In the last week, Colombia has experienced the most widespread civil unrest of its modern history. Since Wednesday, April 28th, millions of people have taken to the streets to fight back against a regressive national tax reform bill. The bill, farcically called the “law of sustainable solidarity,” aimed to cover budgetary shortfalls resulting from the paralysis of the economy brought on by COVID. In fact, the legislation was a cynical attempt by right-wing President Ivan Duque to shift the burden of the economic crisis onto those who can least afford it.
The Reforma Tributaria, as the bill was called, aimed to raise US $ 6.3 billion (about 23 billion Colombian pesos), through regressive sales taxes of 19% on essential products such as cereal, milk, sugar, and coffee. It also threatened to impose 19% taxes on utilities (water, electricity, and gas). Meanwhile, the financial sector and oil and mining corporations enjoy substantial tax benefits that were granted as part of Duque’s last tax reform in 2019.
Demonstrations began last week with a strike, called by the Comité Nacional del Paro and the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (National Strike Committee and the National Unions Council). By the weekend huge protests had broken out in the major cities of Cali, Bogota, Medellin, Pereira, and hundreds of other municipalities. On Sunday night, with half a dozen cities up in flames, President Duque rescinded the bill. But as you Americans are fond of saying, the horses were out of the barn.
Throughout the week, protesters have remained on the streets in force, fueled by anger at the poor management of the pandemic and widespread sentiment that the government has completely lost touch with the struggles and troubles of common people in the country. This feeling has only been exacerbated by the extreme police brutality unleashed during the strikes, which has left close to 30 dead, hundreds wounded, and close to a hundred missing. Amnesty international has called the use of force by ESMAD (the riot police of Colombia), “excessive and unnecessary,” and the UN reported its own mission in Cali was attacked and threatened by the police.
What has emerged in the last week is a distinct pattern, a contrast between tense protests during the day and police terror at night. Daytime protests are often led by strike committee members and other civil society groups: teachers, civil servants, students, activists. These protests have been attacked by the ESMAD, but have remained largely peaceful. At night, the security forces’ reign of terror begins. Across the country reports have emerged of kidnappings, assassinations, random shootings at unarmed crowds, and rapes. As Bogotá based El Tiempo columnist Sandra Borda said in an interview with the New York Times, Duque appears to be offering an olive branch to protestors during the day and sending police and thugs out to kill protestors by night.
In Bogota, the protests during the day have remained relatively peaceful. Green Party mayor Claudia Lopez rejected Duque’s offer to send troops alongside of ESMAD police and instead sent the army to guard jails and police stations. However, protesters have denounced ESMAD abuses and human rights activists have been detained. In the south of Bogotá, the anti riots police (ESMAD) attacked protesters with an electronic multiple projectile launcher propelled from a tank. The “Venom,” as it is nicknamed, costs US $ 110,000, and the flash grenade canisters of tear gas that it fires cost $ 71 a piece. By the middle of the week, on the 8th day of protests more than 27,000 protesters were gather in 20 points around the capital. Despite heavy rains and strong ESMAD presence protesters held rallies at cities main parks and universities. On Thursday, a major of the police in a town near Bogotá was captured as person of interest for the murder of the 24 year old Brayan Niño, who has become a symbol of police violence in the capital.
Last weekend Cali, a city of 3 million (the third largest in the country), became the epicenter of the protests. Famed for its Salsa dancing, a huge “salsa party protest” broke out in the streets, with people dancing to the rhythm of their beloved salsa music and the sound of the cacerolazos (banging on pots and pans, a universal form of protest in South America, especially when food is at stake). However, this week the situation in Cali has become increasingly complicated. The city has been the focus of an intense police and military crackdown on the protest—it is by far the most militarized of Colombian cities at this point. However, this is in part because the national strike has in Cali been infiltrated by unidentified armed groups, which in addition to looting and stealing gasoline have been accused of shooting protesters. In one strange case, protesters actually convinced looters to return goods to stores. On Tuesday, Caleños endured twelve-hour-long Internet and power outages. Protesters were panicked because they could not get through to their families and post on social media, the preferred mode of denouncing ESMAD’s abuses. As of today, Cali has suffered the most cases of police brutality and murders, and is running out of gasoline, as the main access roads to the city are barricaded.
North of Cali, in the heart of the coffee region, Pereira was the site of the tragic death of Lucas Villa-Vargas, one of the faces of the movement. On Wednesday evening, Villa-Vargas, a college student of physical education, was standing on El Viaducto, the main bridge running into Pereira, when he was killed by a gunman in a drive-by motorcycle shooting. As people who live in popular neighborhoods in Colombian cities know well, two men approaching on a cheap motorcycle is an ominous sign. Along with Villa, the gunman shot two other young movement members, who are now fighting for their lives at a local hospital. The mayor of Pereira has offered rewards for capturing the gunman and hundreds of thousands of viewers have seen Lucas’s assassination online. Amongst Pereiranos there is little doubt that Villa’s murderer was a hired gun. Lucas’s leadership had become highly visible among the protesters in Pereira; sadly, such recognition in social justice protests often comes with a high cost in Colombia.
