In April 2021, amidst a global health crisis and persistently rising unemployment rates, Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez proposed a tax reform bill that would significantly increase taxation on a majority of the nations’ citizens. Immediately, thousands of people took to the streets to protest the proposed policy, which was widely perceived as a government infringement upon their socio-economic rights and freedoms. Police and state security forces have thus far approached these demonstrations with violence and harsh anti-protest measures, drawing even further international attention and condemnation.
Such brutal repression, specifically in the urban centre of Cali, is indicative of the severe inequality that permeates socio-economic structures in Colombia. For many, the Duque governments’ controversial tax plan was only the tip of the iceberg.
The Tax Plan
To support Colombia’s domestic COVID-19 economic response, the Duque government borrowed heavily, significantly increasing the national deficit. In an attempt to work towards balancing the country’s budget, the government subsequently drafted the proposed tax reform bill as part of a multifaceted pandemic recovery plan. The reform was marketed as a necessary measure to expedite economic relief which would mostly impact upper-class families with the means to withstand it. However, the proposed $6 billion dollar tax increase has had ramifications that extend far beyond such parameters.
The policy proposed to “expand the base of contributors, eliminate exemptions, and extend the value-added tax to utilities and to some basic foods, like eggs.” In other words, those who were already struggling to make ends meet during one of the hardest financial periods seen in decades are faced with the prospect of not being able to afford basic necessities to sustain themselves and their families.
More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread vaccination is nowhere in sight for Colombia. Hospitals are exceeding their capacities, with daily COVID-related fatalities surpassing 500 people by late April. Frustrated, tired, and scared, the people of Colombia turned towards the Duque government looking for any form of honest and adequate support. Instead, they were met with a proposed fiscal plan that sought to leverage the country’s economic recovery on the sacrifice of its own citizens.
Protests and Police Repression
Following the April 15th announcement of the proposed tax plan, Colombians in rural villages and urban centres across the country organized demonstrations to demand government prioritization of the socio-economic wellbeing of its citizens over the balancing of the national budget. The city of Cali, an economic and cultural epicentre of 2.5 million people and capital of the Valle del Cauca Departamento, has been an especially tumultuous location throughout the protests. Activists have set up barricades around areas of the city, forming stations such as the well-known Puerto Resistencia (Resistance Port). Groups of protestors have gathered in these areas to demonstrate, support each other, and honor those who have lost their lives during the weeks of heightened conflict and violence the city has experienced.
Although extrajudicial and repressive anti-protest measures are not isolated to police and security forces in Cali, the city has experienced some of the worst police-inflicted violence seen since the protests began. International organizations such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Amnesty International have recognized alarming reports of lethal force used against protestors, sexual violence, property destruction, and forced dissapearances.
Unfortunately, police brutality and a lack of state recognition for the needs of low-income and marginalized communities are not a novel occurrence for the residents of Cali. The withdrawal of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) forces in recent years following a controversial peace agreement signed with the Santos government has left a power vacuum in the surrounding Cauca region, fueling political and economic instability. The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified these issues, with 59% of Cali’s residents classified as “poor or vulnerable”.
Such systemic inequality has not only ignited the initial demonstrations against the Duque governments’ tax proposal but also enabled police and state security forces to use brutal repression measures in the name of enforcing “order.” The murders of 17-year-old Marcelo Agredo and 13-year-old Jeirson García at the hands of police officers during protests in Cali sparked outrage and a shift in the movement, as Colombia is now fighting for the safety of its own civilians against the violence of state forces.
A Tax Plan Rollback and Continuing Activism
On 2 May, President Duque announced that the proposed tax plan would be withdrawn. He also made multiple trips to Cali, vowing government support for a variety of social assistance initiatives, along with pledging that police brutality exhibited in the course of the protests would be thoroughly investigated.
Despite such promises, the demonstrations in Cali and across Colombia have continued. The movement has transcended beyond a single inequitable tax policy, as it represents the sentiments of a nation that feels as though their government has been willfully ignorant of their basic rights and protections. Colombian financial ministers and international economic experts alike agree that the proposed tax plan will inevitably have to be replaced with an alternative economic policy. Whether such a plan will help President Duque deliver on his promise to support the Colombian people through future socio-economic initiatives remains to be seen. What is known for certain is that citizens in Cali and across the country will continue to advocate for rights which inalienably belong to them.
As a majority of the Western world revels in the hope that mass vaccinations bring amidst the COVID-19 crisis, the international community must also recognize the skewed pace of economic and social recovery that countries such as Colombia face. Government accountability for the state violence that the people of Colombia have experienced is certainly necessary. However, international accountability for an integrated and equitable global recovery is also an essential piece of the puzzle.
Instead of capitalizing on the economic benefits that lending schemes often present to Western governments at the expense of developing countries, it is far past time that world leaders must ask how they can meaningfully collaborate with these nations. As the pandemic continues to develop, it has become increasingly clear that we live in an era where economic recovery is seen as an isolationist endeavor, especially for the governments of affluent countries. However, the current global crisis also presents an opportunity for these governments to value meaningful collaboration with countries such as Colombia as opposed to falling back on the status quo of predatory economic negotiations. For the sake of the Colombian people, and the equitable recovery of the global community, many are hoping that world leaders will take this chance.