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Colombian Protests, Explained

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Murray is a student who's passionate about writing and global fights for freedom, justice, and equality.

Since late April, reports of unrest in Colombia have been popping up consistently across most news feeds. We’ve all seen the photos of protesters in the streets, of buildings burning, of police officers shrouded in riot gear. These images are nothing new to those who are familiar with the events of 2020 and 2021. In the U.S. alone, the Black Lives Matter movement and January’s insurrection have caused enough uproar, and on the global scale, these Colombian protests are just the most recent on a year-long trend of conflict. But the cause of this uproar is largely unknown by many. When your own country has experienced a year marked by various crises, it can be difficult to keep up on the political workings of other nations. The struggle of the Colombian people is nevertheless one that demands attention, so let’s dive in.

A Controversial Tax Proposal

In a report from NPR, Sergio Guzman, the director of Colombia Risk Analysis (a firm that does political risk consulting), said that “these protests started because of a tax reform plan” (Garcia-Navarro). The tax plan in question was presented by Colombian president Iván Duque, and would’ve significantly raised taxes for many Colombians. Specifically, the proposed reform would have lowered the cutoff for the salaries that are available to be taxed, potentially impacting anyone whose monthly earnings are over $656. Individuals who’d previously been exempt from taxes would’ve also been affected, as these exemptions would have been almost entirely eliminated.

The justification for this proposal was that the changes were simply necessary in order for the country to recover from the pandemic-caused financial crisis. The country’s recent economic crash was the worst it’s endured in the last half-century, with a 6.8% drop in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Levels of unemployment have essentially mirrored this trend, reaching as high as 21%, But protest organizers say that the plan would inappropriately affect Colombians living in poverty, and those who were initially being financially challenged by COVID-19.

Police Response and Continued Unrest

The tax plan is what originally caused the protests at the end of April. However, they’ve continued to rock the country even as the controversial proposal was withdrawn. The successive protests were due in large part to the police response to the very first demonstrations. Excessive force was used, leading to the deaths of sixteen protesters and one police officer in just the first week of unrest. This led to a response that was “akin to a George Floyd moment” (Garcia-Navarro). Referring to the moment in America when the murder of George Floyd was captured on camera, leading to weeks of protesting in most major cities. And similar to the situation in America, the protests in Colombia quickly pivoted to address the issue of police brutality and inequality in the country’s political proceedings.

As the unrest has continued through the past two weeks, the situation has only escalated. The death toll has now reached at least 42, while the government and police response has become increasingly aggressive. Observers are seeing that as protests ramp up, the volatility of police reactions rises accordingly, providing another cause for protest. This has led to a vicious cycle of unresolved conflict which has reached a point that has the UN “deeply alarmed” (The Canadian Press). Reports have come in of police openly firing on protesters, and one instance in which a police officer was stabbed by protesters, and killed in the attempt to stop a riot. These gruesome reports are of course coming in over the backdrop of a global pandemic, which has killed at least 78,000 Colombians to date, raising even greater concern for those who are gathering to demonstrate.

The Prospects

As of Monday May 10, there have been talks of negotiations between President Iván Duque and protest leaders. None have currently been confirmed. Miguel Ceballos, Colombia’s peace commissioner has also requested that the UN and Roman Catholic Church be present for mediation, if a negotiation were to occur. If a serious negotiation was agreed upon, it would likely signal that an end to these protests is in sight, and that the Colombian people would receive a significant opportunity to have a voice in their government.

Works Cited

“Colombia Withdraws Controversial Tax Reform Bill after Mass Protests.” BBC News, BBC, 2 May 2021, www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-56967209.

Garcia-Navarro, Lulu. “Deadly Protests Against Economic Inequality And Police Brutality Continue In Colombia.” NPR, NPR, 9 May 2021, www.npr.org/2021/05/09/995173022/deadly-protests-against-economic-inequality-and-police-brutality-continue-in-col.

Rueda, Manuel. “42 Killed in Colombia Protests, Human Rights Agency Says.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 11 May 2021, apnews.com/article/colombia-health-coronavirus-pandemic-e43eb87ac930ac9c0c26c1941661263c.

“UN Alarmed over Police Violence in Colombia Protests.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 5 May 2021, apnews.com/article/united-nations-colombia-25543070490b43c626d8323441bff34e.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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