña

Massive. Historic. Civic. Peaceful. These are some of the words to describe the nationwide demonstrations on Sunday, April 21, across Colombia. From the country’s largest cities to smaller municipalities, even the most conservative estimates now put the number of Colombians who marched against President Gustavo Petro above one million.

Converging on the nation’s streets in a collective disapproval of the leftist President and protest to oppose reforms to the health, labor, and pensions systems, as well as against corruption and the alleged infiltration of drug money in his 2022 campaign, what made the #21A protest so unique was not only the number of people who mobilized but also the plurality and diversity of the population who walked.

As the hashtag #TodosALaCalle gained momentum during the weeks leading up to the protests, President Petro did not envision the resolute display of dissent that filled Bogotá’s Plaza de Bolívar to maximum capacity, the Carrera Séptima to the National Park, and up to Calle 45.

Originally spearheaded by a multifaceted coalition of centrist and right-wing politicians, the protests, however, were not a platform for proselytism to the extent that there was no stage in Bogotá’s Plaza de Bolívar for speeches, and the sheer magnitude of the demonstrations underscored widespread dissatisfaction with government policies beyond political affiliations.

As the largest march in the country unfolded in Bogotá despite incessant rain and storm clouds, Petro took to social media announcing “the march of the ruling classes.” His knee-jerk reaction to the demonstration and mockery of a large majority of ordinary Colombians concerned about the future of their country once again showed the extent to which President Petro was willing to go to dismiss and ridicule his fellow countrymen and women.

“The President must respect democracy, our Constitution, and, most importantly, respect our differences,” asserted Senator David Luna of Cambio Radical, who was spotted amidst the throngs of protesters. As the atmosphere crackled with the presence of prominent political figures like Senators María Fernanda Cabal and Miguel Uribe Turbay, or former presidential candidate Sergio Fajardo, as the demonstration filled the side streets of the colonial La Candelaria district, the fervent crowd chanted the national anthem.

“The soul of the nation is worried,” remarked former President Álvaro Uribe after Petro went on to call the mobilizations “weak,” despite an estimated 400,000 on the streets of Bogotá, 250,000 in Medellín, 100,000 in Barranquilla, and a similar turnout in Cali. The intentional downplay by the leftist leader over the interpretation of the public outcry and protests that culminated in the largest display of civic participation since the 2008 anti-FARC protest “No Más” has put Petro on a defensive footing.

Even the President’s closest aide, Laura Sarabia, acknowledged the magnitude of the protests and called for introspection within the government, recognizing the legitimacy of the people’s discontent. “Today we must have the greatness to recognize that many people mobilized, that they did so with all the guarantees and could express their discontent. This is a week that as a government we must face in reflection and self-criticism.” Hours later, it became clear that there was a huge division between Petro and Sarabia over the civic mobilization.

As the bustling streets dissipated in the early afternoon, the echoes of “Fuera Petro” (“Out Petro”) reverberated through the air, signaling not just a moment of protest but a profound shift in the political consciousness of the Colombian people, who are willing to let Petro’s term run its course but without any future threats to their institutional integrity – and above all – hard-earned democracy.