Colombia Rises Up

In spite of intense repression, a wave of protests managed to bury President Iván Duque’s tax reform. The gulf between popular needs and establishment practices is more evident than ever.

May 8, 2021

"Estado Asesino" mural located on Avenue 80 at the top of Calle San Juan, Medellín, May 2021. The mural was painted during the national strike as an act of protest against deadly violence at the hands of state forces. (XalD / Wikimedia)

This article was originally published in Spanish by Nueva Sociedad.

Since April 28, Colombia has seen a massive wave of mobilizations, much like what happened in 2019, spurred by similar underlying discontents. This new cycle of protests comes amid the third wave of the pandemic, a fragile peace process, and the country’s worst social indicators in history. Covid-19 has hit Colombia particularly hard: among Latin American countries, Colombia now has the third highest number of deaths and infections. In addition, the poverty rate reached 42 percent, a level not seen since for more than a decade. Today, 15 percent of Colombians live in extreme poverty, not managing to eat three meals a day.

In this context, since-resigned Minister of Finance Alberto Carrasquilla presented the most ambitious tax reform, in terms of tax collection, seen in recent years. He did this, mainly, to pay the country’s high debt and to attempt to avoid losing the country’s investment grade from international rating agencies. To a lesser degree, he also did it to invest in social programs.

The tax reform, which the government euphemistically called the Sustainable Solidarity Law, was unpopular even before its contents became public. Before it was introduced, the minister shared parts of the reform with allied business associations. He even participated in a closed-door meeting with son of former President Álvaro Uribe, Tomás Uribe, who does not hold any political or official post. This, as expected, made various politicians uncomfortable. Once the reform was released, opposition political parties promoted a vote against it in Congress. Some parties close to the government, like Cambio Radical, also opposed the proposal, and even Álvaro Uribe himself did not seem very convinced by it.

Up until that point, it seemed to be just another unpopular tax reform that the parliament would approve. We must recall that, in 2016, former President Juan Manuel Santos increased the general value-added tax (VAT) rate from 16 to 19 percent. In addition, Iván Duque’s two previous tax reforms included hefty tax benefits for large companies. All these unpopular measures passed parliamentary approval without further scrutiny. Congress’s road to approving the Sustainable Solidarity Law did not seem easy, given that parties close to the government rejected it. However, Uribe had already been speaking personally with lawmakers to secure the votes needed for a majority. With direct pressure from the former president, it was likely that in the end the government would reach a favorable outcome.

However, the future of the reform was not defined in the Congress, as has always been the case. Rather, it was decided in the streets, which is unprecedented in Colombia. Although the main workers’ centers had called an April 28 strike even before the bill was introduced, the release of the law’s contents days before the protest made the banner of the mobilization to reject the reform—and the minister. The unrest stemmed from some specific points in the law, like VAT increases for public services and fuel taxes and the freezing of salaries of public sector workers, whose collective agreement boasts the greatest coverage in the country. The main grievance was not the supposed eventual results of the reform—that it could benefit the poorest with social support and reduce income inequality—but rather who would carry the weight of achieving that objective. The reform did not place the tax burden on the richest sectors of society; it hit the middle classes. And today in Colombia, what is known as the middle class is a broad conglomerate made up mostly of individuals who do not even make minimum wage and who have limited tax capacity, within a country with few social services and public goods.

The law provided evidence of the disconnect between the Colombian technocracy and the people. This divide was on display in an interview in which the minister, while explaining the VAT measures that would increase the price of eggs, said that 12 eggs in Colombia cost less than a third of what they were really worth. Following these statements, eggs became a symbol picked up on signs in the protests, and the minister became the face of the government’s disconnection from society. A similar disconnect was also seen between the people the orthodox academy, which repeatedly painted the protesters as uninformed people who opposed the reform because they didn’t understand the details. Thirty prominent economists in the country wrote a public letter supporting the tax proposal.  

Despite the fact that Colombia is in its third wave of the pandemic—the strongest so far—the demonstrations have been massive, even in conservative, medium-sized cities. The protests were so robust that they have continued, even with an April 27 court order to halt demonstrations and various curfews in effect (some had already been announced due to the pandemic, others attempted to put a stop to the protests). In some cities, demonstrations have been particularly intense. Cali, which has declared itself the “capital of the resistance” with a general shutdown and blockades at all of the entrances to the cities, including the airport, is perhaps the utmost example. Local leaders in large cities like Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali not only challenged the cessation orders and curfews, but also took a direct stand against the militarization ordered by the government. Some mid-sized cities sought peaceful, democratic solutions, such as joint negotiations between civilians and the military, as was the case in Cartagena.

