Grassroots Perspective on the Unrest in Colombia

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Goldin Global Fellow, Colombia

Colombia has been in the midst of ongoing nationwide anti-government demonstrations and protests since April 28. These national protests here began following the proposal of a new tax reform by the government which they put forward due to the pandemic, stating that Colombia was almost bankrupt. These proposed tax measures were intended to collect $6.3 billion from the population over the next ten years.

However, last year Colombia was one of the few countries which invested heavily in military staff; the government spent $9,200,000 (9.2 million) which is more than what they intend to collect from the tax reform.

Moreover, experts have commented that this reform will benefit high-income households and negatively impact poorer households, as they will be taxing basic foodstuffs like eggs, milk, sugar, rice, and 30 more products, plus public services like gas, water, light, increasing the costs of these from 5% to 19% percent in some cases.

Even when the protests were peaceful, they were becoming bigger, deeper and angrier because of the violent suppression felt by Colombians from the state, using police, SMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron) and lately militarizing some cities in Colombia to silence the voices of the people who cry out for social justice and for a better country. Videos and live recordings circulating social media have shown the serious human rights violations being carried out by the repressive Duque government, led by Uribe Velez.

As of May 5, 2021, the NGO Temblores has registered 1,708 cases of violence by the public force, 37 homicides by the police, 222 victims of police violence, 831 arbitrary arrests against protesters, 312 violent interventions by the public forces, 110 cases of firearms being shot by the Police, 379 people disappeared and 10 victims of sexual violence by public authorities.

On May 3rd, the former president Iván Duque decided to withdraw the proposed tax reform due to the wide-spread protests. However, another tax reform, reform to health, was introduced which opens up possibilities for privatization of the public health resources. This may result into poor health services and intensified violation of fundamental rights to health since medical insurers and providers may be seeking to maximize profits with no regard to good quality healthcare system.

Colombian citizens are tired of inequity, of poverty, bad quality of life, violations of human rights perpetrated by our state, of being robbed by different governments for years, governments that in turn arrange deals with big corporations such as Odebretch and Reficar among others to steal billions of pesos of the nation's public resources. There have been many cases of embezzlement that have not been resolved and that apparently will be left without any punishment or return of resources to the nation.

Meanwhile, there is high unemployment, more than 50% of Colombian citizens are poor, few opportunities for education, forced displacements, illegal armed groups that have rearmed because the peace process in Duque’s government has not been respected, and enormous expenses to support senators, congressmen, who earn salaries of $9,000 US dollars per month while the minimum income for people is $250 US dollars per month, which demonstrates the deep and alarming inequality of our nation, and the urgent need for structural changes in its social, educational and policies institutions.

On top of that, in Colombia we are still in lockdowns as vaccination rollout is very slow; at the moment we are in the second age phase where people from 60 to 70 are starting to get their vaccine. And in terms of waves of the pandemic we are in the middle of the third wave, meaning significant economic hardships for many Colombian families; a tax reform is something Colombians cannot deal with.

We are asking for guarantees to the right to protest, respect for the life and integrity of citizens. We also require the immediate start of a national, territorial and local dialogue so that true social justice and structural changes wanted by society can be in place and lead to a better quality of life and better future for young people and generations to come.

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