In a protest someone holds a banner, which says “for those who died fighting and for those who fight not to die”. Image credit: Juan David Ferro Santos
Protests in Colombia have continued for over a week now, but why did they start in the first place?
Protests throughout Colombia have erupted in the past week, which started essentially to oppose the government’s tax reform but have now evolved into the demands for multiple problems the country was facing well before the pandemic. These protests have been developing since the major protests of 2019, which never ended, but dialled down due to the pandemic.
Nevertheless, it is crucial to understand why this tax reform bill caused such an outrage among Colombians.
On the 15 of April, the President of Colombia Iván Duque presented a tax reform bill to Congress. The Ley de solidaridad sostenible meant to:
- Raise the taxes of the middle class, particularly in water, gas, electricity, and internet bill
- Apply the IVA (impuesto al valor agregado), which is 19%, to other services, such as funerals, gasoline, and electronic devices
- Tax basic products such as milk, eggs, and tampons
- Lower the budgets of health, education, among others.
The bill intended to regain economic stability due to the expenses of the pandemic, mainly with financial aids, vaccinations and other health services. However, this proposition lacked the taxation of major industries, such as financial and manufacturing institutions.
The bill also failed to address recent government expenses, such as the purchase of 23 cars for its protection squad. In a country where 21 million people live in poverty conditions, and the third COVID-19 wave is one of the worst worldwide, a tax reform seemed opportunistic and reckless.
On the 19 of April, in a live interview, the former Minister of Finances, Alberto Carrasquilla, was asked the price of a dozen eggs, to which he answered $1,800 (0.34 £). The answer was wrong, and it showed the lack of connection and perspective the minister had to the reality of the country. This comment caused outrage among Colombians, especially those in the middle and lower classes, and sparked demonstrations among the people.
This has not been the first time the government has shown a lack of perspective on the economic reality of the country. In April 2020, the President claimed that a baker had a monthly salary of 2 million pesos (around £379,09). A baker earns around 922 thousand pesos (£174,38), proving that the government’s lack of connection to the national reality was and continue to be an ongoing problem visible in comments and actions of those in charge.
On the 28 of April, the people took the streets, mainly to protest peacefully against the bill, but after the first day of protest, the reality was shown. In the following days, protests erupted nationwide, and the President ordered the militarisation of the main cities.
Another controversial aspect has been the implication of the former President of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who tweeted in support of the rights of the police and armed force to use firearms as a self-defence mechanism. His tweet sparked outrage, and it is believed it contributed to the polarisation between the protesters and the police.
Uribe is a polarising political figure in Colombia. This year it was announced that during his government between 2002-2010 there were 6,402 civilians killed in extrajudicial killings.
The continuous protests have shown that it is not about the tax reform or the dozen eggs, but the police brutality, the bad response of the government to the pandemic, the lack of protection towards social leaders, the growing gap between rich and poor, the colonial culture within the state, and the resentment over the lack of accountability of the crimes committed during the presidency of Iván Duque and Álvaro Uribe, among many more reasons.
On the 9 May, the non-governmental organization Temblores has reported 1.876 cases of police brutality, of which 278 are cases of physical violence, 39 homicidal violence, 963 arbitrary detentions, and 12 cases of sexual violence. Nevertheless, the President retired the bill project and the Minister of Finance quitted on Monday.
This is not over, and it will not be in a long time. The protests are focused on police reform, the bill that would change the health system in the middle of the pandemic, and many more issues. More groups have joined the protests, as labour union leaders, university students, and indigenous leaders, only to name a few.
As a country, Colombia has had and still has a tumultuous history, but there is one constant: resilience and solidarity. Resilience to keep fighting for one’s rights, resilience to continue working despite the economic crisis, resilience to continue living despite the crimes and violence that has been committed. And solidarity! Solidarity to reclaim the rights of Colombians despite living hundreds or thousands of kilometres away, solidarity to offer refuge to those protesters who could not return to their homes on time.
These protests have shown that Colombians will not quit until their government listens to them, that this is no longer about a political stance or ideology: it is about finding common ground, and acknowledging what is happening in the country, rather than sweeping it under the rug and ignoring the victims.
It seems irrational and bizarre for Colombians to protest during the worst moment of the country’s third COVID wave, but as René Pérez Joglar said, "If people protest in the middle of a pandemic, it is because their government is more dangerous than a virus”.
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