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Brief x-ray of Colombian protests in 2021

“They point their guns at our eyes because they know we are opening them”.

Colombia is massively demonstrating against the government. Brutal scenes of police and military repression against civilian protesters are filling social media these days and the question is, why are we in the streets amidst the third wave of the pandemic? Here some keys to understand the context of the protests:

Broader context: as it happens with countries that suffered colonial oppression, Colombia is a mixture of native and foreign identities. Indigenous, peasants and black communities share this country with settlers, most of whose roots come from the Latin Europe. Such a diversity would be a richness if Colombian governments had not been inept in creating forms of coexistence and respect for the rights of all. This has resulted in deep gaps and differences in the country, polarising political positions and silencing social protests. Such gaps are evident, Colombia is the most unequal country in Latin America. There is a high concentration of land ownership (with the 50% of the country’s land in the hands of 1,5% of the population), a huge wage gap (260 USD minimum wage for 63.8% of the population compared to 8900 USD monthly salary for each of the 273 congressmen), and a historical disparity between rural and urban areas, being the rural ones the most impoverished and affected by war, internal displacement, lack of education and health care, and the consequences of unfair trade agreements that benefit the importation of foreign goods instead of domestic consumption.

What we call the drug trafficking culture has also played an important role. Many will know that Pablo Escobar was a major drug lord during the 1980s and early 1990s in Colombia. What not everyone knows is that he and his criminal activity permeated almost every part of the Colombian government structures, to such an extent that for eight years (between 2002 and 2010) the Colombian president was one of Escobar’s great collaborators during the coca boom: Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who I like to call The Unmentionable. This man has been the architect and catalyst of what we are experiencing today. He calls himself the president of Colombia (even though he has not been since 2010), he is openly opposed to peace, he spreads lots of fake news and uses the “patriotic” narratives to discredit social movements, daring even to call indigenous leaders “terrorists”. The Unmentionable put Duque in the power (current president) and represents the land-grabbing/land-owning class and is supported by a not insignificant part of the population who believe in the unquestionable defence of private property. Accordingly, Uribe participated in the creation of paramilitary private forces to “defend” the rights of landowners. The atrocities of these militias have been amply documented if you look for AUC Colombia.
Given this context, what is going on exactly with the protests:

– The trigger: a tax reform (the third one since 2018) that would burden the middle and lower middle class with more taxes amid a pandemic. In the same week, Colombians realized that while the 42% of the population is now officially and statistically poor, the government prepared an ambitious tax reform to include, among other atrocities, taxes on basic food basket (i.e. eggs, milk, sugar, salt, chicken), taxes on funerary services and taxes on public services (gas and electricity). On top of this reform, a health reform was silently passed for approval, to create a system like the US one, privatizing the services, asking for additional insurance policies for critical illnesses (such as cancer). The question, if the national budget is running out, why did the government buy 23 bulletproof cars for about 2.5 USD million in April and “invested” more than 5,2 USD million in improving the president’s public image during the 2020? *The tax reform is going to be “re designed” in coming days.

– The latent demands: corruption, health, labour, and pension crises are on the table for years already. Since 2018, it has been evident the inefficiency of Duque’s government in solving social claims. After throwing away years of peace negotiations, the no implementation of the already signed peace agreements has led to terrible violations of human rights. By the end of 2020, 971 social leaders and peace signatories were killed; the government response to this has been a blind eye. In just 2 years, Colombia returned to the times when being a social leader was a synonym of terrorist. As if it was a dictatorship, Duque’s government has ignored and minimized international calls for the respect of human rights in the country, instead he has responded with repression and propaganda, using the eternal myth of the Castrochavismo (a supposedly communist ideology based on the thoughts of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez).

– The pandemic management: during the pandemic, instead of establishing an austere government, representation expenses were increased, and corruption was evident in the management of medical supplies and vaccines; a considerable amount of money has been invested in positioning the public media image of the president, the national general attorney, and the government. In a country where 48% of the population relies on the informal economy, health measures such as confinement worsened the social crisis. The government was unable, again, to promote efficient responses to protect people’s health and livelihoods.

Duque’s government has been deaf and blind to the social reality of the country, pandemic and corruption were the last drop in our cups and the response to our plea has been brutal police and military responses. As of May 5th, such response has left 37 victims of homicides, 10 victims of sexual assaults, 831 arbitrary arrests and 22 victims of direct attacks to their eyes (due to direct gunshots). We are opening the eyes and, hopefully, we will defeat such aggressions in the coming days.