Protests, pandemic, tax reform, and social inequality: The case of Colombia

Mateo Montes Martínez
People protesting in Colombia

In Colombia, protests are going on since the government of President Iván Duque proposed taxes reforms in the country. According to the government, such reforms are necessary to increase tax collection and thus cover state expenses. This decision was justified by the drop in Gross Domestic Product last year by 6.8% and the adverse consequences of the pandemic due to high unemployment rates in an economy whose workforce depends heavily on informal employment.

Some of the reforms proposed are: to lower the threshold from which wages are taxed, eliminate multiple tax exceptions at the individual level, and increase taxes for businesses. In this sense, the objective was to obtain resources equivalent to the US$ 6,000 million annually.

A tax reform during a pandemic?

Soon, the clamor of the Colombians was manifested in a first protest organized on April 28. Indeed, up to now[1], the demonstrations continue every day throughout the national territory. In short, Colombians are already struggling enough to feed their families in times of pandemic. Therefore, an increase in taxes would further affect income generation.

Likewise, in the popular narrative, it is explained that the ignorance of the former Minister of Finance, Alberto Carrasquilla, about the price of a dozen eggs, typical food for the poorest households in Colombia, was the last straw. In other words, it was a demonstration for people hit by the armed conflict, drug trafficking, corruption, and inequality of how those who govern make decisions from the privilege and are disconnected from the social reality of the majority of Colombians.

Peaceful demonstrations and expressions of violence

Despite the pandemic and the threat of a third wave of infections, Colombians across the country took to the streets on April 28 to demand the reversal of the tax reform. The government of Iván Duque responded with repression. With the help of ESMAD (Police Force's Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron) and the National Police, the demonstrations were intervened with tear gas, tank cars, and arbitrary arrests. Multiple videos are circulating on social media in which protesters denounce police abuses. Furthermore, Juliette de Rivero, the spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, reported that her commission was threatened and attacked in Cali by the Police while investigating the protests.

It is essential to mention that the protests are mostly peaceful, but the situation at some point ends up in violence. Protesters allege that the police have infiltrated the marches[2] to start the violent attacks and thus have an excuse to intervene on a large scale. On the part of the State, the Minister of Defense, Diego Molano, affirmed that dissidents from the FARC guerrilla infiltrated the marches in Cali[3]. Mr Molano was called by the Congress of the Republic for next May 25 for a debate on his motion of censure as a sanction due to the allegations of abuse of the public force during the demonstrations[4].

The government has canceled the initial tax reform proposal, promising that it will consider the protesters' demands in the new draft. However, mistrust in the government remains. In addition, Alberto Carrasquilla resigned from his position as Minister of Finance at the beginning of this month.

Furthermore, after the repeal of the tax reform, the protests continue to be prolonged, and new claims before the State have been included. For instance, among the new objectives of the demonstrations, the protests focused on the withdrawal of a reform to the health system. This reform was strongly criticized by medical associations and citizens who affirm that it is a proposal to commodify a fundamental right further[5]. In any case, on May 19, the health system reform was withdrawn[6], and protesters claim it was another achievement of their demonstrations.

Inequality, corruption, and broken promises

Although international organizations and media tend to underscore the non-compliance of the 2016 peace agreements with the FARC guerrillas by the government of current president Iván Duque, the analysis must be more in-depth. Of course, since the peace agreements, the social and political structure of the country have undergone significant changes. However, inequality, corruption, and the novel element of the pandemic have exacerbated the situation.

According to the country's economic analyses, there was an increase of 6.8 percentage points of monetary poverty during the pandemic, rising to 42.5% in 2020. That is, 21 million are in monetary poverty. Extreme poverty stands at 15.1%, with an increase of 5.5 points.

In Colombia, dwellings are classified into six strata according to their surroundings and socioeconomic conditions to approximate variables of wealth or poverty. In this sense, stratum 6 corresponds to the wealthiest dwellings, while strata 1, 2, and 3 correspond to the population with the fewest resources. Although in absolute values, the most impoverished strata represent most households in Colombia, as of April 11, 2021, there were 70,848 confirmed deaths related to COVID-19, of which 26.4% are from stratum 1, 35.7% from stratum 2, and 25.2% from stratum 3[7]

On the other hand, when comparing March 2020 with March 2021, around 1.7 million families no longer have access to three meals a day. That is, they have the possibility of consuming two meals a day. In addition, 76% of the population does not have the possibility of buying essential goods. Similarly, the employability situation is expected to worsen for 46% of households in the next 12 months[8].

