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Why Colombians are taking to the streets

Cristina Papaleo
May 13, 2021

The ongoing protests reveal how economically vulnerable most of Colombia's population is. But the grievances run much deeper than that.

A Colombian protester waves a flag.
Colombians have been protesting for two weeksImage: Paola Mafla/AFP

For the past two weeks, mass protests have rocked Colombia, leaving at least 42 people dead and hundreds injured. A change to tax law presented by President Ivan Duque has been reported as the trigger of the protests.
The change, which would have increased the sales tax, had the stated purpose of plugging fiscal gaps, maintaining investments and subsidizing impoverished families after the government ramped up public spending as part of its response to the pandemic. The plan — which would have added financial pressure to middle-class families already strapped during a pandemic economy — sparked outrage. 
Although some economists say Colombia needs changes to tax law, people from diverse segments of society have spilled into the streets to voice their disapproval. 
Social discontent is nothing new in Colombia — and the proposed tax change is only one in a long list of grievances. People marched against the Duque administration in 2019.
Though the pandemic exacerbated social inequalities, the health emergency had muted public outcry until now.  

"The poverty and hunger figures in Colombia this past year have been alarming," said Alejandro Rodriguez Llach, an economist and main researcher with the Dejusticia think tank. 
More than 3.5 million people fell into poverty in 2020, meaning that 42.5% of the population lives under the poverty line now. These are the findings of Colombia's Administrative Department for Statistics. 
Another 30% could be pushed into hardship if faced with any sort of economic crisis. That means, in total, almost three-quarters of the population are economically vulnerable.

On top of that, unemployment rose by five points in 2020, especially among young Colombians. 

Protesters clash with police at a protest in the capital Bogota.
Almost 75% of Colombians are economically vulnerableImage: Nathalia Angarita/Reuters

The forgotten middle class 

The minimum wage in Colombia is about 940,000 pesos (€210/$250) per month. But people living in extreme poverty make as little as 145,000 pesos. 
These families could have benefited from the proposed raising of the value-added tax and redistribution of some of the funds.
But this plan also would have raised the price of basic needs and put the onus on people who are struggling even if they don't live in abject poverty, Rodriguez said.
"People who are economically vulnerable weren't taken into consideration," he added. "That's almost half of the population — a very heterogeneous group that doesn't have access to state help and has no way of mitigating the impact of the pandemic."
This part of the population depends solely on a monthly salary that is constantly deteriorating, Rodriguez said.
The proposal also "caused great indignation because, despite some progressive elements, it concentrated on collecting from the middle class instead of high-income earners."

'Extremely explosive combination'

"Many people in Colombia don't have a lot to lose except for their lives," said Monika Lauer Perez, a Colombia expert with the German charity Adveniat, adding that the tax reform was only "the last straw."

"It's complete desperation, anger and indignation that is making people march to be heard and to see if they can change something," she said. "It's an extremely explosive combination."

Protesters hold a candle vigil for those who were killed or injured in the protests.
At least 42 people have died in the protestsImage: Juan B Diaz/Reuters

Besides the gaping inequality in the country — Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America — Rodriguez sees other persistent issues: a lack of opportunities, structural racism, and the government's military actions. 

The country's 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerilla group was supposed to end decades of armed conflict. But many Colombians are disappointed with the government's slow implementation of the accord.

Four and a half years after the deal passed, violence continues in former FARC territories. Many of these war-torn, rural areas have seen little investment and became a fertile ground for criminal gangs to take over for illegal mining or drug trafficking. 

"With the demobilization [of the FARC] and the peace deal, the main enemy which used to be the FARC has mostly disappeared," said Rodriguez. "So society has started paying attention to structural causes of the conflict like the lack of access to land, public goods and services, opportunities. These are socioeconomic aspects that were eclipsed and are now being felt."

The battle must continue in the urns 

It will be a tricky task for Colombians to trust the government's possible solutions to these grievances, says Lauer Perez. The Episcopal Conference of Colombia and the UN have already offered to mediate negotiations.

For Rodriguez, one key factor that needs to be addressed is Colombians' right to protest. As the state’s anti-riot police crack down on demonstrators, protesters are outraged by the government's silence. 

"State violence that left a painful and alarming number of deaths was seen," he said. "The government hasn't expressed any indignation about the excessive use of public force."

Rodriguez estimates that the negotiators will come to some superficial agreements. 

"It would be good if they at least calmed down the chaos, so that the political battle about the future of the country can continue in the 2022 elections."