Bogota’s tax proposal has triggered anger as ordinary people feel the government has burdened them, and not the rich, with fixing the pandemic-hit economy.
Colombia, a Latin American country, is facing violent protests after the announcement of the government’s new tax plan that aims to address the growing economic problems related to the pandemic.
Tens of thousands of people have participated in protests, expressing their opposition to the plan. As a result, the police have killed more than 20 people in the last week. The events forced the Ivan Duque government to withdraw its tax proposal as his finance minister resigned.
But protests have not ebbed yet. They have instead expanded across the country while demonstrators come up with more demands related to health reform and income inequality from Duque, a right-wing populist, whose tenure has been marked with increasing incidents of acts of violence against community leaders, leading to hundreds of deaths.
On Tuesday, a nervous Duque, who oversees a country with a 42.5 percent poverty rate, offered a national dialogue to protesters in a clear concession in order to help calm the heightened political environment.
"I want to announce that we will create a space to listen to citizens and construct solutions oriented toward those goals, where our most profound patriotism, and not political differences, should intercede," Duque said. He also added that the new plan will be based on consensus with unions and public demands.
However, analysts doubt Duque’s plan would work in a country where almost half of the population lives in poverty. The pandemic has worsened Colombia’s already poor economics that are rooted in extreme inequality and political instability. After the 2019 protests, Duque made a similar national dialogue offer: pledges were not fulfilled by the government, making the current one a little less credible.
“They have pushed us to hunger. Now they want to take the little we have left,” said Natalia Arevalo, a protester in Bogota, referring to the tax plan, The New York Times reported. Arevalo sells clothing.
Duque’s harsh police measures, which have recently been criticised by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and other human rights groups, also appear to foment people’s anger towards his government. The US and European officials also urged the Colombian government to act with restraint.
In clear contrast, while police officers appear to be donning brand new uniforms, replete with modern protective equipment, many Colombians have difficulty even earning a decent salary.
While popular anger rages across, the country’s former President Alvaro Uribe, who also happens to be the political mentor of Duque, urged citizens to support “the right of soldiers and police officers to use their weapons to defend themselves” against demonstrations, which he defined as acts of “terrorism”. That definition also showed another widening gap between the ruling elite and ordinary people.
Colombia is one of the countries worst hit by the pandemic, which has increased the animosity between the people and the government. Especially, Bogota's shelved tax plan made things worse. They feel the state wants to place the economic burdens of coronavirus on the working class, not on the country’s elites, as always it does.
“It’s going to be an ugly year,” said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert, who works for the Washington Office on Latin America, an American think tank.
“These governments have to cope with deficits and come up with money now … We’re talking about some of the most unequal countries in the world in Latin America, and when people see others still living well in wealthy areas, it’s just not going to sit well with them when they get squeezed by new taxes,” Isacson viewed.
Last year Colombia’s economy shrunk 7 percent, according to government data.
Pandemic spreads political instability
Experts like Isacson also suggest that protests of the kind in Colombia may well spread to other Latin American countries. There, too, citizens, who live under similar conditions to Colombia, demand social and economic justice from governments as the pandemic continues to expose massive inequality..
South America has been particularly hit by the pandemic. Brazil has the world’s second highest death rate despite having the third-highest number of cases. Argentina, Colombia and Peru also lost more than 60,000 citizens to the deadly virus, ranking in the top 20 countries succumbing to the most cases.
As a result, many countries in the region face economic decline, which requires serious economic measures. But Colombian wrath to the tax plan provides a definite example to other Latin American countries that people will not easily abide by any new regulations.
“This is one of those moments where a key break in society is happening. And people are fed up and waking up to the power of the streets,” said Sergio Guzman, the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a consultancy group.
Since the late 1950s, Colombia has also dealt with the world’s longest-running active armed conflict with various anti-government communist guerrilla groups, leading to the deaths of nearly 220,000 people. The conflict has also resulted in the forceful migration of more than five million civilians.
In 2012, the government and the FARC, a leading guerrilla group agreed to initiate a peace process, which succeeded. Both sides signed a final agreement in 2016. While talks have continued between the government and guerrilla groups since then, in 2019, Duque launched a new military crackdown against the FARC.