Colombia’s Crackdown On Protests

Red handkerchiefs began appearing in the windows of Colombian homes a few weeks into the pandemic, last year. Signifying that the household was going hungry, they were soon seen by the thousands. At the end of April this year, President Duque’s government passed a tax reform that would increase the cost of living—especially hurting those in the middle and working classes. On April 26th, Colombia took to the streets in protest, being met with violent force.

Marcelo Agredo was one of the earliest deaths at the hands of the police. At 17 years old, he was shot after kicking a police officer on a motorbike. There have been 14 confirmed deaths, with human rights organizations citing 20 or more. The police abuse reporting platform (GRITA) had received 940 complaints of police violence by May 1st, with 21 murdered and four who were sexually abused by police. With protests stretching for over a week and touching 500 cities, these numbers are expected to grow.

A chorus of voices has been heard from around the world, all condemning the violence used to suppress protests. The United Nations Human Rights Office (OHCHR) raised concerns about police firing on demonstrators, with a spokesperson for the EU also commenting.

Duque has responded by stopping the proposed tax reform and calling for national discourse, while also promising to investigate cases of police violence. But while lip service has been paid, it has been paid on a backdrop of violence.

The tax reform has died, but inequality and human rights abuses are still rampant. One of the more insidious aspects of the new reforms is in regard to healthcare. The Duque government is seeking to put in measures to privatize healthcare, which would hurt the most marginalized even more than the pandemic already has.

Last year saw the Colombian poverty rate rise to 42.5%, growing by 2.8 million people. In part, the tax reform was meant to address this: a basic income for the most impoverished was to be supported by this tax reform. However, so far there has been a failure to implement any sort of basic income. This also flies in the face of Colombia’s high military expenditure: 11% of its GDP. Although there is a historical cause for this, the beginning of the pandemic saw the purchase of armored vehicles, ammunition, and weaponry totaling almost $5 million USD. For whom was this for? For ESMAD—the anti-riot division of the national police.

Calls for peace and dialogue should be celebrated, but only if they are backed up by goodwill and action. Popular reports on this issue often cite the tax reform’s purpose in funding basic income for the most marginalized. However, it stands to reason that a higher cost of living would push even more people into extreme poverty. This alone seems like a “pulling of the rug” from under the working class by the government, let alone the privatization of health care and the military policy expenditures.

For long-term peace to reign in Colombia, it is obvious that there needs to be systemic change. It is also apparent that this change will not come from within the structure and its entrenched elites. The protests are emblematic of a political imagination that strives for a more peaceful Colombia, and the violent attempts at suppression are the best indicator of that.