- by Valentin Cartillier
- The Guardian
- Issue #1961
Nationwide protests broke out across Colombia on 28th April against the government’s attempt to introduce a tax reform that would further damage the working class. Inequality and poverty has worsened the lives of millions of Colombians as the COVID-19 pandemic is still sweeping the country. The protests have been met with militarised and lethal police force which has only served to intensify the resolve of the protestors.
WHAT ARE THE PROTESTS ABOUT?
The protests were initially against the tax reform the government was trying to introduce, was supposed to be the pathway to addressing the country’s economic crisis. The proposal sought to increase taxes of businesses, increase the number of goods covered by value added tax (VAT), and lower the salary threshold that would be taxed. Colombia is currently in the midst of its worst crisis in fifty years: the economy shrank by 6.8 per cent and continues to decline as the pandemic continues, and unemployment skyrocketed to 16.8 per cent in March 2021. According to Colombia’s official figures, half of the country lives in poverty and the number of people living in extreme poverty grew by 2.8 mil people last year. By lowering the individual salary threshold, the proposed tax reform would have forced more people into poverty. This is just another neoliberal reform designed to bail out the economy by putting pressure on the Colombian working class. President Iván Duque has since withdrawn the tax reform, however this has far from appeased the protesters, as they continue to demonstrate against police brutality, human rights abuses, and income inequality. As one protester, Mayra Lemus, summarised “This is not just about the tax reform […]. This is about corruption, inequality and poverty.”
Trade unions have played a massive role in organising the rallies, due to the disproportionate impact the tax reforms would have on the poorest parts of the population who are already besieged by the economic impact of Covid-19. The truck and bus drivers’ unions have been blockading roads across the country. The increase of goods subject to the VAT would mean the cost of everyday items would have increased, this, combined with the lowering of the salary threshold, would place people in a double bind of having less money to spend on more expensive goods.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 75,000 Colombians have died, with its highest death tolls occurring over the past couple of weeks. Protestors have been blaming this on poor management from the government, particularly its lack of proper investment in the healthcare system and inadequate COVID response. These events have once again demonstrated that protesting a singular issue can draw attention to the other systemic issues within capitalist society, strengthening the breadth and organisational power of a protest.
At the time of writing 37 people have been killed, 89 have been reported missing, and more than 800 wounded since the nationwide protests began. The police have employed an arsenal of flash-bangs, teargas, water cannons, and firearms on the protesters, drawing heavy condemnation from various international bodies. Amnesty International has confirmed, via the analysis of available video footage, that police have used lethal force against protesters around the country, most egregiously in the form of rifles and semi-automatic guns.
The Defence Minister Diego Molano has refused to back down claiming that the police are simply responding to the situation, and that violence of the protesters is “systematic, premeditated and financed by criminal organisations,” in addition to telling the police to be “ruthless towards those who use vandalism.” Protestors have not taken kindly to this blatant misrepresentation of their grievances and explicit call to use excessive force against them.
In the capital, Bogotá, protestors have been attacked by what are known as “immediate response police commando posts” across the city. Officials have reported that at least 25 have been targeted. These “commando posts” are basically small police stations, consisting of a room or two, and are scattered around neighbourhoods across the city. A similar situation is occurring over in Cali, the country’s third largest city.
This situation is by no means unique to Colombia. Many times in the past, a protest that has begun in one Latin American country has spread to its neighbouring countries as often many of them share similar socio-economic difficulties. These protests are a continuation of a movement that swept Latin America in late 2019, just prior to COVID, as people took to the streets in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Nicaragua among others. Throughout these countries there was an opposition to a common problem: limited opportunities and widespread corruption amongst government officials.
The COVID pandemic has made it exceptionally difficult for workers to protest in the streets across the world out of concerns of transmitting the virus to the most vulnerable parts of the population. The working class has found itself incredibly atomised because of the necessity for many people to work from home, isolating them even more for their fellow workers. Governments across the world have seized upon this crisis to attack labour and welfare laws. To use just one example, in Australia, the Morrison government is still ploughing ahead with its Omnibus bill, though stripped back due to internal resistance. The JobSeeker payment is being returned to a few dollars above its pre-COVID level which is far below our own relative poverty line.
Nevertheless, the working class has taken to the streets throughout the pandemic in an attempt to protect their rights and protest injustices. Black Lives Matter (BLM) saw the largest mass movement of people on US soil in their history, the French have frequently come out in force against government policies, the Greek resisted the excessive use of police brutality, the list goes on. Mass demonstrations always carry a risk of further increasing the number of COVID cases, but this risk must be balanced against the long-term damage to peoples’ standards of living and livelihoods that these government policies have. Forcing people to live below the relative poverty line because of stagnant wages or subpar welfare benefits constitutes a health threat that the working class has every right to protest against.
The CPA has released a full statement on the situation in Colombia which can be accessed via the website. The statement begins with:
“The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) condemns in the strongest possible terms the actions by the Colombian government of President Ivan Duque against the people of Colombia.”
The CPA demands that:
- Iván Duque & his government must resign
- The end of police brutality against the Colombian people
- That the perpetrators of this violence be held accountable
- People are given proper access to adequate healthcare
See CPA statement.