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Everything you need to know about Colombia’s protests

By Sebastian Vasquez Gutierrez, May 27 2021—

April 28 marked the day in which protests began all over Colombian territory as a result of new proposed tax reforms introduced by the sitting government. The protests have occurred in all of the main cities in the country and have negatively affected it in many ways. The tax reform was going to increase basic necessity products 19 per cent and also increase the cost of public transportation which thousands of people take daily to work. It’s intention was to help solve the economic problems the country is currently having, however, because of Colombia’s current state due to COVID-19, people are upset as the pandemic has caused many to lose their jobs — considering the already low minimum wage, many Colombians have to try to live by every day and this tax reform does not help them. 

Although it was the main reason for the protests, the tax reform, or the reforma tributaria in Spanish, was not the only reason why the protests started. The country currently suffers from a huge sanitary and economic crisis due to the pandemic, and has created a huge controversy among the Colombian population. What this tax reform intended to do was solve the crisis somehow. The sectors and people that have been most affected by the pandemic were the ones who were going to be most affected by the tax reform, since the basic needs products were going to rise in price along with other necessities such as transportation. The government wanted to gather around $23 billion Colombian pesos, which is around $6 million in US dollars, in order to help the economic crisis. The key question that has most people upset is: where is the money going to be taken? The idea of gathering those $23 billion pesos is to take 73 per cent from taxes to the population and the rest from companies, which means most of the population was going to suffer from the tax reform.

On Saturday April 2, the president announced that the tax reform was going to be taken down, which led to a temporary moment of relief for the Colombian population. However, the protests didn’t end. The Colombian people were already unhappy with many other government decisions in the past such as the farming sector that has been ignored by the government and suffers a lot from their laws. After the main tax reform was taken down by the government, other tax reforms were put in place such as the tax reform for health, which also led to a lot of controversy. 

The government for many years now has ignored many issues that the population has faced, which led to the current situation of unhappiness by the population. This protest shows that Colombians are tired of all the injustices and corruption that has taken a large amount of money intended to help the less privileged and solve current issues in the different departments of the country.

It’s difficult for international students from Colombia such as myself because at any moment something could happen. As a result of the pandemic, going back to Canada might be very difficult with the current restrictions along with the insecurity. Seeing all these events on TV and watching them live is a completely different thing. Of course, the news brings a lot of light to the events but actually seeing the protest and seeing why people are so upset by the situation is disheartening. Many times while driving through the city I see all the signs and stories of different people — even though the protests are meant to be peaceful I worry a lot about myself and the security of my loved ones, since robberies and assaults are more common now. Walking anywhere feels unsafe since it is unclear if any protests are nearby and if they might get violent at some point. 

The Gauntlet spoke with two Colombians affiliated with the University of Calgary to get their perspective on the protests occurring in Colombia. Dr. Adriana Rincón is a visiting fellow at the former Latin American research center and she has a PhD in Global Governance from the University of Massachusetts. She believes the protests escalated to the extent that they did because of how the tax reform that was recently removed contributed to how unequal the classes in Colombia already were.

“In my opinion it has two main causes, one being the tax reform that the President [Iván] Duque proposed a couple of weeks ago, and it triggered unconformity because of how it imposed new taxes to lower and middle class and as we know Colombia is known to be very unequal, specially after people were trying to recover from the COVID crisis,” she explained. 

“I think there were other very powerful causes that were beyond the tax reform issue. Living proof is that after the president withdrew the tax reform the protest persisted. The youth is the engine of the protest, and they have a set of goals, they are tired and exhausted of corruption and misery and the huge levels of inequality.”

David Barrios, a PhD student in History who studies the problem of commemoration of Colombia’s history of peace and violence, explains how this isn’t the first instance where Colombians have had to stand up against the government.

“Colombians have faced a very long civil conflict, probably one of the longest in the western hemisphere in the past 100 years,” he explained. “Even before the pandemic in 2019, other protests happened against the government, against the neglect that had happened during that time.”

When asked about what the government should do or should have done to end the protests, Rincón discussed how the simple solution would be for the government to just listen to its people.

“The ideal scenario would be for the president to listen to the protestors — it seems basic but it’s the truth,” said Rincón. “And that is actually the problem since it is one of the reasons why the protest keeps going. It might be difficult to achieve but there are options on how it could happen but it has to start by listening.” 

The tax reform protests are unlikely to end right away, but progress is being made on the government’s part to ease the situation, even though that progress is slower than people would like. The leading issue here is if the people can trust in the government’s word to end things as they say, according to Barrios.

“In the past days, finally the government met with the leaders to set an agenda and they announced that they are opening a new peace process with the other guerrilla group, but we don’t know yet since their government did not honour their word before, it doesn’t look like anything else is going on,” Barrios explains. 

“It seems today that the situation is better but we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I say that all those announcements are responding more to the international agents that are putting pressure on the government over the police oppression. In general, the people are angry about many different issues and it’s a slow process but it has to be addressed.” 

A negative perception of people protesting has been circulating in the media, but Rincón assures that the people protesting are the victims in the situation.

“I see how many people around me receive messages of protest as being violent and criminals, and that obscures the real message — that people have needs and they are not being fulfilled,” she said.

Even though these protests are not occurring in Calgary, international U of C students are still affected by what is going on, especially those who currently have to stay in Colombia during the academic year due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“The situation in Colombia certainly affects all students regardless of where they are. Colombian students are in constant uncertainty and fear that makes it very hard to focus,” said Rincón. “I think professors should be aware and sensitive about the topic. I suggest to them to show solidarity and empathy to those students.” 

The protest is not a topic of political parties, it is about Colombians fighting against injustice and for what they believe in. Most of the population is being affected by multiple issues that the government should have handled in the past but hasn’t. The whole situation started with a tax reform and continued with multiple other issues behind it. All the different media outlets have shown only one side of the situation and have shown when those get violent. They have ignored the real message, which is to show the world why the population is so mad at the government for making decisions that would affect more than half of the population very drastically.

There are many ways to stay well informed about Colombia’s situation. Tuning into reliable media outlets can help us keep up with what’s happening daily. To learn more about the protests occurring in Colombia due to a recent tax reform, click here.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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