MS Risk Blog

Colombia Tax Reforms Explode in Long Violent Protests

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Violent demonstrations continue across Colombia as unions make new requests of President Ivan Duque’s right-wing government after his removal of a planned tax overhaul that caused widespread public outrage.

The government claimed that the tax law was intended to stabilise an economy devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, but the poor and middle classes claim that the proposal favoured the wealthy while putting additional strain on them. Many people were outraged by a slew of new or increased taxes on residents and company owners, as well as the loss or removal of many tax breaks, such as those on product purchases. Protesting and demonstration started on April 28, however, demonstrations are expected to go on.

Protesters’ proposals have grown to include a guaranteed wage, an end to police brutality, and the withdrawal of long-debated health-care reform. The first meeting between Colombian President Ivan Duque and the National Strike Committee ended on Monday without a deal. According to government estimates, violence at some protests has resulted in the deaths of 26 people, including a police officer, and the injuries of over 800 others. Human rights groups, who have repeatedly condemned police abuses during demonstrations, claim that the death rate is higher.

However, public dissatisfaction extends beyond the tax overhaul. In fact, the violent suppression of demonstrations has fuelled it and exacerbated it. President Ivan Duque’s unpopularity and supposed alienation from the general population and their interests, along with the economic decline caused by COVID and sanctions, heightened instability, and disinterest in advancing peace, which keep these protests moving.

Unions are pressing for the abolition of a planned health reform as well as a guaranteed minimum income of one million pesos ($260) for all Colombians, along with city demilitarisation, an end to continued police brutality, and the removal of heavy-handed riot police known as ESMAD.

Colombia faces particular threats from criminal organisations that are behind these violent acts. Citizens are demanding for those protesters who use violence to be prosecuted, but without the use of brutal force. Recent events in Colombia raise concerns about whether the police and its anti-riot police unit, ESMAD are capable of carrying out crowd control operations that uphold fundamental human rights. However, as the demonstrations are likely to continue, doubts arise on whether Duque’s government fully understands the scope of Colombians’ dissatisfaction.

The United Nations, the State Department of the United States, the European Union, Amnesty International, and scores of non-governmental organisations have all denounced the attack, which has thrown the Duque administration into its deepest crisis of nearly three years in office.

Duque offered an olive branch, promising his administration would provide a place to listen to people and construct alternatives. Officials from the government clarified that this entailed holding a series of meetings with diverse segments of society, beginning with political parties, mayors, and provincial governors. In fact, the protests were essentially a resumption of the large anti-government demonstrations that started in late 2019 in Ecuador and Chile and extended to Colombia and other parts of the country. Leftist leaders throughout the Andes, including former Peruvian presidential candidate Verónika Mendoza and current Chilean presidential candidate Daniel Jadue, have expressed solidarity this week with the Colombian demonstrators.

Protesters firebombed a small police station in Bogotá on Tuesday night, when ten officers were inside. The officers were able to flee, but five were wounded. There have also been widespread blockades throughout the region, resulting in fuel and food shortages in some regions, including Cali. Protesters threatened an ambulance transporting a pregnant woman to a hospital in Bogotá after she went into early labour in the town of Tocancipá, north of Bogotá. The mother was forced to give birth in the ambulance, and the infant died.

The government needs to acknowledge and address Colombia’s deep economic inequality, avoiding taxation for the poor and middle class. Young people are feeling exclusion, high levels of poverty, high levels of unemployment and want to be heard and empowered.

The President heard the nation and heard the voice of the social protesters, as the national government acknowledged that their proposal of tax reform was not viable, however there is political agreement that is required as poverty is still a main issue.

To put an end to the crisis, Duque needs to address all of the protesters’ complaints, including the charges of police misconduct, otherwise, the president will prove that he is not listening. The President has offered the chance to listen to citizens voices however, the offer has not pacified protesters, who in multiple cities are expected to continue demonstrating into next week.