San Jose Del Guaviare, Colombia – Violent protests continue around Colombia as unions demand more from the right-wing government of President Ivan Duque following his withdrawal of a tax reform project which sparked widespread public anger.
The government said the tax reform was aimed at stabilizing a country economically ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, but the working and middle classes said the plan favored the wealthy while exerting more pressure on them.
A range of new or expanded taxes for citizens and business owners and a reduction and elimination of many tax exemptions, such as those on product sales, angry a lot.
Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla tendered his resignation on Monday evening, after spending most of the day in meetings with Duque. “My retention in government will make it difficult to quickly and effectively build the necessary consensus,” Carrasquilla said in a ministry statement, as reported by Reuters news agency.
But experts say the protests are expected to continue. Alicia Gomez, a 51-year-old housekeeper who supports the protests, told Al Jazeera Colombians are tired of the government “imposing more taxes” on the people, who are already struggling due to the COVID pandemic -19.
“We have to keep fighting because if we don’t, they will take away our rights completely,” she said.
Duque had previously insisted the reform would not be withdrawn, but continued protests, deaths and international condemnation of alleged human rights violations against protesters by police saw the president concedes on Sunday.
“This is the first time that the government has moved in the face of widespread popular opposition,” said Arlene Tickner, professor of political science at Rosario University in Bogota.
“The fact that tax reform was unlikely to be approved by Congress, combined with growing concern over protests and national and international condemnation of widespread police brutality, likely factored into the president’s decision.
In an interview with local media last month, Carrasquilla was asked how much a dozen eggs cost. His unrealistic response – he said they were more than four times cheaper than they actually are – sparked outrage in a country already struggling with an economic crisis linked to the coronavirus.
“Minister Carrasquilla should resign because a minister who does not even know how much a dozen eggs cost is a complete embarrassment for us Colombians,” said Gomez, who works in Bogota, before the minister announced his resignation. .
‘A huge dissatisfaction’
But popular anger goes beyond tax reform alone; Gimena Sanchez of the Washington Bureau’s Latin America think tank told Al Jazeera there is “enormous discontent” in the streets.
“Brutal repression [of protests] fueled and worsened the situation, ”Sanchez said.
“Duque’s unpopularity and perceived distance from the general population and their interests combined with the economic downturn due to COVID and restrictions, increased insecurity and disinterest in advancing peace will keep them going. [protests] To go.”
A nationwide strike was called last Wednesday by the country’s largest unions and protests have since continued 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 protests would continue, with the next national strike scheduled for Wednesday.
“The protesters demand much more than the withdrawal of tax reform,” Francisco Maltes, president of the Central Union of Workers (CUT), told a press conference.
Unions call for withdrawal of health reform bill and guaranteed basic income of one million pesos ($ 260) for all Colombians, as well as demilitarization of cities, end of violence police officers in progress and dismantling the violent police riots known as ESMAD.
Human rights groups have also condemned the country’s police force for human rights violations during recent protests. Al Jazeera was unable to confirm the death toll as local authorities and NGO figures were widely disputed.
According to reports from the local ombudsman, 16 civilians and one policeman have died so far, while Temblores, an NGO that monitors police violence across the country, said 26 protesters were killed by police and 1 181 cases of police violence were recorded.
“The current human rights situation in Colombia is critical… there is no guarantee for the life or protection of the demonstrators,” Sebastian Lanz, co-director of Temblores, told Al Jazeera.
“Internal human rights verification agencies are not functioning,” Lanz said. “We demand that President Ivan Duque and the police stop this massacre now.”
On Monday, the head of the Colombian national police, General Jorge Luis Vargas, said that 26 investigations into police misconduct had been opened. On Monday, the country’s defense minister blamed the recent violence on “armed groups”.
“Colombia faces particular threats from the criminal organizations that are behind these acts of violence,” Diego Molano said at a press conference, as the news agency reported. Reuters press. Molano did not say how many people had died in the recent unrest, but said the attorney general’s office would investigate.
Human Rights Watch’s Americas chief Jose Miguel Vivanco told Al Jazeera that as the death toll from the protests increased, “the need for police reform seems unstoppable.”
“Protesters who engage in violence should be investigated, but this is no excuse for using brute force. The recent experience in Colombia raises the question of whether the police – and its riot police force, ESMAD – are able to conduct crowd control operations that respect fundamental rights, ”he said.
But as the protests are expected to continue, political analysts question whether Duque’s government really captures the scale of Colombian discontent.
“It started out as a tax reform issue, but now it’s all kinds of stuff. It snowballed into a much larger protest that I think the government didn’t quite understand, ”Sergio Guzman, a political analyst who heads the risk analysis firm in Colombia, told Al Jazeera.
Guzman said the government could start a new national dialogue, but he seems focused for now on the decision to take over as finance minister.
“I think this is going to give us a lot of clue as to whether or not the government is listening to people on the streets, because if it chooses someone from inside the current party, it suggests that it thinks they can handle this crisis on theirs. “
Tickner, the political scientist, said Duque’s presidency has been characterized by a combination of incompetence, arrogance and reluctance to recognize legitimate sources of discontent.
“There is little reason to believe that things will change significantly now that he is approaching the one-year bar for the end of his government,” she said, as Colombian presidential elections are scheduled for May 29 next year.
She added that she saw no end to the protests at this time. “There is no indication that the government will engage in the kind of true national dialogue that is being requested.”