Colombia protests continue after government withdraws tax reform

Colombia’s finance minister has resigned, but experts say public anger goes beyond the widely-decried tax proposal.

Women shout slogans during a demonstration against the Colombian government's proposed tax reform, in Bogota, on May 1 [Fernando Vergara/AP Photo]

San Jose Del Guaviare, Colombia – Violent protests continue around Colombia as unions make more demands of the right-wing government of President Ivan Duque following his withdrawal of a proposed tax reform that sparked widespread public anger.

The government said the tax reform aimed to stabilise a country economically ravished by the coronavirus pandemic, but the working and middle classes said the plan favoured the rich while placing more pressure on them.

An array of new or expanded taxes on citizens and business owners and a reduction and elimination on many tax exemptions, such as those on product sales, angered many.

Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla submitted his resignation on Monday evening, after spending most of the day in meetings with Duque. “My continuance in the government will complicate the quick and effective construction of the necessary consensus,” Carrasquilla said in a ministry statement, as reported by the Reuters news agency.

But experts say demonstrations are expected to go on. Alicia Gomez, a 51-year-old cleaner who supports the protests, told Al Jazeera that Colombians are tired of the government “putting more taxes” on the population, which is already struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

Duque previously insisted that the reform would not be withdrawn, but continuing protests, deaths and international condemnation of alleged human rights abuses against protesters by police saw the president concede on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.”

In a local media interview last month, Carrasquilla was asked how much a dozen eggs cost. His unrealistic answer – he said they were more than four times cheaper than they actually are – sparked outrage in a country already struggling with a coronavirus-related economic crisis.

“Minister Carrasquilla should resign because a minister that doesn’t even know how much a dozen eggs costs is a complete embarrassment for us Colombians,” Gomez, who works in Bogota, said before the minister announced his resignation.

Police block a road as truckers and their vehicles take part in a national strike against the tax reform in Bogota, Colombia, on May 3 [Fernando Vergara/AP Photo]

‘Tremendous discontent’

But popular anger goes beyond the tax reform alone; Gimena Sanchez of the Washington Office on Latin America think-tank told Al Jazeera there is “tremendous discontent” in the streets.

“The brutal repression [of protests] has fuelled 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.”

A national strike was called last Wednesday by the country’s largest unions and protests have been ongoing since then in Bogota, Medellin and Cali, among other cities. Cali has seen the most intense clashes between protesters and police.

On Monday, the National Strike Committee said the protests would continue, with the next national strike scheduled for Wednesday.

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

Unions are calling for a withdrawal of a proposed health reform and a guaranteed basic income of one million pesos ($260) for all Colombians, as well as the demilitarisation of cities, an end to the ongoing police violence and the dismantling of heavy-handed riot police known as ESMAD.

Police violence

Human rights groups also have condemned the country’s police force for human rights abuses during the recent protests. Al Jazeera was unable to confirm the number of deaths, as local authorities and NGO figures are widely disputed.

Local ombudsman reports have said 16 civilians and one police officer have died to date, while Temblores, an NGO that monitors police violence nationwide, said 26 protesters have been killed by police and 1,181 cases of police violence have been registered.

“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.

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

On Monday, the head of Colombia’s national police force, General Jorge Luis Vargas, said 26 investigations into police misconduct have been opened. The country’s defence minister on Monday blamed the recent violence on “armed groups”.

A protester stokes a fire during a protest against the tax reform in Bogota on May 1 [File: Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

“Colombia faces particular threats from criminal organisations that are behind these violent acts,” Diego Molano said during a news conference, as reported by the Reuters news agency. Molano did not say how many people had died in the recent unrest, but said the office of the attorney general would investigate.

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.

Government attitude

But as the protests are expected to continue, political analysts question whether Duque’s government truly grasps the breadth of Colombians’ discontent.

“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 who runs the Colombia Risk Analysis firm, told Al Jazeera.

Guzman said the government could start a new national dialogue, but it appears focused for the time being on deciding 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.”

University students march in Bogota during a national strike against the tax reform on May 3 [Fernando Vergara/AP Photo]

Tickner, the political scientist, said Duque’s presidency has been characterised by a combination of incompetence, arrogance and unwillingness to acknowledge legitimate sources of disgruntlement.

“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, as Colombian presidential elections are scheduled for May 29 next year.

She added that she sees no end to the protests for now. “There is little indication that the government will engage in the type of genuine national dialogue that is being called for.”

Source: Al Jazeera