Colombia’s bloody protests could be a warning to the region

Thousands of people are still taking to the streets to protest against police brutality and the economic cost of the pandemic amid Colombia’s extreme inequality. And with both issues common across South America — and exacerbated by the pandemic — many international observers are watching Colombia’s cycle of protest closely for signs of deeper regional effects.

Duque was the first president in the region to launch a tax overhaul to help his country’s pandemic-ravaged economy get back in shape. But rigid opposition from Colombia’s workers’ unions and social movements is a cautionary tale for any other president who plans to follow a similar route.

While both the European Union and the United States have pursued enormous investment plans to rebuild their economies post-pandemic, many countries like Colombia, where the economy is dependent on exports and already burdened by a ballooning foreign debt, do not have the capacity to undertake a similar expansion plan.
Five civilians and one police officer die in Colombia protests

Such countries need to increase revenues through taxes in order to be able to spend — and even to maintain vital social programs like cash support for the unemployed and credit lines to businesses struggling with the pandemic.

Before he withdrew his tax reform plan, Duque stressed it was of pivotal importance for the state to increase its fiscal revenues. “The reform is not a whim, it’s a necessity to keep the social programs going,” he said.

But critics argued the tax hikes — like a proposed VAT increase on everyday goods — would disproportionally impact middle and working classes and escalate inequality even more.

Their concerns took root in an economy already decimated by Covid-19, where frustration has been mounting as record increases in cases and deaths prompt authorities to impose new lockdowns, stifling the country’s vast informal labor market. More than 3.6 million Colombians fell back into poverty during the pandemic according to recent figures released by the country’s statistics authority, while the number of families that cannot afford to eat three times a day tripled in the same period of time.

But the now-withdrawn tax hike will leave a big hole in the state finances, and Duque’s government will have to look for alternatives to try and pass reforms to repair the very inequality that currently fuels much discontent.

Human rights concerns

Colombia’s ongoing protests have also prompted fear and outrage at law enforcement’s handling of demonstrators — a concern echoed by rights organizations and foreign observers.

“We’re here because it may seem a paradox, but in the middle of a pandemic our government is literally attacking our lives,” Joana Ivanazca Salgado, a 43-year-old artist who took part in Bogota’s protests last week, told CNN.

Ivanazca was referring to the spiraling death toll that the protests have left behind: according to Colombia’s ombudsman on Monday, at least 19 people — including a policeman — have been killed since the start of the protests and at least 89 people have disappeared.
Videos of anti-riot policemen using teargas and batons against protesters have gone viral on social media, spreading beyond big cities and across the country. Far from curbing the protests, alleged police brutality has become a focal point for the demonstrators, who, after putting the fiscal reform plan to rest, are now calling for a thorough inquiry into the deaths.
Human rights NGOs say the real death toll could be much higher and have called for the president to restrain police from using any excessive use of force.
Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest in Cali on April 29.
But the Colombian government has so far defended the actions of the police and blamed the violence on groups of rioters and organized crime. In particular, the military has been deployed to the city of Cali, which has seen the worst of the violence so far and where a team of the UN Human Rights Committee said they encountered police fire, although they did not believe they were directly targeted. The Cali police department says they are investigating claims of excessive force.
Multilateral organizations, foreign ambassadors and even Colombian pop star Shakira have issued statements of concern over law enforcement’s response — on Tuesday, the US State Department publicly urged “the utmost restraint by public forces to prevent additional loss of life.”

In the early hours of Wednesday, Bogota’s mayor, Claudia Lopez, made a tearful plea to all sides to abandon violence: “I beg Bogota and Colombia to stop. It’s been eight days of frankly, by miracle, that we don’t have a death [in Bogota] so far,” said Lopez.

At least 30 civilians and 16 policemen were injured late Tuesday, she said, in an ugly escalation of violence on both sides. According to Lopez, rioters set fire to one police station, where 15 policemen managed to escape.

Major General Oscar Antonio Gomez Heredia, the chief of police in Bogota, said during the same briefing that a total of 25 police stations had been attacked.

The political fallout

By late Tuesday, Duque called for a “national dialogue initiative” and while he said police forces are guaranteeing the right to protest, he pledged a thorough investigation into any possible abuse.

Should Duque cede to public pressure and open up an independent inquiry into police practices, it could give momentum to protest movements demanding police accountability across the region. Police brutality is a hot button issue in several Latin American countries: Colombia’s own National Police, which answers to the Defense Ministry, have previously come under fire for its response to protests in 2019 and 2020. In Chile in 2019, carabineros were accused of deliberately shooting rubber bullets at the eyes of protesters resulting in hundreds of injuries. And in Peru, at least two men died in a recent wave of protests in November of last year.
Women hold banners reading "No to tax reform" as police stand guard.

Looming over all these political calculations for the Colombian government are next year’s presidential elections: While Duque himself is barred from running, the conservative coalition that brought him the presidency is keen to project strength and control, capable of dealing with both the pandemic and the wave of protests. After withdrawing the fiscal reform plan, further concessions to demonstrators could weaken that image.

But Ivan Briscoe, Colombia analyst at the International Crisis Group, believes it would be misguided not to learn from protesters’ outrage. “The government must look beyond other parties and other political forces with which it has been negotiating its tax reform and take into account the demands of the Colombians in the streets,” said Briscoe.

For now, Duque is resisting calls from his own party to impose a state of emergency to curb the protests — but at the same time, he is standing by the police accused of escalating the violence. All of which has contributed to the image of a president disconnected from many of his citizens.




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