By LAURE RENAULT
Due to the overwhelming media attention focused on COVID-19 and the vaccination campaign, a lot of other news have been overlooked by the public. This is the case for the uprising in Colombia, which has been eclipsed by other news, as well as the wider turmoil in Latin America. This is far from meaningless unrest, however, as the national strikes in the country have been going on for two full months now with relentless protests.
So why did the protests start? The reason is two-fold. The final act that incited this specific strike is the new tax reform announced by the Ministry of Defense. This reform was aimed at lowering the minimum threshold for taxation, which would have affected the lower strata of society - anyone with a monthly income of £493 or more - and would have erased many of the current exemptions for individuals and businesses. This is part of the government's attempts to alleviate the national economic crisis, and as such, is simply one segment in a series of attacks on the poverty-stricken masses.
The protests started on April 28th, with over 50,000 protestors taking to the streets of Bogota, followed by the rest of the nation. These protestors included a myriad of groups that have come together to fight against a government that has failed them, united by rampant unemployment, environmental degradation, corruption, police brutality, poor education and health services, and the constant civil wars between the guerrillas and the paramilitary. From the statements made by the different organisations involved in the protests, we can already clearly see that this is bigger than the mere tax reform law.
The Colombian government has responded to these protests as it has numerous times in the past: by ignoring their demands and criminalising the protests, as well as with violent repression. On May 12th, it was reported by the NGO, Temblored, that the Public Forces perpetrated 1,876 cases of violence, including 12 instances of sexual violence, 47 murders, 963 arbitrary arrests, and 548 disappearances. This repression has only intensified the protests, further inflating the anger of the masses and pushing many more to see the wrongdoings of the government.
However, hope is also stirring up the masses, as the protests are bringing concrete results. The pressure put on the government has pushed it to repeal the reform, and led to the resignation of Alberto Carrasquilla, the Minister of Finance, on May 3rd, along with the Vice Ministers Juan Alberto Londoño and Juan Pablo Zárate. These successes have made the protestors bolder with their demands, requesting the repeal of the health reform law, the dissolution of the ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron), police reform, and the resignation of Carlos Camargo, the ‘Defensor del Pueblo’, Diego Molano, the Minister of Defence, and finally of President Iván Duque.
Both the demands and the numerous groups involved in the protests clearly show that this discontent goes far beyond the new tax reform. The pandemic has also played a large part in this unrest, as it caused unemployment and austerity to soar, driving the masses into ever-more precarious conditions - 3.6 million people were pushed into poverty. However, this is not simply the doing of COVID-19. This issue goes much deeper, as even before the pandemic Latin America had a five year period of economic stagnation, meaning the living conditions have been declining before the health crisis even began.
This lasting climate of unrest is also due to the violence witnessed in rural regions in the continuous fights between the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels and the paramilitary. President Iván Duque came to power with a manifesto that included the refusal of peace agreements with FARC dissidents, and it thus comes as no surprise that his response to such affrontements has been to send in more forces for repression. This brutality is largely to blame for pushing the Colombian masses to protest in 2019, however the demands of the organisers were not met in those protests, as President Iván Duque responded with even stronger neoliberal economic reforms, privatisation, and repression. It is thus unsurprising that the population would revolt again, less than two years after the government failed them, under the same, if not more radical, demands.
The movement has been going for just over two months now and shows no signs of stopping. The current government only fills the population with contempt and anger, as they have to work in ever-more precarious conditions, amidst a deadly pandemic, in order to merely obtain their means of survival. Many can simply not afford to go back now, as their livelihoods and lives themselves are in immediate danger. And this is echoed throughout the continent, as we have seen similar revolts in Ecuador and Chile.
The standards of living are utterly untenable for the poorest layers of the country, which has pushed the nation to rebel against the current government, whilst the latter is forced to yield to the grip of international markets, with unpayable debts. Colombian society has clearly come to a dead end with its current system, it is now up to the people to determine Colombia's fate.
Image: Flickr (Leon Hernandez)