Colombia: National strike defeats tax reform for now, repression and militarisation continue

Police violently attack protesters in Bogota. Photo: People's Dispatch.

In the face of strong popular rejection, a massive national strike and four days of nationwide mobilisations, Colombian President Ivan Duque announced the withdrawal of the so-called “Sustainable Solidarity” bill on May 2.

The neoliberal tax reform bill would force the working class to pay for a US$6.5 billion deficit incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Duque insists that tax reform is vital to deal with Colombia's economic crisis and asked congress to urgently formulate a new bill with a consensus.

“I am asking the Congress of the Republic to withdraw the bill presented by the finance ministry and urgently process a new law that results from a consensus, and thus avoid financial uncertainty,” said Duque in a video message.

Duque said the tax reform was intended to give “fiscal stability to the country, protect social programs for the most vulnerable and generate conditions for growth”. He added that he had met with representatives of political parties, civil society, mayors, governors and leaders of the business sector, and that they “contributed valuable ideas to achieve this financing without affecting the middle class and the most vulnerable”.  They agreed on applying a temporary income tax on big companies and people with higher incomes, extending the wealth tax, increasing tax on dividends and deepening state austerity measures.

The trade unions, social movements and the opposition progressive political parties, which called for the national strike that began on April 28, celebrated the announcement as a victory. Nevertheless, various leaders called for vigilance against possible deception, warning that a new tax reform bill will be presented soon.

Others rejected the violent police and military repression, militarisation of cities, arbitrary detentions and other human rights violations, which continue across the country, and called for their immediate cessation.

Brutal repression and militarisation of cities

Several civil society and human rights organisations have denounced the unprecedented level of police-military repression and human rights violations witnessed during the five-day national strike.

During the first two days of national strike, on April 28 and 29, the officials of the national police and the Anti-Disturbance Mobile Squadron (ESMAD) repressed peaceful mobilisations across the country using tear gas. Tens of protesters were injured and dozens were arrested.

In the city of Cali, in the Valle de Cauca Department, a protester was killed during brutal police repression on April 28, following the removal of a statue of Spanish conqueror Sebastián de Belalcázar, and a curfew decreed by the mayor.  At least eight more people were murdered by security forces on April 30.

Duque further cracked down on protests on May 1, announcing the militarisation of the three largest cities Bogota, Medellin and Cali — where the demonstrations were strongest. .

While Cali’s mayor Jorge Ospina supported the measure, Bogota’s mayor, Claudia Lopez, and Medellin’s mayor, Daniel Quintero, rejected the militarisation of their cities. Lopez stressed militarisation was not required since most of the protests had been peaceful, and Quintero said that police forces were enough to keep the situation under control.

According to NGO Temblores, between April 28 and May 1, 940 cases of police violence were registered. These included 21 deaths, 92 victims of physical violence, 672 arbitrary arrests, 136 violent interventions, 12 victims with eye injuries, 30 cases of shooting with firearms and 4 victims of sexual violence. Meanwhile, the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) reported that 18 journalists were attacked during the mobilisations on May 1.

In recent days, Colombian alternative media organisation, Colombia Informa, also reported complaints by civil society and human rights organisations of police brutality in the cities of Cali, Palmira, Bogotá, Ibagué, Popayán and Pereira, where protesters were being violently beaten.

Senator Gustavo Bolívar, of the progressive Colombia Humana party, condemned the continuation of repression on May 2. “Duque withdrew the reform but Uribe did not withdraw the order. Massacres continue in various parts of the country. Palmira, Faca, Bogotá report shooting against protesters and police abuse,” Bolívar wrote on Twitter. Bolívar also quoted far-right Democratic Center party leader Alvaro Uribe as inciting national police and military — via a tweet on April 28 — to “use their weapons to defend their integrity and to defend to the people and property from the criminal action of vandalism and terrorism”. Uribe's tweet was later censored by Twitter.

Bolívar, Senator Sandra Ramírez of the Comunes Party and other opposition leaders called for finance minister Alberto Carrasquilla to step down. Carrasquilla presented his resignation on May 3.

Social and political movement leaders are now calling for the withdrawal of Health Reform Bill 010 that further deepens the privatisation of healthcare, for justice for the victims of police repression and prosecution for these crimes.

[Abridged from Peoples Dispatch.]