The Tax Protests in Colombia

Colombia today is in complete chaos. Protests there have been ongoing since April 28th and are not abating any time soon. Some media outlets have claimed that 23 civilians and 1 police officer have died so far as well as hundreds injured. Yet, Amnesty International has registered that at least 26 people have been killed from repressive measures by the National Police and some 761 arbitrary detentions have been carried out. Moreover, Amnesty International testifies to “142 victims of mistreatment, nine victims of sexual violence and 56 reports of people disappearing in the context of the demonstrations”. Additionally, Colombia is in the midst of a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly from the P.1 variant from Brazil, with 76,015 deaths and a seven day average of 15,712 new cases of the Coronavirus according to Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE).

So, why the unrest? Protests there began as a general strike over a tax reform bill proposed by the Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez to stem the economic crisis caused by the pandemic and lockdowns. According to the British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) News, “The proposed reform would have lowered the threshold at which salaries are taxed, affecting anyone with a monthly income of 2.6m [million Colombian] pesos ($684; £493) or more. It would also have eliminated many of the current exemptions enjoyed by individuals, as well as increasing taxes imposed on businesses.”

The tax proposal was deeply upsetting to many who because of the economic effects from the pandemic are on the verge of poverty. As such, the pandemic for many in Colombia and elsewhere in South America has been quite destabilizing. According to the Wallstreet Journal (WSJ), the “…stringent pandemic lockdowns that have been blamed for causing mass unemployment and throwing some four million people into poverty. Colombia is experiencing its third coronavirus surge, with nearly 500 deaths a day on average over the past week, a higher per-capita rate than India’s.”

This past Sunday (May 2nd), President Duque withdrew the controversial tax bill and the following day, Colombia’s Finance Minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, resigned, but it has not been enough to quell the unrest and the violence. The protests continue. The Duque administration’s initiative of stemming the economic losses from the pandemic have largely protected the wealthy and by contrast tried tapping the working classes for a solution to the country’s economic woes. But the class economic disparities have only worsened from the pandemic and the government’s attempted tax plan has only angered many.

As one teacher, Mayra (28 years old), proclaimed about the protests: “This is not about tax reform. This is about corruption, inequality and poverty. And all of us young people are tired of it.” And rather than lessening the use of force, the Colombian government has responded to protestors with a use of force, the same type of militarized police force used against Marxist rebels and organized crime. The United Nation’s human rights division stated its alarm over the unstable situation and that it had documented “at least one case ‘where the police opened fire on demonstrators’.”

The real question, as far as I am concerned, is why the government wishes to punish the working classes with a tax on their incomes as well as on basic services and goods, when it should be considering instead a “graduated income tax” or “progressive tax” on Colombia’s wealthy. And, I believe, the answer is obvious. The government is protecting the most powerful and wealthy because they have always ruled since the founding of the country. All of which is not uncommon elsewhere in South America as well. This is why such protests may become regional as they had from 2019 to 2020.

Hence, the protests today in Colombia are a continuation for many reasons of the demonstrations which have happened over the past couple of years. Those political rallies in 2019-2020 in Colombia likewise reflected discontent over income inequality, corruption, and police brutality but also against the economic and social reforms proposed by the Duque administration.

As stated by Julie Turkewitz of the New York Times (NYT): “The demonstrations are, in part, a continuation of a movement that swept Latin America in late 2019, as people took to the streets in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua and elsewhere. Each country’s protest was different. But in all of them, people voiced their grievances over limited opportunity, widespread corruption and officials who appeared to be working against them.”

Instead of addressing real societal concerns and class differences within Colombian society, the Duque government prefers to blame so-called leftist elements as the cause of such social unrest. In fact, the government says that the protestors are influenced by the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) and the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) guerilla group and so-called other criminal elements, which it promotes to justify its militaristic tactics.

While President Iván Duque is promoting dialogue, the question really is will he listen to true reform? A progressive tax may be a good beginning but will such a tax ever be proposed in a country like Colombia or for that matter any other country in South America?

Otherwise, as long as there are income disparities and class disparities in Colombia, and the pandemic continues to put people in financial jeopardy, the unrest will likely continue. And it may be years, before true reforms happen in Colombia, if ever.

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).