Above photo: People shout slogans during a demonstration against government-proposed tax reform, marking May Day, or International Workers’ Day, in Bogota, Colombia, on May 1, 2021. Fernando Vergara / AP
Massive protests are taking place throughout Colombia as people stand firm in the face of deadly police violence. Since April 28, when a general strike was called to oppose deeply regressive proposed tax reforms, nationwide demonstrations against far right President Iván Duque have been ongoing.
“The repression on the streets perpetuated by the police force is systematic,” a young protester in Colombia who wished to remain anonymous told Liberation, “The ESMAD [Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron] along with the national police shoots without remorse rubber bullets, tear gas and attack the protestors.”
This is the third wave of nationwide protests faced by Duque’s extreme anti-worker regime since taking office in 2018. Each time his administration has responded with massive police violence.
During the first five days of protest, Colombian law enforcement authorities, including the reviled riot police ESMAD, rampaged through the streets killing at least 18 people. Eighty-seven others have been disappeared with more dead and disappeared every day. Monday night in the city of Cali, the setting for some of the largest peaceful protests and home to a large Afro-Colombian population, police killed another five people when riot soldiers backed up by police helicopters attacked and overran protestors attempting to block them from entering their communities.
The current protests began as a revolt against Duque’s new anti-worker tax reform bill, but have evolved into an outright challenge to the rule of his far-right political current called Uribismo, named after former president and Duque’s political patron Álvaro Uribe. Key to Uribismo’s rule is its close ties with paramilitary death squads that carry out a reign of terror routinely murdering social movement leaders. The far right has done everything it can to sabotage the historic 2016 peace accord between the government and the FARC rebel movement.
Jorge Andrés Forero-González of the Coordinación Étnica Nacional de Paz (CENPAZ) told Liberation, “The demonstrations go beyond this government, we want to be the generation of peace that we deserve, and to be done once and for all with the mistreatment of the bad governments that have historically forced us into war. We condemn police violence, a manifestation of the grave legitimacy crisis of Uribismo and its 20 years in power.”
“The elite that holds power … have not implemented structural reforms needed to reduce the poverty rate and inequalities. The 1% of that elite controls more than 70% of the land in the country,” noted Afro-Colombian social leader Luisa Fernanda Jaramillo.
The anti-worker tax reform bill was being sold by Duque’s government as necessary to lift Colombia out of an economic crisis amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Duque administration sought to solve his administration’s solvency crisis with new taxes extracted from the working class instead of the wealthy.
The proposed “Sustainable Solidarity Law,” a regressive tax bill, would have drawn the lion’s share of new revenue from working families by taxing consumer products like eggs, coffee and milk, and public utilities like energy, gas, water and sewage. Simultaneously, it proposed to reduce corporate taxes.
Duque government is U.S. “closest partner in Latin America”
The Duque government’s obsession with cuts to public spending, reduced taxes for companies, dismantling labor laws and an unrelenting paramilitary war waged against popular movements has led to more and more Colombians becoming impoverished. But it has won the favor of Washington elites.
Colombia has long been viewed by successive U.S. administrations as the United States’ “closest partner in Latin America,” to use the words of Mark Esper, Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense from 2019 to 2020.
This is not only because ruling Colombian politicians have sought to guarantee the right of U.S. corporations to exploit the country’s resources and workers. There are geo-strategic concerns as well. Located in the heart of Latin America, the United States has sought to convert Colombia’s territory into a bulwark from which to crush the revolutionary process in Venezuela, located to its east, and break up the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA) — the anti-imperialist regional alliance anchored by Cuba and Venezuela.
The U.S. government has pumped billions of dollars into Colombia’s notoriously repressive cops and armed forces, especially since the signing of the “Plan Colombia” agreement during the Clinton administration. Just last year, the United States provided a $220 million aid package to the Colombian military and various police agencies.
“Domestic terrorism in Colombia wont stop until the U.S stops funding it,” New York-based Party for Socialism and Liberation organizer Cathy Rojas argued, “We demand the United States stop all aid to the terrorist government of Duque.”