Tensions in Colombia have barely subsided after President Ivan Duque withdrew a contentious fiscal reform plan over the weekend. At least 24 people have been killed in more than a week of violent protests, according to the country’s Ombudsman Office, and the protests have developed into a broader widespread outpouring of rage.
Thousands of people continue to take to the streets to condemn police violence and the pandemic’s economic expense, despite Colombia’s severe inequality. And, since both problems are widespread in South America — and have been intensified by the pandemic — many foreign observers are keeping a close eye on Colombia’s period of protests for signs of broader regional consequences.
In order to invest — and also to sustain critical social services like cash assistance for the unemployed and credit lines to companies grappling with the pandemic — certain countries must raise revenue through taxes.
Duque emphasized the value of increasing the state’s fiscal revenues before withdrawing his tax reform proposal. He said, “The change is not a whim; it is a requirement to keep the social services running.”
However, critics claimed that the tax increases, such as a proposed rise in the VAT on daily goods, would disproportionately affect the middle and working classes, escalating inequality even further.
Their fears took root in an economy already ravaged by Covid-19, where discontent has grown as authorities enforce new lockdowns in response to record rises in cases and deaths, suffocating the country’s vast informal labour market. According to recent estimates released by Colombia’s statistics authority, more than 3.6 million Colombians fell back into poverty during the pandemic, while the number of families unable to eat three times a day tripled during the same period.
However, the now-cancelled tax hike will leave a large hole in the state’s finances, and Duque’s administration will have to find other ways to pass legislation to address the very injustice that is causing so much discontent.
Colombia’s ongoing demonstrations have sparked fear and indignation over law enforcement’s treatment of protesters, a concern shared by human rights groups and international observers.
“We’re here because it may seem a paradox, but in the middle of a pandemic our government is attacking our lives,” Joana Ivanazca Salgado, a 43-year-old artist who took part in Bogota’s protests last week, told reporters.
Ivanazca was referring to the protests’ mounting death toll: since the start of the protests, at least 19 people have been killed, including a police officer, and at least 89 people have gone missing, according to Colombia’s ombudsman on Monday.
On social media, videos of anti-riot cops using tear gas and batons against demonstrators have gone viral, spreading beyond major cities and around the world. Rather than quelling the demonstrations, alleged police brutality has become a focal point for the protesters, who, after abandoning the fiscal reform agenda, are now demanding a comprehensive investigation into the deaths.
Human rights groups believe the true death rate is even higher, and have urged the president to stop police from using excessive force.
However, the Colombian government has justified police conduct so far, blaming the violence on rioters and organized crime. The military has been deployed in particular to Cali, which has seen the most violence so far and where a UN Human Rights Committee team reported encountering police fire, though they did not think they were specifically targeted. According to the Cali police department, allegations of excessive force are being investigated.