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Colombia’s National Strike: An On-the-Ground Report from Bogotá

The uprising against the government in Colombia continues unabated, and our guest correspondent on the ground reports from the capital city.

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Colombia’s national strike — or paro (stoppage) as it is called locally —  began on April 28 with enormous protests and on May 5 entered its eighth day, with another round of mass protests around the country. Truck drivers and rural communities have joined in, paralyzing entire swathes of the country.

What provoked these protests was yet another tax reform from the extreme right-wing government of Iván Duque, the third of his government. As the Colombian economist Libardo Sarmiento Anzola wrote in Le Monde Diplomatique:

The three tax reforms of the Duque administration (2018–2022) have one common denominator: benefits for the large companies and a greater tax burden for 80 percent of the population, which is poor and vulnerable, through a mechanism that squeezes from both sides: on one hand, higher taxes on their personal income, and on the other hand taxes on their consumption of basic foodstuff.1Libardo Sarmiento Anzola, “Reforma tributaria 2021: el tercer raponazo duquista,” Le Monde Diplomatique 210 (Mayo 2021): 4–7.

According to the same analyst, this represents a tax increase of between 300 and 500 percent on the middle class, guaranteeing its disappearance. The so-called reform aims to raise 31 trillion Colombian pesos (just over US$8 billion); already, just under half that amount, US$3.6 billion, has been designated for the purchase of new jet fighters. Moreover, Duque’s previous tax reform, which reduced taxes paid by multinationals, has already cost the treasury around US$1 billion in its first two years and is projected to cost more than a billion in 2022.

Duque’s government was spared the last time around due to the vacillation of the trade union bureaucracy and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw public gatherings curtailed. Initially, a great deal of fear about the nature of the virus led to people staying in doors, but not anymore. 

Almost a third of the increased tax take will come from a value-added tax (VAT) on basic items alone. Duque proposed taxes on everything from water to funeral services, oranges, and other fruits, but not on Coca-Cola or Pepsi products. Understandably, this angered many. Duque, who is not known for his intelligence and is widely considered to be just a dumb stooge for former president Alvaro Uribe, went on national television and in an interview claimed he didn’t understand why a VAT of 19 percent would be levied on funeral services.

The protests on April 28 were massive. In Bogotá, they were peaceful at first — so much so that I left the main square to go home and upload photos. But later, Colombia’s specialized riot squad attacked the demonstration, as it did in other parts of the country. The anger of the population was so great, though, that people did not bow down and rioting broke out practically everywhere. The police attacked the demonstrations with the usual weapons — tear gas, stun grenades, and batons. They also entered poor neighborhoods, firing not only their personal sidearms, which most police carry on them at all times, but also specially issued assault rifles. The results have not been surprising, and echo previous stoppages.

Figures on police violence are rising daily, but as of May 4 human rights groups had confirmed 26 murders by the police, 761 arbitrary arrests, and nine victims of sexual violence committed by the police. The Public Defender’s Office, which was slow to react, eventually acknowledged 50 disappeared people, although human rights groups believe the figure to be much higher. Some of these people may be released, others may be charged, and yet others will be killed and disappeared or have their bodies dumped, as occurred in Chile. Colombia’s police have borrowed another Chilean tactic: firing at the eyes of demonstrators. They have injured at least 17 people in this manner.

The levels of violence are such that even a United Nations delegate complained of being attacked, while most European embassies, including the Irish one, have either remained silent or issued mealy-mouthed appeals for restraint and de-escalation.

The police violence has done little to stem the outrage and determination of the population. The marches on May 5 were also massive in character. In Bogotá, there were 35 separate marches throughout the city, with one major march in the city center and the rest in poor neighborhoods. Cali has seen the largest demonstrations in its history, and towns that have traditionally held May Day marches did so this year, despite the trade union bureaucracy pulling out. Even without them, the demonstrations were huge, and the decision of the bureaucrats left them exposed and further eroded what little authority they have.

It is clear that the trade union bureaucracy and the Congressional left parties want to make a deal and position themselves for next year’s presidential and congressional elections. However, the protests have led to the withdrawal of the tax reform bill and the resignation of Alberto Carrasquilla, the minister of finance. There is a danger, however, that the bill will be repackaged and presented again along with other pending reforms such as the Health Bill. The people smell blood and are not keen on taking any prisoners. Calls have been made for the withdrawal of all the bills and the resignation of Duque and his government. Meanwhile, the governing  party, the Democratic Center of Colombia (CDC) has called for the declaration of a State of Internal Unrest, which though civilian in nature would give sweeping powers to the government and the military and would effectively be a form of martial law. A statement by dissidents from the FARC — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — that they would impose an armed strike in rural areas may just give them the excuse they need.

The following days will be crucial. What happens next depends on how much Duque cedes. Does he throw a bone to the reformist left to call off the demonstrations, or does he dig in and provoke even greater resistance from the population? As of yet, though, there is no national leadership of the movement and there exists the danger that it may run out of steam or be demobilized by left senators and NGOs that have been open about their desire for dialogue.

As I finish this article, I can hear explosions from police stun grenades in the nearby main square. There is a battle going on outside my apartment building, and the tear gas is reaching up to the 7th floor. Once again, I left a peaceful demonstration that, no doubt, was later attacked by the police.

Notes

Notes
1 Libardo Sarmiento Anzola, “Reforma tributaria 2021: el tercer raponazo duquista,” Le Monde Diplomatique 210 (Mayo 2021): 4–7.
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