On Sunday, amid nationwide chaos that saw peaceful protests, stained by instances of looting, fatal rioting, and multiple accusations of police brutality, Colombian President Ivan Duque announced that he was asking Congress to withdraw from consideration his fiscal reform package, brainchild of his Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla. The controversial package was put forward to broaden the Colombian government’s revenue base, but in the third year of a deeply unpopular presidency.
A fiscal reform like the one put forward would face resistance in the best of times, however Ivan Duque’s administration faces discontent for his management (or lack thereof) of the COVID-19 crisis, failure to stop assassinations of ethnic advocates and social leaders and attempts to euphemize Colombia’s rising massacres by calling them “collective homicides.” His party is increasingly isolated as its leader, former President and current Senator Alvaro Uribe faces charges and investigations ranging from witness tampering and bribery to frame other senators, to human rights abuses and state-sponsored violence during Uribe’s term as President from 2000 to 2008.
Against this atmosphere, and with Colombian hospital intensive care units at or over full capacity with COVID-19 patients while health providers report that they have run out of government provided vaccines, President Duque announced his “Reforma Tributaria” or tax reform that sought to broaden the items included in Colombia’s 19% VAT (Value Added Tax) and include more of Colombia’s low-income residents in income tax collections. Those earning as low as $2.400,000 COP per month, or $673 per month next year, and then $1,700,000 COP (Colombian Pesos) in 2023 would have been liable for income tax under the plan, compared to the current minimum threshold of approximately $1,000 USD. Colombian minimum wage is currently approximately $250 USD per month.
No other political party supported Duque’s tax package, and some members of his own party even turned against him. Duque was thrown under the bus by his own political godfather Alvaro Uribe, who called it too ambitious—no doubt worried about his Centro Democratico party’s political survival in next year’s elections.
A fiscal package of some time is certainly needed as Colombia’s GDP fell by 6.8% in 2020 with millions left unemployed by the pandemic. Petroleum exports and tourism both make up significant parts of Colombia’s foreign exchange, and the global travel restrictions affected the demand for both petroleum and travel. For six months during 2020, Colombian airspace was completely closed to commercial domestic and international flights, and though hotels were technically not ordered to close, many if not most did shut down for lack of visitors. Restaurants and bars were ordered closed completely, or to offer carryout/delivery service only.
The Death Toll
According to Colombia’s Defensoria del Pueblo, the government agency responsible for protecting human & civil rights, the protests have been marred by at least 18 reported fatalities, though the actual death toll is expected to rise as data is compiled and sorted. At least 13 deaths are said to be firearms related (implying government forces), and one police fatality. 85 year-old Jesús Florez died from inhaling tear gas in the city of Pereira The young cousin of Cali’s mayor Jorge Iván Ospina was shot in the head while protesting. In Ibague, Tolima 19-year-old Santiago Andrés Murillo died after being shot in the belly by police forces. Police Inspector General Jorgé Ramírez Aragón confirmed his deployment to Ibagué to investigate the case.
Murillo’s girlfriend, Estefanía Silva spoke out: “During today’s strike, an active policeman shot my boyfriend, Santiago Murillo, in the chest when he was walking with a group of people on Calle 60 with Carrera 5. Please, those who have witnessed this, contact me or directly with the Prosecutor’s Office. Let’s keep fighting for our rights, they can’t kill us for claiming, let’s struggle!”
Colombian Mayors against President Duque
In Bogotá, mayor Claudia Lopez demanded that President Duque cancel his order to militarize the city by deploying army troops. In Barranquilla, mayor Jaime Pumarejo denounced police troops for turning their vests inside-out to obscure their identification badges (below tweet).
#URGENTE 🔴 En Barranquilla la @PoliciaColombia interviene movilización con chalecos al revés lo cual impide su plena identificación, violando los procedimientos durante protestas. No queremos más muertes, @alcaldiabquilla, ¿cuál es la orden para el día de hoy? #ParoNacional3M pic.twitter.com/4JDTbkBk3G
— Comité de Solidaridad (@CSPP_) May 3, 2021
In Cartagena, Mayor William Dau joined the protests. “I am against tax reform. The people cannot be punished. If they are going to collect taxes, tax the wealthiest, not the Colombian people. No to the family basket (tax), no VAT on public services!” said Mayor Dau.