Colombians took to the streets last week despite COVID Pandemic restrictions to protest the administration of President Ivan Duque (above). Though the Fiscal Reform package designed by his now-former finance minister, the inept communicator Alberto Carrasquillo sparked the protests, they continued even after the unpopular tax-hike package was withdrawn and Carrasquillo sacked. This may have surprised many observers, who would think the strike and protests would be called off. But instead they continued, and by some measures, intensified.
Here are some of the reasons why:
- Police Brutality — The often-heavy handed police response to protesters has raised the temperature in the country. Colombians, especially the youth remember recent incidents of police brutality, including the macabre killing of law student Javier Ordóñez last year in a Bogotá police station which sparked protests against police brutality…sparking more police brutality in a counter-response! In this age of camera phones and social media, acts that would previously go unreported now are witnessed by millions. Multiple cases of police brutality have been witnessed and acknowledge even by the Colombian government’s own human rights ombudsman. These further angered protesters and poured fuel onto a fire that quite possibly would have burned out last week.
- “Let Them Eat…Eggs” — Marie Antoinette had her apocryphal “Let them eat cake” quote before ending up beheaded in revolutionary France. Colombia’s package of tax hikes and revenue measures was already going to have a challenge getting through Congress, but when Duque’s Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla made media rounds to talk up the need for fiscal reform (which in some form is absolutely necessary to pull Colombia back from a fiscal and monetary crisis), he may have condemned his own brainchild to derision and failure after a clown-show performance in an interview with media personality Vicky Dávila.
Carrasquilla demonstrated how far out of touch he was with Colombian consumers when Davila asked him if he knew how much a dozen eggs cost in Colombia; Carrasquilla proposed adding Colombia’s 19% VAT tax to basic foodstuffs like eggs and rice, also to gasoline and funerals, while exempting firearms and sugary soft drinks. Carrasquilla’s answer? “On the issue of eggs, it depends on its quality. Let’s say $1,800 COP (48 cents, US) a dozen or something like that.” A dozen eggs in Colombia costs an average of approximately $8,000 COP ($2.20 USD), though that price may fluctuate widely based on grade, packaging and purchase channel. Colombians immediately seized on this to lambast Carrasquilla, Duque, and their political clan as inept elites completely detached, unaware of, and unconcerned with the struggles of most Colombians. Whether true or not, the public now had memes for their discontent. Carrasquilla was known for being media-shy and publicly reclusive, but he inadvertently became an effective spokesperson for his own opposition. Like Marie Antoinette, Carrasquilla was soon relieved of his duties…but kept his head.
- Broken Promises — Commitments the current administration made during massive strikes two years ago have not been made. Once strikers called off protests after President Duque promised to work with them, nothing happened. This time around, protesters don’t trust the president. Though he has stated that his fiscal reform package would be withdrawn, many simply don’t believe him. Percy Oyola, president of the strike organizing group called General Confederation of Workers (CGT), explained that the government “has had the opportunity to address and resolve claims since the large mobilizations carried out in November 2019, but it never set out to install a negotiating table and concertation. On the contrary, (Duque) always stigmatized and acted with violence against protesters.”
- Targeted assassinations — The anger over the Duque administration’s failure to address the rising massacres and targeted killings of social activists and ethnic leaders is at a boiling point. The current administration has done its best to sabotage the historic peace accords negotiated by former President Juan Manuel Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. The Duque administration prefers to pretend the massacres aren’t happening, even conjuring up the term “collective homicides” in the apparent hope that calling a cat a dog can get it to bark.
- Close criminal ties — Duque’s political allies have lost credibility. His political godfather, former president and current Senator Alvaro Uribe left office in 2000 hailed as a hero who made Colombia safe from communist guerillas and open to investors and tourists. As the years have gone on however, revelations about human rights abuses during his term, including government massacres of innocent civilians not involved with insurgency have come surfaced, along with evidence from the none other than the US State Department that Uribe, in the US government’s words “almost certainly had dealings with the paramilitaries.”
