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Colombia protests continue after government withdraws tax reform

Colombia's finance minister has resigned, but observers believe the public's outrage extends beyond the widely panned tax plan.

Colombia, San Jose Del Guaviare – Unions are making new demands of President Ivan Duque’s right-wing government in Colombia, following his withdrawal of a planned tax reform that ignited widespread popular outrage.

The government claimed the tax reform was necessary to stabilize an economy devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, but the working and middle classes claimed the proposal favored the wealthy while increasing pressure on them.

Many people were enraged by a slew of new or increased taxes on residents and business owners, as well as the reduction or removal of many tax exemptions, such as those on product sales.

After spending the majority of the day in meetings with Duque, Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla submitted his resignation on Monday evening. Carrasquilla said in a ministry statement, as stated by the Reuters news agency, that his continued presence in government would make it more difficult to reach the requisite consensus quickly and effectively.

Demonstrations, however, are likely to continue, according to experts. Colombians are tired of the government “putting more taxes” on the population, which is still suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Alicia Gomez, a 51-year-old cleaner who supports the protests.

She said,” “We have to keep fighting because if we don’t they’re going to take our rights away completely.”

Duque had previously stated that the law would not be reversed, but demonstrations, deaths, and international criticism of alleged police human rights violations against demonstrators forced him to concede on Sunday.

“This is the first time that the government has budged when faced by widespread popular opposition,” said Arlene Tickner, a political science professor at Bogota’s Rosario University.

“The fact that the tax reform stood little chance of being approved in the Congress, combined with the growing unruliness of the protests and domestic and international condemnation of widespread police brutality, likely factored into the president’s decision.”

Carrasquilla was asked how much a dozen eggs cost in a local media interview last month. His unreasonable response, in which he said they were more than four times cheaper than they actually are, infuriated a country already suffering from a coronavirus-related economic crisis.

“Minister Carrasquilla should resign because a minister who doesn’t know how much a dozen eggs costs is an embarrassment to us Colombians,” Gomez, a Bogota resident, said before the minister confirmed his resignation.

Tremendous dissatisfaction

But public outrage isn’t limited to tax reform; Gimena Sanchez of the Washington Office on Latin America think tank told Al Jazeera that the streets are filled with “tremendous discontent.”

“The brutal repression [of protests] has fueled it and made it worse,” Sanchez said.

“Duque’s unpopularity and perceived distance from the general populace and their interests combined with the economic downturn due to COVID and restrictions, increased insecurity and disinterest in advancing peace will keep these [protests] going.”

The country’s largest unions called a national strike last Wednesday, and demonstrations have continued since then in Bogota, Medellin, and Cali, among other cities. The most violent clashes between demonstrators and police have occurred in Cali.

The National Strike Committee announced on Monday that the demonstrations would continue, with the next national strike set for Wednesday.

In a press conference, Francisco Maltes, president of the Central Union of Workers (CUT), said, “Protesters are demanding much more than the repeal of the tax reform.”

Unions are demanding that a planned health reform be withdrawn, as well as a guaranteed basic income of one million pesos ($260) for all Colombians, as well as the demilitarization of towns, an end to current police brutality, and the dismantling of the ESMAD heavy-handed riot police.

Police brutality


Human rights organizations have also criticized the country’s police force for violations of human rights during recent demonstrations. Local authorities and NGO estimates are widely contested, so Al Jazeera was unable to confirm the number of deaths.

According to local ombudsman reports, 16 civilians and one police officer have died so far, while Temblores, a national NGO that tracks police brutality, has reported 26 protesters killed by police and 1,181 cases of police violence.

“The current human rights situation in Colombia is critical … there are no guarantees for life nor for the protection of protesters,” Sebastian Lanz, co-director of Temblores, told Al Jazeera.

Lanz said, “The internal human rights verification agencies are not working” “We demand that President Ivan Duque and the police stop this massacre now.”

Colombia Protest
Image Source: Al Jazeera Demonstrators clash with members of security forces during a protest against the tax reform of President Ivan Duque’s government in Bogota, Colombia April 28, 2021. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

“Colombia faces particular threats from criminal organizations that are behind these violent acts,” Diego Molano said at a press conference, according to Reuters. Molano did not say how many people were killed in the recent protests, but he did say the attorney general’s office would look into it.

The head of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, told Al Jazeera that as the death toll from the protests increases, “the need for a police reform appears unpostponable”.

“Protesters who engage in violence should be investigated, but that is no excuse for using brutal force. Recent experience in Colombia raises questions on whether the police – and its anti-riot police force, ESMAD – are fit to carry out crowd control operations that respect basic rights,” he said.

Attitude of the government
However, with the demonstrations set to intensify, political observers doubt whether Duque’s government fully understands the depth of Colombians’ dissatisfaction.

“This started as something about tax reform, but now it’s about all other sorts of things. It’s snowballed into a much larger protest that I think the government doesn’t really have a grasp of,” Sergio Guzman, a political analyst and the founder of Colombia Risk Analysis, told Al Jazeera.

Guzman stated that the government could begin a new national dialogue, but for the time being, it appears to be concentrating on determining who will take over as finance minister.

“I think that’s going to give us a lot of indications of whether or not the government is listening to the people out on the street, because if it chooses somebody from inside the current party, it’s suggesting that they think they can handle this crisis on their own.”

According to political scientist Tickner, Duque’s presidency has been marked by corruption, arrogance, and a refusal to recognise legitimate sources of discontent.

“There is little reason to think that things will change significantly now that he is nearing the one-year mark for the end of his government,” she said, referring to the May 29 presidential elections in Colombia.

She went on to say that she doesn’t see the demonstrations coming to an end anytime soon. “There is little indication that the government will engage in the type of genuine national dialogue that is being called for.”

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