Colombia's National Strike
Gearóid Ó Loingsigh (in Bogotá)
05 May 2021
Colombia's national strike or to use the local terminology, stoppage (paro) began on April 28th with enormous protests and has now entered its eight day with another round of mass protests around the country on May 5th, which has seen truck drivers and rural communities join in, paralysing whole swathes of the country.
The reason for the protests is yet another tax reform from the extreme right wing government of Iván Duque. This is the third tax reform of his government. As Libardo Sarmiento has pointed out...
The three tax reforms of the Duque administration (2018-2022) have one common denominator: benefits for the large companies and a greater tax burden for 80% of the population, which is poor and vulnerable through a mechanism that squeezes from both sides: on one hand, higher taxes on their personal income and on the other hand taxes on their consumption of basic foodstuff. (1)According to the same analyst, this represents an increase in taxes of between 300 and 500 percent on the middle class, guaranteeing its disappearance. The so called reform aims to raise 31 trillion Colombian pesos (just over 8 billion dollars) having already destined just under half that amount, USD 3.6 billion, for the purchase of new jet fighters. Moreover, his previous tax reform which reduced taxes paid by multinationals has already cost the treasury around USD 1 billion in its first two years and is projected to cost more than a billion in 2022. (2)
Duque's government was spared the last time round due to the vacillation of the trade union bureaucracy and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw public gatherings curtailed and initially a great deal of fear about the nature of the virus led to people staying in doors, but not anymore. Almost a third of the increased tax take will come from VAT on basic items alone. Duque proposed taxes on everything from water to funeral services, oranges and other fruits but not on Coca Cola or Pepsi products. Understandably, this angered many. Duque, who is not known for his intelligence and is widely considered to be just a dumb stooge for Uribe, went on national television and in an interview claimed he didn't understand why VAT of 19% would be levied on funeral services.
The protests on April 28th were massive and in Bogotá, were peaceful initially, so much so, I left the main square to go home and upload photos, but Colombia's specialised riot squad attacked the demonstration as it did in other parts of the country. However, the anger of the population was such that they did not bow down and rioting broke out practically everywhere. The police attacked the demonstrations with the usual weapons, tear gas, stun grenades and baton charges. However, they also entered into poor neighbourhoods firing not only their personal side arms, which most police carry on them at all times, but also with specially issued assault rifles. The result is not surprising and echoes previous stoppages.
Figures on police violence are rising daily, but as of May 4th human rights groups had confirmed 26 murders by the police, 761 arbitrary arrests and nine victims of sexual violence committed by the police.(3) The Public Defenders Office which was slow to react, eventually acknowledged there were 50 people disappeared, though human rights groups believed the figure is much higher. Some of these may be released, others may be charged and yet others will be killed and disappeared or have their bodies dumped, as occurred in Chile. Colombia's police has also borrowed another Chilean tactic, that of firing at the eyes of demonstrators, injuring at least 17 people. The levels of violence are such that even a United Nations delegate complained of being attacked, whilst most European Embassies, including the Irish one, have either remained silent or issued mealy mouthed appeals for restraint and de-escalation.
The police violence has done little to reduce the outrage and determination of the population. Today's marches on May 5th were also massive in character and in Bogotá, there were 35 separate marches throughout the city, with one major one in the centre and the rest in poor neighbourhoods. Cali has seen the largest demonstrations in its history and towns that did not traditionally hold May Day marches, did so this year, despite the trade union bureaucracy pulling out of this year's demos. Nevertheless, the demonstrations were huge and the decision of the bureaucracy, left them exposed and further eroded what little authority they had.
It is clear that the trade union bureaucracy and the Congressional left parties want to do a deal and position themselves for next year's presidential and congressional elections. However, the protests have led to the withdrawal of the tax reform bill and the resignation of the Minister of Finance, Carrasquilla. There is a danger, however, that the bill will be repackaged and put forward again along with other pending reforms such as the Health Bill. The people smell blood and are not keen on taking any prisoners and calls have been made for the withdrawal of all the bills and the resignation of Duque and his government. Meanwhile, the government party CDC (Democratic Centre of Colombia) has called for a declaration of a State of Internal Unrest, which though civilian in nature, would give sweeping powers to the government and the military and would effectively be a form of martial law and the statement by FARC dissidents that they would impose an armed strike in rural areas, may just give them the excuse they need.
The following days are crucial and depend on how much Duque cedes and whether he throws a bone to the reformist left to call off the demonstrations or whether he digs in and provokes even greater resistance from the population. As of yet, though, there is no national leadership to the movement and there exists the danger that it may run out of steam or be demobilised by left senators and NGOs, some of whom are open about their desire for dialogue.
As I finish this article, I can hear explosions from police stun grenades in the nearby main square. Once again, I left a peaceful demonstration, which was no doubt later attacked by the police.
(1) Libardo Sarmiento
Anzola (2021) Reforma tributaria 2021: el tercer raponazo duquista.
Le Monde Diplomatique. Edición 210. Mayo 2021 pp 4-7
(3) See Contagio Radio
(04/05/2021) 50 personas desparecidas en el marco del Paro Nacional según