Uribe is currently facing charges and was for several weeks under house arrest for witness tampering and attempts at bribery. His own brother Santiago Uribe has served 4 years in prison, charged with murder and forming the “12 Apostles” paramilitary death squad. His trial only ended in February, and the judge has yet to issue a ruling.Duque’s own Vice President Marta Lucia Ramirez carefully crafted a political reputation as a crime fighter, but within the past two years it was revealed that she paid $150,000 USD to bail out her own brother, who was convicted in Miami for heroin trafficking. Just months before she tried unsuccessfully to sue investigative journalists into silence when Insight Crime revealed that she and her husband did a real estate deal with the alleged paramilitary commander and elusive drug kingpin Guillermo Acevedo, also known by his super-villain alias Memo Fantasma.
- Contempt for Human Rights — People are furious with the Duque administration’s human rights reputation. Duque’s political party, the Centro Democratico attacks anyone who raises the issue of human or civil rights as a communist or insurgent sympathizer. They have openly verbally attacked civil society organizations, and even government human rights agencies such as the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a tribunal tasked with adjudicating just punishments while reintegrating and reconciling former combatants with society. Retired Colombian General Luis Humberto Poveda called human rights activists “rats & assassins.” The United Nations stated it had grave concerns regarding persistent violence, misuse of the Colombian armed forces by the Ivan Duque administration, and the inability or lack of will by the government to implement the peace process agreed to by the previous administration of Juan Manuel Santos, or to protect human rights activists. Just over a year ago, the Colombian army was caught with an “enemies list” of social activists, journalists, and even elected Colombian senators! Beyond the President’s own shrinking core of partisans, Colombians just don’t believe the current administration is serious about peace or security, especially security for those not aligned with President Duque.
- COVID Pandemic Failures — The health emergency and resulting economic emergency has been mismanaged according to many. Though the Duque Administration has taken the current pandemic seriously and not tried to deny it like former US President Trump or current President Jair Bolsonario in neighboring Brazil, The slow deployment and scarcity of vaccines has left many frustrated. Colombia is still vaccinating only the elderly, with some exceptions such as for health workers. No vaccines are available for the average Colombian, while many wealthier Colombians have flown abroad to get vaccinated. Currently, health curfews are in effect across many Colombian regions, and the tourism industry has been devastated, leaving many restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues permanently shuttered. Though the President talks often about the Coronavirus Pandemic, urging citizens to take precautions, he has not delivered with the vaccines. Most Colombians have no idea whatsoever when a vaccine will be available for them.
- Militarization — Strike organizers are demanding a “Demilitarization of the cities,” while legislators from his own Centro Democrático party are demanding that Duque impose an internal state of emergency and deploy the Colombian military to quash protests. So far Duque has resisted such a move, but were he to do so, violence and civil unrest would certainly spiral out of control. Though both are currently under the minister of defense, Colombia’s police force and military are separate, and the military is generally not used for urban civil policing. Colombia’s military is largely focused on combatting remaining Marxist insurgents, policing Colombia’s vast wilderness areas and sparsely populated regions, enforcing the borders, and contraband interdiction. The Colombian military is not trained for nor configured for quelling public disturbances. This evening, fake news was spreading across social media networks, with a doctored image of a decree from Duque declaring a national state of emergency and assuming special powers. The image was false, though Duque has made it clear that he would not rule out such actions if necessary.
- Angry Cabbies — Other specific groups with their own axes to grind have taken advantage of the protests and strikes to advocate for their own causes. Taxi drivers in the past days have implemented their “Turtle Plan” which intentionally snarls and blocks traffic. They are upset about a bill being considered in congress that would legalize ride sharing platforms such as Über. The services are technically illegal in Colombia but extremely popular and operate anyway.
- Ticked off Truckers — Truck drivers have also created massive blockages throughout the country. They say they are protesting Duque’s fiscal reform package, but also the increases in tolls and gasoline prices generally. Several toll booths on major thoroughfares have been torched, along with the controversial “fotomulta” traffic cameras that automatically issue fines and penalties to drivers. Truck drivers have stated that they don’t believe Duque when he says that he is withdrawing his tax package.
