Colombian protests reflect deep crisis of legitimacy | Latin America
On April 28, protests erupted across Colombia after the right-wing government of Ivan Duque proposed to raise taxes amid the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Although the president withdrew the controversial tax reform proposal in the face of public anger, the protests have persisted, made worse by a brutal crackdown.
At least 40 demonstrators were killed and hundreds injured by security forces and armed men dressed in civilian clothes. Many were arrested and dozens of women were sexually assaulted by police officers.
The escalation of violence reflects not only the government’s inability to respond to long-standing socio-economic grievances, but also its growing loss of legitimacy and the decline of democracy. This puts the country at risk of relapsing into conflict.
The trigger: unfair tax reform
The Colombian government initially announced the tax reform it was proposing as a measure to collect revenue to roll out a “solidarity income” system to help Colombians hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the way the reform package was framed made it clear that it was going to do more harm than good for the poor and vulnerable.
While the reform package included a wealth tax for individuals with assets exceeding $ 1.35 million, it also contained many provisions that would have hurt low-income households. It would have lowered the taxable income threshold and increased pensions and value added tax (VAT), which would have significantly increased the prices of subsistence products, such as eggs, milk, cheese and meat.
Other elements of the reform have benefited the private sector and specific economic groups. They included the maintenance of several tax exemptions for various industries, including the financial sector, mainly benefiting affluent entrepreneurs.
While the government said tax reform was needed to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the Colombian economy and state budget, it was also pushing for questionable spending, including expensive arms purchases. in the USA.
While some of the elements of the reform may have had positive effects on the economy, such as tax breaks for vulnerable sectors, the increase in VAT has indicated a mismatch between ruling elites and the experiences of large groups. segments of the population.
An estimated 3.5 million people fell into poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing the number of people living in poverty from 17.5 million in 2019 to 21 million (42.5 percent of the population) in 2020. The crisis has severely hit those employed in the informal sector, who constitute half of the working population. They would not have benefited from any tax refund from which formal workers would have benefited in compensation for the increase in VAT.
The government’s response: violence and slander
The government’s initial response to cross-sectoral criticism of its tax reform proposal has been completely silent. Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla spoke to the media, trying to defend the package, but ended up revealing that he had no idea what the cost of basic commodities was. Speaking about the effect of the VAT extension, he said eggs cost a quarter of what they actually make in the market, which has sparked further public anger.
When the protests began, instead of engaging in open dialogue and listening to the grievances of the people, the government resorted to a smear campaign. He tried to present the protests as a radical left conspiracy that would destabilize the country.
Several pro-government figures have publicly accused the organizers of the demonstration of trying to establish a “Castrochavism” regime in Colombia. Such conspiracy theories have been embedded in some sectors of the armed forces and police who genuinely believe the protesters are aiming to overthrow the state to advance a left-wing revolution.
By arming these narratives, the government went further and ordered a crackdown on protesters, deploying security forces and the military, who deployed tanks and used violence to disperse unarmed, mostly peaceful crowds.
Even when the United Nations and human rights organizations condemned the violence, the government failed to respond to or restrain the security forces. His contempt for the grievances of various sectors of the population, and even their lives, has taken popular mobilization to a level not seen in decades.
Mobilization following the 2016 peace accords
While the proposed tax reform was the trigger for the recent protests and the government’s backlash – its fuel, the social roots of the general discontent go far beyond that.
For years, governments failed to address growing inequalities in Colombian society, as efforts to reduce poverty stalled. Under the influence of the Colombian upper class, they repeatedly made political decisions that made citizens more vulnerable and more suspicious of the state.
But the protests must also be seen against the backdrop of the 2016 peace accords between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), which ended the five-decade conflict between them.
With the decrease in violence between the FARC-EP and the government, social movements have gained more space for mobilization. The peace accords also created hope that after the end of this armed conflict, the government would become more responsive to the grievances of its citizens.
However, even after the peace agreement, violence against civilians continued. Indigenous leaders, social activists, human rights defenders, peasants and environmentalists, who have defended the rights of various communities and worked to implement the provisions of the 2016 peace accords, have been murdered. The government has taken no serious steps to stem the continued violence or to hold members of the security forces or non-state actors, such as cartels, left-wing and right-wing armed groups, to account, who continue to victimize them. Colombian civilians.
Meanwhile, much of the political elite continues to view demands for democratic reform as leftist plots to overthrow the state.
A crisis of legitimacy
The protests in recent weeks, although sparked by various socio-economic grievances and fueled by the government’s backlash, also show the continued lack of adequate channels through which citizens can hold their government to account.
It appears that ruling elites expect silent consent from the general population for whatever policies they choose to pursue. The narrative they use in the face of popular mobilization focuses on “restoring order”, which means ensuring submission by using brute force.
But the idea that the legitimacy of the state derives from the monopoly of force is obsolete. The adoption of coercion by ruling elites is part of a dangerous trend towards the erosion of participatory democracy across Latin America and beyond.
Colombia is a country in which political leaders have always feared mobilization, even in the context of peaceful action. These fears have led to the closure of channels for political representation and participation. They fueled cycles of violence, including the armed conflict with the FARC, from which the country is still recovering.
The current government is repeating the mistakes of the past by dirtying the demonstrators and ordering the violent dispersal of the demonstrations. It also fails to implement the 2016 peace accords.
The loss of legitimacy carries high risks for Colombia. This is reflected in the escalation of violence against the police force, which has the dangerous potential of encouraging civilians to join armed groups still active in the country. This, in turn, could be used by the ruling elite to revive counterinsurgency efforts and shut off democratic channels of participation and representation, as it has done in the past.
Current events place Colombia at a crossroads. If the government chooses to recognize the grievances of the population and engage in dialogue, it can help the state regain its legitimacy and work to strengthen the social contract. If he chooses to continue the militarization of cities and his disregard for the needs of the people, he should prepare for more unrest and international pressure to change course before the country descends into another conflict.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.