According to civil society institutions, since December 1, 2016, 904 social leaders and 276 former FARC combatants have been assassinated. Besides, according to the Global Witness 2020 report[9], Colombia is the most dangerous country globally to be a social leader in environmental matters.

On the matter of corruption, the scandals and the figures reflect the complexity of criminal structures to appropriate public resources in different sectors, such as energy, health, school feeding, construction, public transport, public universities, customs, and even in derisory situations. For instance, the Head of the Anti-Corruption Unit of the Prosecutor's Office was accused of corruption.

November 21, 2019 (21N)

There are many more cases and examples that can be incorporated into the analysis of the latest demonstrations. However, with the previous references, it is understood that there is a feeling of discontent against exploding social and economic inequality.

November 21, 2019, is recognized in the popular imagination as a historic day. There were protests against the reforms promoted by the government in education, employment, and pensions. Furthermore, Colombians marched in favor of the peace agreement signed with the FARC. In addition, the demonstrations were another expression of what some analysts, perhaps hastily called the "Latin American Spring" with protests in Venezuela, Peru, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Chile, and Bolivia[10].

During the 21N, the Colombian government also militarized the country, quartered the army, and granted extraordinary powers to local governments to maintain order. In cities like Cali and Bogotá, a curfew was declared.

Therefore, although the tax reform is the trigger for protests in the streets during a pandemic, it is essential to highlight that the interpretation of the situation goes further and has to do with social inequality. Likewise, during the 21N, the government response was similar: repression, violence, and militarization.

Repression and ignoring the popular clamor: Iván Duque's strategy

In the current demonstrations and the 21N, Duque's response has been to repress and ignore those who protest. It was not until May 10 that the president met with the representatives of the marches (without reaching an agreement). On the contrary, he had meetings with politicians and public figures who do not necessarily represent the protesters.

One of Duque's most controversial decisions was his visit to Cali at night, where he met with academics and political actors while the city slept. This visit raised many questions as Cali is the city where the mobilizations have been most intense. Although the figures differ depending on the source consulted, until May 10, it is estimated that only in Cali the death toll is between 14 and 45[11]. In addition to incidents of vandalism, police violence, civilians shooting at protesters, and militarization.

The situation of Human Rights in Colombia

According to organizations such as Human Rights International, the Ombudsman's Office, and Indepaz, until May 11 during the 13 days of demonstrations, Colombia witnessed:

  • 47 homicide cases in which the alleged aggressor is a member of the Police
  • 1567 people injured, 1956 cases of physical violence, and 28 cases of eye attacks
  • 165 attacks on medical missions
  • 12 complaints of sexual violence by members of the security forces
  • 540 disappeared persons
  • 1003 arbitrary detentions

Similarly, the NGO Temblores reports[12] between April 28 and May 17:

  • 384 victims of physical violence
  • 43 homicides presumably committed by members of the Public Force
  • 1,139 arbitrary arrests against protesters
  • 472 violent interventions
  • 33 victims of eye attacks
  • 146 cases of firearm shots
  • 18 victims of sexual violence
  • 5 victims of gender-based violence

Final reflection

The protests in Colombia are an expression of a sector of the population that calls itself the generation that has nothing to lose and is willing to risk its life regardless of the consequences. It is an expression of the excluded claim, of a popular clamor of people exhausted by inequality and who embody what Eduardo Galeano calls "The Nobodies"[13] (Los Nadies, in Spanish), which I consider better read than summarize it here in a few lines.

Although the tax reform and the signing of the peace accords are two critical elements in understanding the demonstrations in Colombia, social inequality is the structural factor behind the protests. Thus, it is fundamental that the demands of those who take to the streets to demonstrate are heard and discussed instead of continuing with the violent and repressive actions that characterize the Duque government.

Is it possible that the current situation in Colombia is the first step for a significant political change? Maybe. However, it is also possible that the protests generate exhaustion in the Colombian population. For this reason, the political class in the current government will propose again (and as it has systematically occurred in the country) repression as an intervention and political strategy to obtain votes in the next elections in 2022 and ensure that they can remain in power. Delaying meets with the protesters' committee, militarizing cities, and insistently exposing the consequences of violence in the media are ideally suited for this scenario. That is likely to be the current government's strategy.


[1] The first version of this text was sent on May 12, an edited version arrived on May 20, and it was published on The Bulletin on May 21, 2021.













About the author


Mateo Montes Martínez is a second-year MPP candidate at the Brandt School, specializing in Conflict Studies and Management. He holds a bachelor's degree in sociology from the Universidad del Valle, Colombia. His main interests are mental health and social inequality.

~ The views represented in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Brandt School. ~