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Colombia Radiografía de las Protestas

Unrest in Colombia: What’s Happening and Why?

The tax reform was the trigger for the protests in Colombia, but the reasons are many and intertwined with various political interests.

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The pandemic gave no truce in Colombia, and while hospital wards are about to burst and doctors are deciding to whom to allow the so precious oxygen, new quarantines are once again decimating the already fragile Colombian economic fabric while frustration is growing due to the slow progress of the vaccination plan.

Since the Covid-19 emergency began, Colombians have watched with regret as their country went back 20 years in its history and were once again reminded of the image of a Colombia mired in poverty, inequality and war, as in the ill-fated ’90s.

Meanwhile, the popularity of Colombia’s president, Ivan Duque, plummets as Colombians define the administration as a misgovernment, and call the president a “puppet” of his political mentor, former president Alvaro Uribe Velez.

The quarantine of almost 6 months in 2020 to contain Covid-19 left thousands of companies in bankruptcy. In 2021, the unemployment rate is 14% and 3.5 million people fell into poverty. Despite strict quarantines, the country fails to contain the spread of the virus and adjusts more than 75,000 deaths by coronavirus.

In Colombia, more than 75,000 people have died as a result of the pandemic, the vaccination plan is progressing slowly and the Intensive Care Units are over 90% occupied in the main cities. (Image: EFE)

While quarantines left millions in poverty, the armed conflict intensified in rural areas and the cocaine ring increasingly closed over the country. This ring begins in the south of Colombia, in the departments of Nariño and Putumayo, bordering Ecuador. It then continues parallel to the Eastern Cordillera, passing through the departments of the Orinoquia (Caqueta, Meta, Casanare and Arauca) to end in the Catatumbo region, on the border with Venezuela.

The actors of the armed conflict —ranging from dissidents of the former FARC to groups descended from paramilitarism and the former cartels— have regained presence throughout Colombian territory and are extending their business, which is not only limited to drug trafficking but also extortion, kidnapping, illegal mining, robbery, forced displacement of people, oil trafficking and murder.

In Colombia, more than 43% of the population is living in poverty and unemployment is close to 15%. (Image: EFE)

Murder has become a common practice among the groups to establish their dominance in the areas where they are present. According to figures from Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office, between 2016 and 2020 more than 753 members of community boards, teachers, people belonging to various NGO’s and political representatives, known in the country as social leaders, have been killed at the hands of these drug trafficking groups.

Duque’s security policy is perceived as inefficient and unpopular among many sectors of the country, while facing strong opposition from the left that has seized the political banners of the murder of social leaders, accusing the Colombian government of inoperativeness and even complicity with the murders.

The opposition resorts to the nefarious memory of the State assassinations during the government of Alvaro Uribe to delegitimize the current administration. This phenomenon that began in the ’80s eventually escalated throughout the structure of some units in the Army. These victims are known as “false positives,” since, even if they were civilians, they were presented as guerrilla members murdered in combat by the military units, who were rewarded with incentives such as rest leave for all troops, and promotions or promotions for officers.

In many rural regions of the country, drug trafficking groups intimidate the population through targeted assassinations while delegitimizing the Colombian state. (Image: EFE)

Since Iván Duque took office, opposition parties have organized repeated demonstrations and national strikes, culminating in numerous demonstrations in 2019 and continuing through 2020, until the pandemic arrived.

The country remained relatively free of demonstrations during the quarantines —except for the temporary apprehension of Uribe in a trial against him for alleged witness tampering—.

The lull came to an end in September when an over-heated lawyer, Javier Ordoñez, was suffocated to death in a police barracks, known as Comandos de Atención Inmediata (CAI) in Colombia.

Demonstrations over the death of Javier Ordoñez were not long in coming and resulted in 53 CAI’s being burned or vandalized, hundreds of injured police and demonstrators, and 13 people dying under police fire. Authorities denounced the participation of groups with links to FARC dissidents and the National Liberation Army (ELN) in the demonstrations from September to October 2020.

The tax reform

Although the situation seemed to return to “normal” for a while, and the country continued its pandemic passage with quarantines during the Christmas holidays, the comment of an incautious Minister of Finance —who shortly before had announced a new tax reform that would impose the Value Added Tax (VAT) on the entire basic food basket— caused national indignation and triggered the massive reception of the protests originally called by teachers’ unions and workers’ organizations.

On the program of Vicky Davila, one of the most influential journalists in the country, the Minister of Finance, Alberto Carrasquilla, blundered when he said how much a dozen eggs cost, while talking about the benefits of the new tax reform that the Government submitted to Congress. The minister’s blunder caused outrage and social networks were flooded with memes mocking Carrasquilla’s ignorance, but more importantly, accusing him and the Duque administration of indifference to Colombians.

Colombians watched with a hint of mockery and indignation the finance minister’s blunder in the press. (Image: EFE)

As soon as the tax reform entered Congress, it had no chance of survival, since even the ruling party, Centro Democrático, announced that it would not support it. The left used the incautious minister, the reform and the corruption of the State as catalysts to call for a national strike and joined the demonstrations scheduled for April 28.

Colombia is perceived in the minds of Colombians themselves as a highly corrupt country where the idea persists that up to almost 50 trillion Colombian pesos are lost to corruption (approximately $14 billion dollars). A sample of this was the 2018 anti-corruption consultation that was not approved for not reaching the minimum threshold of votes required. Thus, the allusion to a tax reform to plug the hole left by corruption caused even more indignation in the already stressed Colombian people.