- Health Reform Legislation — A less famous but still controversial health reform bill has also been widely panned by members of the medical community, and strike leaders have demanded its retraction. It would reorganize and regionalize national health care delivery and add new powers to the national government to regulate and control distribution of health care. The new law would mandate the assignment of a primary care physician that some believe would serve as a medical gatekeeper.
- The “Communists!” — International interference, though many would be tempted to dismiss as far-fetched cannot be completely ruled out. Colombia currently is host to at least 2 million Venezuelan refugees, some of which have been confirmed and outed as spies and intelligence operatives of the Venezuelan government and their Russian allies. Last December, a spy scandal erupted in Bogotá when Russian spies were exposed and expelled from Colombia. Venezuelan government spies have also been exposed and detained by Colombian authorities, such as last year’s public case of Gerardo José Rojas Castillo. The most credible voice making such allegations come from none other than Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno. Serving as vice president under Socialist former president Rafael Correa and actually named after Vladimir Lenin, President Moreno has stated unequivocally that Ecuadorean intelligence has detected political and economic interference on the part of Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro. According to Moreno, Venezuelan government operatives are fomenting violence, crime and rioting to disrupt peaceful protests and provoke a strong government response. This allegation must be taken seriously by anyone with an understanding of the situation at the street level.
Los centros de investigación de Ecuador 🇪🇨 y Colombia 🇨🇴 detectaron la injerencia desde Venezuela de Nicolás Maduro en la violencia que azota a Colombia.
La entrevista: https://t.co/EKV4ECCna8
— Lenín Moreno (@Lenin) May 5, 2021
- Old Fashioned Thuggery — The common criminal element is also undoubtedly an ingredient, specifically with regard to the looting and acts of violence. Large protests will almost always have some criminal element hoping to take advantage of the situation to loot or take advantage of police distraction to commit other crimes. While Colombian professional cyclist Jarlinson Pantano was himself protesting the fiscal reform package along with the employees of his bicycle shop, looters took advantage of his absence and completely emptied his store of its inventory of bicycles and accessories. Common criminals take advantage of large protests and busy police to commit crimes, damaging the image of the protest movement in the process.
Gracias gamines de mierda por vaciar mi tienda 🤬🤬🤬 ratas, sale uno con la ilusión de marchar pacíficamente y se encuentra con unos desadactados de mierda 🤬🤬 gracias por acabar el sueño de mi familia 👋👋👋
— Jarlinson Pantano (@jarlinsonpantan) April 28, 2021
These national protests are expressions of discontent that go far beyond a package of tax hikes. There is widespread discontent and distrust of the current administration on a myriad of topics. Colombia must desperately pass some form of fiscal reform to balance the national budget, but President Duque and his Centro Democratico no longer have the political capital to sell such policies to Congress and the Colombian public. The Centro Democratico party has a small but vocal base of die-hard militants, but they are now a small minority in Colombia, holding only 19 of the country’s 108 senate seats, and 32 of Colombia’s 172 seats in the house of representatives.
Colombia’s attorney general Francisco Barbosa, a friend of the president, has brought criminal charges against former Medellín Mayor and Governor of Antioquia, Sergio Fajardo for contract irregularities during his time as governor. Many across the political spectrum in Colombia have widely denounced the charges as a naked attempt to derail Fajardo’s presidential ambitions. Fajardo, a center-left politician and math professor came in third in the last presidential elections, setting up a runoff between Ivan Duque and former revolutionary and leftist senator Gustavo Petro. Many Colombians have expressed disdain for both the far-left ideas of Gustavo Petro, who served a disastrous term as mayor of Bogotá from 2012 to 2015, or the strident far-right authoritarianism represented by Alvaro Uribe’s (& Ivan Duque’s) Centro Democratic party.
Presidential elections take place next year. Hopefully Colombian politicians and the Colombian public can call a truce and calm tensions enough to battle through ballots in the upcoming months rather than through police bullets and the Molotov cocktails of thugs and rioters.