Colombia has been racked by protests for more than a month. Hundreds of thousands of people have poured into the streets of the country's major cities. Demonstrators are blocking major roadways, and police responding with lethal force at times. At least 46 people have died, many of the demonstrators.
What started the protests?
On April 28, Colombians flocked to the streets for the first time to protest President Ivan Duque's unpopular budget proposal. “The reform is not an afterthought. To maintain the social services running, it's a must,” he stated. Colombia, according to CNN, has to raise cash through taxes in order to spend. This is even to keep social programs like unemployment benefits and credit lines for businesses dealing with the pandemic afloat.
The proposal would have increased taxes on milk, eggs, and meat, as well as fuel and utilities. Starting in 2022, anybody earning more than 2.4 million Colombian pesos/month would have been required to file income tax returns. Unions and politicians were outraged by the idea, claiming that it would harm the middle class and the most vulnerable.
A proposed increase in the country's pandemic-hit economy's value-added tax (VAT) on ordinary commodities would disproportionately affect the middle and working classes, escalating inequality.
The biggest outrage occurred when Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla, one of the proponents of the measure, incorrectly stated in an interview that a dozen eggs cost 1,800 Colombian pesos, rather than 4,300. Many saw it as evidence of the ruling elite's alienation from the reality of the country's working class.
The call for a strike was successful. With massive marches taking place around the country still going on today. Protesters are now demanding that the government address the country's healthcare crisis, vaccine scarcity, and ever-increasing poverty and inequality.
Have the reforms been applied?
The government needs to raise 25 billion pesos (about $6.85 billion) to fix the economic imbalance. Hence, tax reform was recommended.
The fact that lower and middle-class residents must pay to these additional state revenues through taxes has enraged them. People's incomes have been impacted by the pandemic and lockdowns.
Poverty is expected to rise to 42.5% in 2020, up from 36% the year before. The unemployment rate increased to 14% in March, up from 12.6% in the same month the previous year.
Due to public pressure, President Duque canceled the reform on May 2. He also announced that he would seek a new proposal through consensus. The finance minister resigned the next day.
Why have the protests continued even after the withdrawal of the reforms?
Although President Duque has withdrawn the proposed legislation, public outrage has grown. It is spurred in part by the government's harsh response to protests. Videos of anti-riot officers using tear gas and batons against demonstrators have gone popular on social media.
Rather than putting a stop to the protests, reported police brutality has become a rallying point for demonstrators. They are now demanding an independent, international investigation into the killings.
Human rights non-governmental organizations believe the true death toll is significantly higher. They have urged the President to stop police from using excessive force.
Human rights violations during the protests
Many of the demonstrators are young or from underprivileged groups, and they are speaking out against systemic inequality, poverty, land reform, health care, and a lack of education and opportunity. Many of these forces had been present in Colombia for some time, but they became much more intense during the pandemic.
People in Colombia's streets have been met with severe police repression, boosting demonstrators' wrath and adding police brutality to their list of concerns. Abuses such as indiscriminate beatings, murder, and sexual assaults have been reported by human rights organizations.
As of May 31, 2021, Temblores, a group that tracks police brutality in the country, had documented more than 3,700 incidences of police aggression, as well as 45 deaths it claims were caused by cops. At least 68 people have died as a result of the protests, according to Colombia's human rights ombudsman.
An underlying problem
In 2012, then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos launched talks with communist insurgents known as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, in an attempt to end a civil war that had lasted more than 50 years.
The Colombian government and the FARC struck a peace pact after four years of negotiations, under which the FARC demobilized and became a legitimate political party.
The peace process was not without flaws. Despite popular criticism, the agreement was eventually authorized in November 2016. Ivan Duque, the country's current president, ran (and won) on a platform of weakening the pact, which he considered as being too lenient toward the guerrillas. Since then, Duque has been attempting to stymie the deal's execution.
The peace agreement did not fully resolve all of Colombia's issues, nor did it bring an end to the fighting. However, Colombia's central crisis was the civil war between the government and the FARC.
According to Laura Gamboa, assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah, the fundamental fissure that had been consuming Colombia began to ebb away with the peace agreement.
However, all of the other important issues that had been pushed to the margins, particularly socioeconomic difficulties, began to surface. Inequality, education, employment, social justice, and racial disparities all become more visible.
"The peace process has opened up a space for other concerns and for other political debates," said Sandra Botero, assistant professor of international studies and political science at Universidad del Rosario in Bogota.
The peace agreement not only allowed people to focus on other causes but also de-stigmatized protests, reviving one of the most powerful tools ordinary people had for advocating for political change.
What do the protestors want?
Protests are taking place in places all around Colombia, including Cali, Bogotá, and Medellin. However, this is not a totally coordinated movement. The protests appear to be very different up close, with a wide range of concerns and often localized concerns — and not all of the demands are united.
Many of those working on the front lines are young people, including students who are dissatisfied with their schooling and job prospects. Indigenous peoples, farmers, Afro-Colombian organizations, labor unions, and other workers have all joined the protests at various times.
"They are not organized by a mastermind or even by a collective," Botero said. "Many of them are organic, and to a certain extent, spontaneous."
Instead, there are numerous persons or organizations with several demands, none of which are in accord with one another. About 21 different organizations occupy just one spot at the Puerto Resistencia — Cali's largest barricade. And those groups have no ties to the small number of people who have set up a blockage elsewhere in the city.
Negotiations are extremely tough when there are no visible leaders or a confederation of them. The organizers of the Comité Nacional de Paro, or National Strike Committee, had called for a national strike in opposition to the proposed tax measure, and the Duque government had been talking with them. The National Strike Committee, on the other hand, withdrew from discussions this week.
What does the government have to say about the violence?
According to CNN, arrest warrants have been issued for some police personnel in connection with the murders of protesters in Colombia. According to him, around 580 cops have been injured.
"We in Colombia have a very independent system of counterweight and these institutions work. They are not under siege, and as a result, there have been already three warrants for three police officers involved in the death of three protesters. Our system works under the rule of law," Palacios replied when asked by CNN at a press conference on Thursday if he would be open to an independent foreign inquiry of police misconduct and clashes.
He told reporters that 25 people had died as a result of the protests. Eleven police departments were involved, and they are being probed. "We do not condone excessive use of force; we do not accept any abuse of the rule of law," he added.
What is next for Colombia?
Bogota Mayor Claudia López Hernandez stated on Thursday that the government must recognize and resolve Colombia's profound economic disparity, adding that taxing the poor and middle class is "not the time."
Colombia's protests are part of a bigger worldwide movement against police violence and inequality that has erupted in countries ranging from the United States to Nigeria over the last year. In other ways, they are unique to Colombia's current situation as a country still recovering from decades of warfare, with a populace pushing for a more democratic and egalitarian vision.
In response to popular and international criticism, Duque has made some compromises on police reform. The reforms include the formation of a human rights committee with international advice, as well as enhanced officer training. In addition, members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights are now in Colombia investigating police abuses.