Although there have been deaths in previous protests, the level of violence and repression seen in recent days has been unprecedented. Temblores, an important human rights organization, has reported 31 murders at the hands of the police and 1,443 victims of police violence, including sexual violence against women, between April 28 and May 4. [Editor’s note: as the protests marked one week on May 5, Temblores reported a total of 37 people had been killed by police]. The Human Rights Ombuds Office reports 89 missing people, while various nongovernmental organizations put the number at more than 170. Many fear that the inefficiency of the judicial system will allow these crimes to go unpunished, as happened in similar cases in 2020. The media and the establishment have maintained that there have been serious and unjustified attacks against the police and vandalism against public and private property. In a society immersed, after years of internal armed conflict, in a transitional justice process whose slogan is to prevent repetition, the scene is terrifying. Colombia has suffered too many intense cycles of internal conflict to ignore the fact that violence provokes more violence in a seemingly never-ending spiral.

A tally of instances of police violence documented by the organization Temblores. (Temblores / Twitter: @TembloresOng)

To put this in context, in just four days, human rights violations at the hands of the Colombian police surpassed those committed in Chile during months of protests in 2019. Colombian civil society organizations denounced police violence as a widespread practice at the protests. While the human rights abuses continued, the presidential advisor on human rights stated in an interview that “human rights only exist if all citizens observe the duties we have to be part of society, because the protection of rights is a matter that concerns everyone.” The government responded in a similar way to criticism from various international organizations, which called on May 4 for an investigation into [state violence] and for respect of human rights.

In the midst of this violence, the national strike scored its first win on May 2: the president ordered the withdrawal of the tax reform and accepted Minister Carasquilla’s resignation. These developments marked political upheaval for a very weakened government and present a problem for the governing party ahead of the 2022 elections.

The reality is that Duque’s administration has always been unpopular, but his management of the pandemic—based almost exclusively on decrees—and continuous blunders in his daily television program have only worsened his image. In addition, for more than a year, Congress has only convened virtually, doing little to fulfill its political control functions. This has contributed to driving Colombian democracy into a crisis.  

Facing the planned continuation of the strike, the question is how to overcome, in the midst of the overwhelming [state] violence, the administration’s deep governability crisis. The government’s strategy to manage the protests seems to be the same as it was in 2019: initiate dialogue when serious negotiation is what is really needed. And, given the acts of police violence, it is not clear if this dialogue strategy will be able to deescalate the situation and rebuild trust with demonstrators. The problem is so acute that some protesters, together with the extreme right wing of the governing party, have called for the overthrow of the president. Other sectors are calling for a state of internal turmoil to be declared.

The lack of support for the president, the crisis stemming from the pandemic, and the massive protests with high levels of violence, all in the middle of the largest social and economic crisis in the country’s history, seem to constitute a burden too large for Duque to carry. But in the presidential system, there are no easy exits for a government that faces a crisis of this magnitude. To get out of this crisis of governability, some prominent members of the governing party have called for an immediate change in the president’s office. Surely, the party could exploit the protests to this end. From the outside, it seems like a risky strategy, because the forces on center right and extreme right of the political spectrum have not yet selected candidates. In the Centro Democrático, the president’s party, no convincing leadership has emerged. It is probable that, trusting the strong institutionalism that has always guided the Colombian people and that has guaranteed the political system’s stability, an institutional solution will ultimately be sought. This will come in less than 10 months with the congressional elections [March 13, 2022], followed by the presidential elections [May 29, 2022].

Although the government and the Centro Democrático finished last week considerably weakened, it is not easy to identify political winners who stand to benefit from this crisis. Opposition parties, who swiftly positioned themselves against the reform and who have accompanied the protests, surely win. The Pacto Histórico, an alliance around the leftist presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, seems to have gained momentum. The Pacto Histórico has openly supported the strike committee, although other parties have also expressed sympathy and solidarity with the demonstrators. In effect, according to the latest polls, Petro stands with best shot at winning the 2022 elections. This is the case even as recent polls also indicate that the majority of Colombians position themselves in the center of the political spectrum. However, we must consider that polls are not always reliable: surveys in 2016 predicted overwhelming “yes” vote in favor of the peace agreements, [but the deal was rejected at the polls].

Whoever ends up on top in this situation, one thing is clear: in order to win in the first round of the presidential elections, the candidate must be capable of mobilizing not only protesters, but also a large part of the establishment.

And whoever wins politically in 2021 will face a new challenge: the fall of the tax reform and the minister [looms large]. This is a historic landmark that demonstrates that Colombia sits on the brink of a democratic awakening with regards to issues of economic justice. It also clarifies the people’s desire for public policies to be made in plain sight, not behind their backs. Realizing structural changes and transforming Colombian society will require an alliance that can inspire greater popular trust and conviction that a more inclusive deliberative democracy will be built with the promise of more social and economic equity. At the same time, it will be necessary to ensure that political projects be agreed upon and discussed more broadly with diverse political and social sectors. Progress towards stable peace and justice should be made through a negotiated solution to socioeconomic conflicts, the strengthening democratic institutions, and compliance with international human rights standards.

María Fernanda Valdés is an economist with a master’s in development from the Institute of Social Studies (Holland) y doctorate in economics from the Free University of Berlin. She is currently project coordinator at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in Colombia and coordinator of its Tax for Equity project in Latin America.

Kristina Birke directs the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) office in Colombia.

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