Human Rights Defenders and ESMAD police in Medellín. Colombian national protests have been going on since April. Foto: Humano Salvaje, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Debatt, Opinion

Colombian protests against government

In April the biggest protests in the modern history of Colombia took place. Since then there have been over 3000 cases of police brutality and 43 victims of homicides committed by the police. People protest against a whole system that does not protect life but privatizes and sectorizes it. Finding peace is something that can’t wait any longer. Action needs to be taken now, argues María Alejandra Moreno Jaramillo, project leader for Multicultural Sweden.

The 15th of April the Colombian government presented a new Tax Reform proposal to the national congress under the name of “Sustainable Solidarity Law”. The president and his team highlighted the urgence of a new taxation system considering the deep economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The decrease of the Colombian economy in 6,8 points in the last year, the worrying increase of the poverty rate (in 2019 it was 35,7%, while in 2020 it increased to 42,5%), the enlargement of the public spending and the growth of the external debts since the pandemic started, were some of the main reasons the government used to justify why this tax reform was necessary and should be approved by the Congress.

However, this tax reform caused a great discomfort in many sectors of the Colombian population since the very beginning. Some of the most controversial measures of the reform that caused this reaction in the people were: the increment of the IVA (value added tax) and its application in some basic goods and services that were not formerly taxed (e.g. meat, rice, fish, eggs, fuel…); taxing the pensions; and demanding the income tax to people earning 656 USD per month in a country where the minimum wage is 248 USD. These strategies -among others – would have had a huge impact on the lower and middle classes and would have maintained the status quo on the higher classes. Moreover, just the simple idea of a tax reform amid a pandemic and an economic crisis was just absurd for the Colombians’ pockets and expenses.

In this context, a national strike was called by many sectors such as unions, students, peasants, workers, indigenous and women, in order to overturn the tax reform. The 28th of April this national strike took place and was massive all over the country. The demonstrations were highly diverse, artistic, straightforward and collectivized. In fact, together with the 21N demonstration of 2019, they were the biggest and most impressive protests in the modern history of Colombia. After the 28th of April, not only the people managed to overturn the tax reform but also to overthrow the finance Minister in the following days. However, even when these two big aims were reached, the uprisings all over the country have continued for weeks.

We live in a context in Colombia where this fight is not exclusively about the tax reform. It has never been about the tax reform itself. There has been a generalized nonconformity in Colombia for many years around: the complete state negligence towards people’s wellness, an Iván Duque’s Government boycotting the peace agreements signed in 2016, huge inequality gaps, tremendous gender violence against women and LGBTIQ+ people, high rates of unemployment especially among young people, an elitist and discriminative education system, a vast state and social racism that defines who’s worth living and who’s not… Anyway, people are really protesting against a whole system that does not protect life but privatizes and sectorizes it; a whole system that, enabled by a deep-rooted structural violence, prints direct violence nowadays in the protesters’ bodies.

The one-month demonstrations in Colombia have definitely faced a great wave of violence and repression from the State and its institutions (namely the ESMAD, the police and the military forces), which, by the way, has been endowed by the increasement of the military budget in 3.9% in 2020 (money that could have been used for facing the pandemic challenges, for example). According to the Colombian non profit organization Temblores, between the 28th of April and the 24th of May, there have been 3155 cases of police brutality, 955 cases of physical violence by the police, 43 victims of homicides committed by the police, 1388 arbitrary arrests and 22 victims of sexual assault by the public force. Many of the killed, tortured and disappeared people are youths, women and minority groups.

After more than five decades of an armed conflict and the peace agreements reached with the left-wing guerilla FARC (the formerly biggest armed group in the country) in 2016, Colombia has an enormous responsibility in eliminating the structural and direct violence that has ruled the country for years. The fact that we are now in a post-conflict scenario (which is very questionable though) should engage our institutions and different political scales with the peace-building process, which necessarily starts by creating alternatives and strategies that don’t find their foundations in militarization. The interwoven of a securitization model, a very neoliberal economic scheme and a racist State – as Foucault would recognize it – won’t accomplish peace in Colombia, not in the current situation, nor in the long term one. If the government and the State shift towards a different idea of security (a life-centered one) and a peace-centered approach to the Colombians’ requirements in these times, a real different panorama could be achieved.

However, it is not as simple to get to this point, especially considering the big lack of trust of Colombians in Iván Duque’s government and in the very corrupt politicians. The vast majority of the population is tired of lies, corruption and war, which is exactly what the current government keeps on promoting and nourishing. Hence, the 2022 elections play a very important role in the ongoing panorama. After all, the uprisings petitions are difficultly processed and attended by the current government, so we need to start building a political and social outlook which is friendly with the people and its requests.

Finally, seeing the prevailing Human Rights Violations and all the abuses to life in Colombia right now, the Colombian protesters demand Iván Duque’s government to allow the entrance of The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to the country just as to all of the foreign Human Rights watchers that want to supervise and report on the situation. The week of the 24th of May the government has already refused this and even deported a Human Rights activist in the border control. Likewise, many sectors of the society have been working on a Police Reform; it’s necessary to change the logic how the government relates to the people, chiefly during critic times. We demand dignity and life guarantees; for getting that we’re both demonstrating in the streets and intending to change the electoral panorama of the country next year. Finding peace is something that can’t wait any longer. Action needs to be taken now.

Colombian protests started with discontent against the tax reform of President Iván Duque. Foto: Remux, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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