The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protests have spread across Colombia. Here’s why.

Anti-government demonstrators rally Wednesday in Bogotá, Colombia. (Ivan Valencia/AP)
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Violent protests have convulsed cities across Colombia over the past week, leaving two dozen people dead and hundreds injured. The unrest, sparked by an unpopular tax proposal, has grown into a broader expression of anti-government rage. Demonstrators, many in masks, are taking to the streets daily to protest widening inequality, a slow vaccination rollout and rising poverty caused by the country’s coronavirus outbreak.

Videos shared on social media show police using what local activists and international human rights groups say is excessive force against protesters. U.S., United Nations and European officials have called on the government of President Iván Duque to exercise restraint. The government counters that police are responding to leftist guerrillas and other armed groups that it says have infiltrated the protests. They’ve produced videos of their own that allegedly show “urban terrorists” attacking police stations.

The protests have ratcheted up tensions at time when the South American nation is withering under a brutal third wave of the coronavirus and posting some of its highest infection and death rates since the outbreak began.

Why are people protesting?

The demonstrations began in response to a pandemic-era tax plan pushed by Duque’s conservative government. The initial proposal was aimed at raising around $6.7 billion over nine years.

The coronavirus has deepened economic inequality in Colombia. The economy contracted 6.8 percent in 2020 while the poverty rose to 42.5 percent, according to data released by the national statistical agency.

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The tax plan would have affected anyone with monthly earnings of 2.6 million pesos — about $676. Opposition parties and unions immediately rejected details such as the elimination of key tax exemptions and the broadening of goods subject to a value-added tax.

The country’s major unions called for a general strike; it continued for a week, with thousands protesting day and night in different cities. Workers were joined by the middle class, who also felt targeted by the plan.

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Defense Minister Diego Molano has said most of the protests have been peaceful. Hundreds of demonstrations have taken place, covering more than 50 percent of the country’s municipalities.

What’s been the impact?

Colombia’s human rights ombudsman says 24 people have died in the protests, with security forces responsible for at least 11 deaths. More than 800 people have been wounded. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights denounced Colombia’s national police Tuesday for “opening fire” on demonstrators in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city.

People have set fire to public buses, police stations, ATMs and banks in acts the government has described as terrorism. On Wednesday, Duque offered a reward of around $2,600 for information leading to the capture of “the perpetrators of vandalism and crimes that have occurred in recent days against public infrastructure.”

The government claims that several nights of clashes prevented coronavirus vaccines from reaching Cali, and Bogotá stopped vaccination and testing. Colombia received its first shipment of 50,000 vaccine doses in February; 3.5 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

How is the government responding?

Five days after the protests erupted, Duque announced he would withdraw the tax plan and replace it with one capable of gaining more support. The architect of the initial proposal, Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla, resigned the next day.

On Tuesday, Duque invited all parties and members of civil society to a dialogue to end the strike, but the protests continued. Officials are blaming the violence on drug traffickers and guerrillas including dissident members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — the FARC — and the National Liberation Army, or ELN.

Colombian guerrillas are using coronavirus curfews to expand their control. Violators have been killed.

“It has been determined that in the disorders and vandalism that occurred in the city of Cali in recent days are structures linked to drug trafficking, the ELN and the FARC dissidents that operate in the department of Cauca,” Attorney General Francisco Barbosa said Tuesday, without providing evidence. Prosecutors announced 185 investigations into “urban terrorism.” Police and military officials say 769 police officers have been injured.

What happens next?

The protests are expected to continue. “The people, in the streets, are demanding much more than the withdrawal of the tax reform,” said Francisco Maltés, president of the Workers Central Union.

“This protest is no longer about tax reform,” said Oliver Wack, general manager for Colombia for the consulting firm Control Risks. “It is about general discontent, joining 2018-2019 levels of unrest with pandemic fallout. The political left, and the hard left … are seeing the opportunity to leverage this unrest as part of their electoral strategy.”

Duque’s term, which began in 2018, has been marked by mass protests that abated only when the pandemic arrived. Colombia limits its president to a single four-year term; voters will choose Duque’s successor next year. “I associate the violence with the proximity of the elections,” opposition Sen. Wilson Arias told The Washington Post. “For the first time, they are facing very adverse results.”

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Protesters are now demanding a vaccination program for all citizens, the withdrawal of a bill to overhaul the health system and government aid of at least minimum wage. Meetings between the government, opposition parties and key civil society leaders are set to start on Monday.

“The Duque government was already weak prior to these protests, which started in 2019 but were put on hold due to the pandemic and restrictions,” Gimena Sánchez of the Washington Office on Latin America told The Washington Post. “The militarization of cities, repression and violence against legitimate protests will not squash it but increase the possibility of further rebellion.”

Sánchez said the unrest could spread to neighbors.

“In terms of the region, as in 2019, we saw Chile inspiring Colombia, Brazil and other countries, so yes, it could reactivate activism throughout the Americas.”

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