The rage over the proposed tax reform also comes amidst one of the worst waves of Covid outbreak in the world. In many cities’ ICUs are at full capacity, and the vaccination drive has been a resounding failure. Less than 8% of the population have received the first dose and many of those saw their second doses postponed as far as three months due to lack of supplies. Instead of prioritizing direct negotiating with Pfizer, the government authorized private health companies to negotiate in order to purchase doses for the elite. Public testing is hardly available, and at $50, private labs testing is well beyond the budgets of most families. The day after the strikes began, the Minister of Health tweeted a threat that cities with large strikes and protests would have their already poor supplies of the vaccine suspended. He retracted his grotesque threat a day later, but the damage was done. Social media and news outlets have ridiculed the incompetence of the government and the high-profile staff who, as is well known throughout the country, fly to Miami to get vaccinated while prioritized groups in the low-income class wait anxiously for their first shots.
As in many countries, so in Colombia, covid has exacerbated what were already, before the pandemic, outrageous wage and income disparities and deep inequality. In Colombia 63.8% of the population earn no more than a minimum wage, equivalent to US $270 monthly (DANE, 2020), and 2.2 million Colombian families eat only twice a day (DANE, 2020). The percentage of people living in poverty went from 35.7% in 2019 to 42.5% in 2020 (Portafolio, March 2021). Contrast this with the government officials who were poised to push through the regressive reform. In Colombia, a member of congress earns thirty four times the minimum monthly salary, or around US $9,430 every month. Congressman and women also receive a monthly quota of plain tickets, a rented bulletproof car, insurance, cellphone plans, and staff salaries for a total monthly cost per member of US $ 25,837. As far as public spending goes, in March, Duque announced a decision to acquire twenty-four last generation F-16 air force planes for US $ 4.5 billion. On Tuesday, May 4th, amid the protests, the minister of finance withdrew the plan.
Across society, Colombian inequality is backed by a well-consolidated stratum system. In the strata system, urban areas get assigned a number from one to six according to the quality of the dwellings and urban development (Decree-Law 3069/1968; Law 142/1994). The stratum system is unique to Colombia, designed in the late 60s to redistribute utilities costs by assigning subsidies to low strata (1 and 2) through overpayments from high strata (5 and 6). However, in reality, it has become a widespread mark of status and contributes to discrimination and social immobility. While the strata system is not based on household income, it has led to outcomes that are similar to the effects of redlining in American cities. In a large city like Bogota, a strata 5 person in the north could spend his or her entire life without setting foot in the poor south. In all likelihood, the maids, nannies, and doormen working for them are the only close relationship with a low strata person that high-strata people ever experience. This total disconnection, separating rich and poor, perhaps explains why vice-president Marta Ramirez recently blamed informal workers themselves for not having savings to ride out the pandemic, adding that they should stop expecting welfare to solve their problems and urging them to take the pandemic as an opportunity to “rebrand” themselves.
Colombians have tended to respond to such ignominies with meme-gallows-humor in social media. Likewise, they responded to colossal corruption scandals, and continuous incites of public money defraud. Each corruption scandal floods the news for a few weeks until it dissolved into the next, hardly ever any high public official is held accountable or the public money recovered. Meanwhile, neighboring countries have overthrown presidents and convicted high officials for similar white-collar crimes. Accurately, conservative sectors flaunt that the country is the steadiest democracy in the continent. But last week, sarcasm and passivity gave way to fury.
The resilience of the protesters is a hopeful sign for a country that has not witnessed the level of popular urban protest and progressive political organizing as many of its neighbors on the continent. Colombia was, of course, home to Marxist guerrilla movements, most famously the FARC, and experienced a half-century-long civil war. This war, however, was fought in the rural hinterlands while cities remain in compliance with every neoliberal reform implemented by one right wing government after another. For decades, the very presence of the unpopular guerilla helped the government and elites stigmatize and delegitimize any political activity that showed the slightest socialist influence. When more muscle was needed, paramilitary groups could be relied on, and Colombia was long one of the most dangerous places in the world for union organizers.
However, as Hylton (2020) has written, many Colombians see their current political situation as a potential historical opening. President Duque’s labor reform bill in 2019 catalyzed a nationwide urban mobilization not seen since the 1977 civic strike. In this presidential period, protests have emerged as a regular feature of Colombia’s political landscape. The defeat of the regressive bill is an unprecedented triumph for the youth, the urban poor, and the unions of teachers and health care workers who promoted the uprising. The government, eager to regain control of the situation, has reached out to the Comite del Paro to accelerate the time table for talks. The Strike Committee has maintained that the demilitarization of the cities is a condition of its coming to the table.
Update: When this article was written it was reported that Lucas Villa-Vargas had been killed in Pereira. He was shot eight times and was presumed dead. Almost miraculously, it now appears that he is in critical condition in a hospital in Pereira. The people are asking that the city name the bridge where he was shot–Pereira’s most notable architectural feature–in his honor.
Thanks to Patrick Madden for editorial assistance.