Illustration Credit: Mariantonia Villaquirán, El Espectador
In Colombia this week, demonstrations against a government tax reform proposal evolved into widespread general protests—fueled by the economic and social desperation provoked by the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic—that have been met with brutal repression from state security forces. Since protests began on April 28, at least 24 people have been killed, hundreds more injured, and at least 87 left missing, leading the United Nations’ human rights office to accuse Colombia’s security forces of using “excessive force against protesters.” While violence has spread across the entire country, it has been especially pronounced in many of Colombia’s major urban and metropolitan areas, including Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, Ibagué, Santa Marta, and Manizales; in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, victims of the lethal police crackdown have included demonstrators as young as 17. Although the proposed tax bill was withdrawn, due to massive popular opposition, on May 2—the day before Minister of Finance Alberto Carrasquilla tendered his resignation—demonstrations have still yet to relent.
The government—headed by embattled President Iván Duque, who has seen his approval ratings collapse in recent months—had placed the tax reform bill at the center of its plan to stabilize the country’s plummeting economy, which contracted by 6.8 percent in 2020 (its worst economic performance in a half-century). With the unemployment rate surging to 16.8 percent in March, 42.5 percent of the Colombian population of roughly 50 million people now lives in poverty. Duque and his government had claimed that their tax proposal would generate up to USD $6.3 billion between 2022 and 2031, covering yawning budget shortfalls and reigniting Latin America’s fourth-largest economy. However, at a time of acute crisis and hardship—in addition to simmering popular resentments over corruption, inequality, and a general sense that large swathes of the country have been abandoned by Bogotá’s political and economic elites—the tax reform had been heavily criticized as a burden that would be disproportionately borne by Colombia’s middle and working classes. Although the proposed plan would have kept in place a modest cash subsidy program established earlier in the pandemic, observers noted that it may have resulted in higher prices for many essential consumer goods and services.
Despite videos that have been shared widely on social media platforms showing security forces clubbing, teargassing, and even killing demonstrators, the commander of Colombia’s national army, General Eduardo Zapateiro, referred to a specialized riot control unit (the Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, or ESMAD) as “heroes dressed in black.” The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), alongside numerous other human rights advocacy organizations and foreign governments, has urged the Colombian government to de-escalate tensions and engage in dialogue with a representative group of protesters.
Responding to reports of protesters engaging in looting and vandalism, some hardline members of Duque’s ruling Centro Democrático party have promoted unsubstantiated rumors that the protests have been infiltrated by leftist guerillas and criminal syndicates and pushed Duque to declare a “state of siege”—a declaration that would imbue the president with extensive new powers to put down demonstrations. In a Twitter post that was removed from the social media platform for “glorifying violence,” former president and senator Álvaro Uribe, Duque’s political mentor, vowed “to support the right of soldiers and police to use their firearms to defend their integrity and to defend people and property from criminal acts of terrorist vandalism.”
This week’s protests represent the third wave of nationwide social unrest that Duque has faced since assuming office in 2018. In 2019, protests erupted following the killing of teenage protester Dilan Cruz, who died after being struck in the head by a police projectile; last September, demonstrations broke out after a Bogotá man died while being tasered by police. Nevertheless, despite such precedents for the flames of social discontent in Colombia being fanned by inordinate police responses, government officials continue to accuse demonstrators of doing the bidding of leftist insurgents, hearkening back to the paramilitary conflict that plagued the country for a half-century. As Pedro Piedrahita, a professor of political science at the University of Medellín explains, “The government is continuing to criminalize social protest and stigmatize them as being infiltrated by guerrilleros. Colombia’s public security organisms are still operating under the anachronistic doctrines of anti-communism, of an internal enemy, and as such protesters aren’t seen as citizens but as legitimate military targets that need to be taken out—no matter what.”
On Tuesday, President Duque announced his support for convening a national dialogue, promising to bring together “all the institutions, parties, the private sector, governors, mayors and leaders of civil society” in order to find common-ground solutions to the multiple crises of unemployment, inequality, and economic stagnation. Nevertheless, such a promise does not necessarily ensure a quick resolution to the unrest, nor a guarantee of future tranquility: less than two years ago, following the wave of protests that roiled Colombia in November of 2019, Duque convened a similar “Conversación Nacional,” a months-long initiative that pledged to target inequality and corruption and create a new “shared vision of the country.”