San Jose De el Guaviare, Colombia – Violent protests continue in Colombia as unions make more demands on the right-wing government of President Ivan Duque after his withdrawal of a tax reform proposal this provoked widespread anger.
The government said tax reform was aimed at stabilizing a country economically ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, but the working and middle classes said the plan favored the rich by putting pressure on them.
A series of new or extended taxes on citizens and business owners and a reduction and elimination of many tax exemptions, such as product sales, he angered many.
The Minister of Finance, Alberto Carrasquilla, resigned on Monday evening, after spending most of the day in meetings with Duque. “My continuation in government will complicate the rapid and effective construction of the necessary consensus,” Carrasquilla said in a statement from the ministry, Reuters news agency reported.
But experts say the protests are expected to continue. Alicia Gomez, a 51-year-old cleaner who supports the protests, told Al Jazeera that Colombians are tired of the government “putting more taxes” on the population, which is already in trouble due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have to keep fighting because if we don’t they will take away our rights completely,” he said.
Duke previously insisted that the reform would not be withdrawn, but protests, deaths and international condemnation of alleged human rights abuses against protesters by police continued grants the president Sunday.
“This is the first time the government has given in to widespread popular opposition,” said Arlene Tickner, a professor of political science at Rosario University in Bogota.
“The fact that tax reform had little chance of being approved in Congress, combined with the growing indiscipline of the protests and the national and international condemnation of widespread police brutality, probably took into account the president’s decision.” .
Last month, in an interview with local media, Carrasquilla was asked how much a dozen eggs cost. His unrealistic response – he said they were more than four times cheaper than they actually are – sparked outrage in a country that was already in trouble. a coronavirus-related economic crisis.
“Minister Carrasquilla should resign because a minister who doesn’t even know how much a dozen eggs cost is a disgrace to Colombians,” said Gomez, who works in Bogota, before the minister announced his resignation.
But popular anger goes beyond tax reform; Gimena Sanchez, of the Washington Office’s working group on Latin America, told Al Jazeera there is a “huge discontent” on the streets.
“Brutal repression [of protests] it has fed him and made him worse, ”Sanchez said.
“Duque’s unpopularity and perceived distance from the general population and their interests combined with the economic recession due to COVID and restrictions, increasing insecurity and disinterest in advancing peace will keep them [protests] anant “.
The largest unions in the country called a national strike last Wednesday and since then protests have been held in Bogota, Medellin and Cali, among other cities. Cali has seen the most intense clashes between protesters and police.
On Monday, the National Strike Committee said protests would continue, with the next national strike scheduled for Wednesday.
“Protesters are demanding much more than the withdrawal of tax reform,” Francisco Maltes, president of the Central Workers ’Union (CUT), told a news conference.
The unions are calling for the withdrawal of a health care reform proposal and a guaranteed basic income of one million pesos ($ 260) for all Colombians, as well as the demilitarization of cities, an end to ongoing police violence, and the dismantling of heavy police riots known as ESMAD.
Human rights groups have also condemned the country’s police force for human rights violations during recent protests. Al Jazeera was unable to confirm the death toll, as local authorities and NGO figures are hotly contested.
According to reports from local defenders, 16 civilians and a police officer have been killed so far, while Temblores, an NGO that monitors police violence across the country, said 26 protesters have been killed by police and that s 1,181 cases of police violence have been registered.
“The current human rights situation in Colombia is critical … there are no guarantees for the lives or protection of protesters,” Sebastian Lanz, co-director of Temblores, told Al Jazeera.
“Internal human rights verification agencies don’t work,” Lanz said. “We demand that President Ivan Duque and the police stop this massacre now.”
On Monday, Colombia’s national police chief, General Jorge Luis Vargas, said 26 investigations into police misconduct have been opened. The country’s defense minister on Monday blamed recent violence on “armed groups.”
“Colombia faces particular threats from criminal organizations that are behind these violent acts,” Diego Molano told a news conference, Reuters news agency reported. Molano did not say how many people had died in the recent riots, but said the attorney general’s office would investigate.
The head of the American division of Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, told Al Jazeera that as the death toll rises from the protests, “the need for police reform cannot be postponed.”
“Protesters who practice violence should be investigated, but this is no excuse for using brute force. Recent experience in Colombia raises questions about whether the police – and its riot police, the ESMAD – are fit to carry out term crowd control operations that respect basic rights, ”he said.
But as protests are expected to continue, political analysts wonder if Duque’s government is really capturing the breadth of Colombian discontent.
“It all started with tax reform, but now it’s all about things. It becomes a much bigger protest that I think the government has no knowledge of, ”Sergio Guzman, a political analyst who runs the risk analysis firm in Colombia, told Al Jazeera.
Guzman said the government could start a new national dialogue, but it seems focused at the moment on deciding who will take over as finance minister.
“I think this will give us a lot of indications of whether or not the government listens to the people who take to the streets, because if they choose someone from the current party, they are suggesting that they can handle this crisis themselves.”
Tickner, the political scientist, said Duque’s presidency has been characterized by a combination of incompetence, arrogance and unwillingness to recognize legitimate sources of discontent.
“There is little reason to think that things will change significantly now that he is approaching the one-year limit for the end of his government,” he said, as the Colombian presidential election is scheduled for May 29. next year.
He added that for now he sees no end to the protests. “There is little evidence that the government is involved in the kind of genuine national dialogue that is being called for.”