#SOSColombia: How Colombian tax reforms sparked an anti-government uprising years in the making

Colombia is in revolt. Over the last three weeks, protesters have taken to the streets en masse to demonstrate against an unpopular tax reform bill, despite a military crackdown that has left at least 43 people dead and thousands injured. The bill threatened to squeeze the livelihoods of already struggling Colombian workers. But now protests have swelled into something far bigger, born of generations of political injustice that Colombians have had to shoulder. To understand why people are mobilising in the present, we must look to the recent past.

The current ‘Paro Nacional’ [national strike] began on 28 April, when hundreds of thousands of trade unionists, workers, Indigenous groups, activists, students and teachers, assembled to protest the tax reform bill proposed by conservative president Iván Duque Márquez.

The bill, argued Duque, was indispensable to tackling the country’s post-pandemic economic crisis. But citizens disagree; the reforms would punish the lower and middle classes, affecting anyone earning as little as 2.6m pesos (£496 per month), leaving the rich unscathed. New VAT rates would also tax everyday items, including rice, water, meat, tampons and gasoline. Coming after the economic hardship caused by Covid-19 – which saw Colombia’s GDP drop by 6.8% whilst poverty rose to 42.5% – the bill was, as Colombians would say, ‘la gota que colmó el vaso’ [the last straw], particularly after watching Duque waste $10.1bn on military expenditure in 2020. 

People took to the streets. But quickly the demands of protesters surpassed simply withdrawing the bill. The uprising has become a continuation of strikes in November 2019, which responded to the assassinations of activists, Indigenous people, women, LGBTQI+ people and Afro-Colombians. The pandemic had temporarily subdued the 2019 protests, but the tax reform reignited them. The movement has a new slogan too: “SOS Colombia”. 

Duque’s attempts to quell the unrest by withdrawing the bill on 2 May, were too late. So he turned to riot police, whose violent response only further stoked the fires of nationwide resentment towards paramilitarism and inequality. At the time of writing, riot police have killed and sexually assaulted innocent civilians, with Colombian NGO, Temblores, confirming the use of tear gas and live ammunition, registering 2387 cases of physical violence against protesters, 43 homicides, 1139 arbitrary detentions, 33 victims of eye injuries and 27 cases of sexual assault since 18 May. 

What do protesters in Colombia want?

Protesters are fighting for greater access to education and employment, especially as Covid-19 forced 3.6 million Colombians into poverty. They are also calling to protect rural, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, who suffer land expropriation and were hardest hit by the violence in rural areas between leftist FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] insurgents and US-sponsored ESMAD [riot police] forces during Colombia’s most violent period in the late 20th century. They have also been the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, lacking access to essential services.   

The US is almost as major a player in these uprisings as Duque is. American intervention subsidised the war between the Colombian government and FARC, which saw 220,000 civilians killed over five decades and displaced seven million Colombians from their homes. The US spent $7.5m on Plan Colombia in 2000 to fight drug trafficking, but many Colombians have criticised it for funding the militarisation of police instead. Plan Colombia intended to cut violence in the country by half, over six years, and take land held by insurgent groups during peace talks between the government and the FARC. While it helped encourage FARC insurgents to negotiate a peace deal, its contribution to human rights violations far exceeded any benefits. 

Aerial fumigation – which uses agricultural aircraft to spray crops with herbicides – on Colombia’s coca plantations as a way to eradicate the production of cocaine, was a central part of the plan and a point of these protests. After its implementation, coca production inadvertently increased, leaving farmers exposed to glyphosate, a likely carcinogenic chemical. Fumigation was halted in 2016 but under pressure from the US, its leading cocaine consumer, talks are taking place to restart it. Farmers and Indigenous communities are being ignored and are fighting to be included in development schemes, asking for economic alternatives to coca production. 

“Duque has tried to quell the protests by creating the image of a ‘leftist mob’ that he separates from the concept of the ‘Colombiano de Bien’ (a good Colombian)”

In 2016, a historic Peace Agreement was signed between left-wing FARC rebels and the government of former president Juan Manuel Santos. The agreement was supposed to build lasting peace between the Colombian government and the FARC but the government has failed to implement its pledges, preventing ex-combatants from reintegrating into civilian life and from rebuilding social ties dismantled by the counterinsurgency war. Officials were expected to provide security to zones suffering the long-term effects of the war. Instead, violence has increased and new criminal and paramilitary groups have replaced the FARC. Colombians have been waiting for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission between the government and ex-FARC rebels, consistently pushed back by the government. 

Citizens are also defending community leaders. The cruel irony is that those most dedicated to social and environmental issues in Colombia are also the most vulnerable. The NGO Indepaz, reports that since the 2016 Peace Agreement, 269 Indigenous leaders have been assassinated and over 800 social leaders were murdered from 2016 to 2019. In 2020 alone, at least 96 activists were killed. Colombia is the most dangerous place to be an environmental activist. In 2019, Global Witness registered that 64 of 212 murders of environmental defenders were Colombian, underscoring the government’s complicity. Community leaders and activists’ sustainable efforts are crucial to protecting the country’s ecosystems and supporting working and lower-middle-class Colombians whose livelihoods depend on the environment. They are not protected.

These factors have all fed into an anti-government uprising that is only the beginning of a fight for survival and democracy. The coming years are likely to see a renewed left depending on the Peace Agreement developments. Duque has tried to quell the protests by creating the image of a “leftist mob”, that he separates from the concept of the ‘Colombiano de Bien’ (a good Colombian) – a term he uses to separate “honourable”, compliant citizens from those resisting his government. 

Using small instances of looting and vandalism at the protests as an excuse, Duque has had no qualms ordering the military to clear those ‘blocking the roadblocks‘ using brutal force. Next year could see a judicial process against the atrocities he committed. Meanwhile, ex-FARC M-19 member Gustavo Petro is running for the 2022 Elections, currently in the lead to be the first leftist president in Colombia’s history. Leftist politicians and communities in Colombia have historically faced paramilitary violence; the country’s political system has been largely dominated by right-wing and centrist governments. Even now, Petro’s voters are receiving threats

As for international support for the protests, the USA needs to suspend security assistance to ESMAD. The US State Department has only indirectly encouraged Colombian authorities to act with “greater restraint”, and open dialogue between protesters and the government, but president Joe Biden is yet to condemn the government’s blatant crimes against humanity. The UK must also acknowledge their role in supplying the Colombian government with weapons and training. 

The Colombian diaspora has united to spread awareness and rally international support for those on the frontline, disseminating images and videos under the hashtag #SOSColombia and #paronacional, organising protests, rallies and vigils and offering links to fundraisers and petitions. In the UK, we’re calling on the British government to support the Peace Agreement, help human rights defenders and marginalised communities, reform their training of Colombia’s security services and stop the sale of weapons by signing the Early Day Motion. 

To support the SOS Colombia movement, sign the Early Day Motion and Petition and click here to donate.