Tax increases are universally unpopular among the public, in any nation. Tax increases in the middle of an economic recession? Even less so. Add a pandemic to that mix and the result is a series of mass protests that lays all the problems of a nation bare for all to see. This is the perfect storm sweeping Columbia in 2021: a wave of mass protests that crippled the nation, paralysed the government, where tens of thousands of protestors marched and clashed with police, leaving dozens dead and hundreds wounded or disappeared.
What are the protests?
The catalyst for the protests are Bill 010 and a tax reform proposed by right-wing Colombian President Ivan Duque. Duque’s new tax reform aims to provide additional funding to the national social program, Ingreso Solidario, the universal basic income introduced in April 2020. The program only provides for three million out of fifty million Colombians thus far, so any effort of expanding the system would seem to be quite beneficial. But it is expensive. Duque planned to pay for it by increasing value-added taxes for many products, classifying middle-income Colombians into a higher tax bracket and removing various tax exemptions.
But increasing tax in the midst of the 2020 national GDP being -6.8% and the unemployment rate reaching 14% was bound to anger many Colombians. Bill 010, a controversial healthcare reform proposal, also chose an unpopular path to reach its target by privatizing the system and was filed without any congressional debate. Given that Colombia currently has the third highest COVID death numbers in Latin America and that various healthcare systems are being strained to their limits, the unpopularity of the bill added more fuel to the existing discontent. Many labor unions started to plan protests.
Over the next two weeks, more than 10,000 police officers and members of ESMAD, the riot control unit of the National Police of Colombia, were deployed over major Colombian cities, primarily in Cali which had become the hotspot of the protests.
While initially unwilling to make concessions, constant mounting pressure, most notably from Cali mayor Jorge Iván Ospina, eventually led to Duque withdrawing the bill on May 2, the protests had already spread to many additional demands, among which are calls for equality for impoverished Colombians, establishment of a universal basic income in accordance with the federal minimum wage and police reforms.
The consequences of the protests have been harrowing: between 26 to 42 people have died due to violent clashes between primarily peaceful protests and the police, with 89 people missing. Over 800 were injured, 500 were arrested and there have been over 1,000 reports of police brutality. On May 5, a shooting in Pereira claimed the life of Lucas Villa, a peaceful protestor who was seen dancing peacefully and shaking hands with ESMAD members. Protest and humanitarian groups have also reported multiple human right violations, disinformation and mass censorship, which the Duque government denied.
The government has denied that the protests are a union movement, instead describing it as anything from a left-wing guerilla-funded riot to an attempt by Venezuela to garner support for Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro. The Duque government’s claims and actions have caused major condemnations from senators Gustavo Petro, Gustavo Bolivar and multiple celebrities, as well as other nations and supranational organisations such as Argentina, the US, the UK, UN, etc.
As of now, the protests don’t seem to be dying down anytime soon, and given that senator Gustavo Petro, a socialist, is currently leading the polls for the May 2022 presidential election, the protests may be a large topic of contention for the foreseeable future.
All of this seems novel for this year, given the multiple protests in America, Myanmar and Belarus against the government, police brutality, poverty, discrimination, etc. But any keen observer of Colombian history might notice a trend:
These protests are the culmination of past protests in Colombia of similar topics.
The present is an echo of the past
A foreign observer would be remiss for thinking that the 2021 protests are brand new. A Colombian would feel a scent of familiarity: after all, they have been through the 2019-2020 protests and the Javier Ordóñez protests.
The 2019-2020 protests, which began on November 21, 2019 addressed similar problems to the 2021 protests: they both flared up to address corruption, austerity measures, the fact that Colombia is the second most unequal country in terms of income in Latin America and the lack of progress towards a peaceful solution between the right-wing Duque government and the FARC, a left-wing nationalist guerilla group who operates in the rural area of Colombia.
In late 2019, somewhere between 200 thousands to 1 million protestors gathered over the nation against almost 200,000 soldiers deployed by the government. While primarily peaceful, there were clashes between both sides, leaving 17 dead, including 18-year-old Dilan Cruz who was shot and killed by a rubber bullet at point blank range and whose death further fanned the flame of protest.
533 people were injured, 500 were arrested and there also were multiple reports of police brutality. These protests were regarded as the culmination of previous failed attempts by student unions and labor unions alike.
The Javier Ordóñez protests sparked after 46-year-old Javier Ordóñez was killed by 2 police officers who kneeled on him while using stun guns on September 9, 2020. Similar to the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests, peaceful demonstrations started in Bogotá, Medellín, Barranquilla, Cali, Cúcuta and other cities on the same day. Clashes soon occurred between the demonstrators and the police force, leaving 13 dead and more than 400 injured, 54 of whom suffered firearms injuries. Again, the actions of ESMAD in these violent events have drawn backlashes from the general public.
Mass inequality and economic downturn have existed for a long while in Colombia, leading to them naturally being the big focal point of any protests. Criticisms against Duque’s government, ranging from lack of progress towards peace between guerrilla groups, corruption and multiple austerity measures also make frequent appearances. Issues regarding guerilla groups have an even more deep-seated history, with the country having been engaged against both left wing guerilla groups and right wing paramilitaries since the 1960s. That long history also led to a significantly higher percentage of national GDP allocated to defense and security in comparison to other countries, which might have contributed to the police brutalities occurring in multiple protests.
As Colombians stand on the smoldering rubbles of Cali and Bogotá and continue the protests, one question remains: Now what?
Colombia and its future
For Colombians, the desired future seems to be Duque either resigning his position or rolling out a massive reform to many aspects of Colombian life. With his disapproval rating hovering around 60% and peaking at 71%, it is clear that Colombians wish for a change of power. That change might come in the form of leading opposition Senator Gustavo Petro with an “unbeatable” poll rating. Should Petro surpass playing second fiddle to Duque in the 2018 presidential election, it would spell the end of the 10-year right wing rule in Colombia.
As for the immediate future, talks are underway between both sides, with pre-agreement having been reached on May 25 and blockades starting to be removed. Whether or not this would pave the path for reconciliation between the unions and the government or fail and reset everything back to square one is unknown. In the midst of that uncertainty, the only certainty is that the people of Colombia have not been afraid to bleed for a solution, and they sure will not back down now.
Image credit: Pixabay