Many political parties and public opinion figures stated that the Colombian people were not prepared for a tax reform after the pandemic. (Image: EFE)

Paradoxically, the tax reform passed by the Government was the most structured reform in years by a Government, since it allowed leaving the State with a surplus and increased the collection of more than 34 billion pesos ($9,400 million dollars).

The bill proposed to relax the fiscal rule (which limits the state from incurring more public debt), to make permanent the “Solidarity Income” program (a targeted basic income created during the pandemic that pays between $22 and $80 dollars a month to the poorest households) and to be able to meet Colombia’s debt service, which amounted to 62% of GDP in 2020. Today, risk rating agencies are threatening to downgrade the country’s investment grade, making cost of government loans more expensive.

The tax reform was the trigger for thousands of people to second the call for protests on April 28. (Image: EFE)

The reform established a progressive marginal tax on incomes above 2,800,000 pesos ($760 dollars), while taxing the pensions of the richest 1% in the country, it also established a temporary tax on wealth for 2 years, raised the tax on dividends from 10% to 15%, and set a temporary tax on high incomes of more than 10 million pesos per month ($2,600 dollars).

It also included a decrease in corporate income tax from 32% to 24% for small companies and 30% for medium and large companies. The bill also eliminated deductions for exempt income and preferential rates. Finally, the reform contemplated an increase in carbon taxes, local vehicle taxes, urban tolls and pesticides.

Thousands of people marched on April 28 against the tax reform, but especially the government of Iván Duque. (Image: EFE)

Although many economists welcomed the design of the reform, political parties in the country did not want to support it, considering that it affected Colombians’ pockets too much. The Duque administration responded by withdrawing the inclusion of VAT on the basic food basket, but it was too late.

The left decided to ignore all the postulates of the reform that taxed the richest citizens and demanded that they be withdrawn and, in addition, demanded: the resignation of the Minister of Finance, the establishment of an emergency basic income for more than 32 million households with a minimum wage ($260 USD), that the Bank of the Republic issue money to pay the basic income, that tariffs be established to protect national production, and finally, that a payroll subsidy be extended to micro and small businesses. The strike was underway.

The protests

On April 28, every city in the country saw thousands of people, despite the pandemic, marching against the tax reform, protesting the situation of the country and the “misgovernment” that many Colombians say they feel. It did not take long for riots to break out.

In Bogota, demonstrators blocked access to roads in the south of the city and there were strong protests in the center of the capital, the so-called “front line” (those who lead the way in the marches) clashed with the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) of the Colombian Police outside the gates of the Congress. In Medellín, several stores of a well-known shopping mall were looted, the building of the Banco de la República ended up with its windows smashed by stones, and the Cadastre office was burned.

In Cali, the riots caused the closure of several roads, the robbery of a well-known supermarket chain, the burning of several bank branches and the theft of vehicles on the outskirts of the city. In some places, shopkeepers worried about the looting met the vandals with gunshots.

That same day the strike would see its first death, Marcelo Agredo, a 17-year-old youth who in the midst of the demonstrations in Cali kicked a policeman who was being attacked by several people. The uniformed officer shot him as he fled.

Although many demonstrators did everything possible to control the vandalization of the protests, looting and destruction, everything was in vain and both the government and the mayor’s office called a curfew.

Tempers flared even more during the April 30 protests when a police captain, Jesús Alberto Solano, was stabbed to death by vandals in the municipality of Soacha, south of the capital. That day a young woman reported being raped by a member of the ESMAD.

Despite the curfew, demonstrations continued and intensified on May 1 during Labor Day. In Cali and its metropolitan area, where the conflict between demonstrators and police had been strongest, military personnel began to arrive.

In Medellín the demonstrators harangued the resistance to the police of the demonstrators in Cali with strong proclamations such as: “Cali, amigo, Medallo is with you”, and in Bogotá the confrontations with the ESMAD returned.

In some cities criminal groups began to circulate videos warning that any vandal or hooded person found in the demonstrations would be killed.

The blockades have already taken their toll on supplies. In some Colombian cities, starting with Cali, fuel and food supplies have already begun to run low, as the Panamerican Highway —one of the main highways in the country—, has several blockades by demonstrators who prevent the circulation of goods while the entrances to many cities are closed.

The strike has been joined by many organizations with particular interests to pressure the Government, as is the case of the cab drivers’ union that last weekend called for massive demonstrations in the capital, with the aim that the Duque administration desists from regulating transportation platforms such as Uber or InDriver.

In Cali, the main epicenter of the riots, the blockades continue, while there are several reports of excessive use of force —from the shooting of demonstrators to the use of rifles by the police in some neighborhoods—.

The Government ended up withdrawing the tax reform completely and asked Congress to process a new reform. The Minister of Finance, Alberto Carrasquilla, resigned along with the Vice Minister.

Despite the withdrawal of the tax reform, left-wing representatives in Congress stated that the strike will continue indefinitely until President Duque gives in to their demands, or until 2022, an election year for Congress and the presidency. Polls, so far, position the main leader of the left, Gustavo Petro, as the winner.

In social networks, several protesters are asking for help to resist the police. Among the chains, activists ask for food and water, first aid kits, helmets, paints and balloons to throw at the police, as well as blunt objects to protect themselves.

In Cali the police denounce that they were attacked with firearms, while demonstrators denounce police abuse. In the Siloé sector there was an exchange of gunfire for more than an hour and a half, leaving 5 dead.

While the strike continues and the Duque administration tries to reestablish control, the lives claimed by the political situation in Colombia accumulate. As of this writing, the Colombian Ombudsman’s Office confirms that the riots and police response has left 19 dead (18 civilians and one police officer), and more than 846 injured, including 306 civilians. Meanwhile, the Duque government insists on preserving military assistance and the opposition on continuing the strike until 2022.

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