QCOLOMBIA – Nineteen people have died and hundreds more have been injured in protests in Colombia against President Iván Duque Márquez’s tax bill, aimed at economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and since been withdrawn.
Although Duque said the objective of the reform that would raise the GDP by 1.4% was to stabilize the country’s economy.
The plan has been criticized for favoring the wealthy and placing more strain on the working and middle classes.
Many are frustrated by new or expanded taxes on citizens and business owners and the elimination of many tax exemptions, such as those on certain sales of everyday goods.
Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in protest in Colombia’s major cities – Botoga, Medellin, and Cali, but also across the country.
The protests that began last Wednesday after a national strike drew larger crowds than expected. By Monday, on day six of the violence, at least 18 civilians and one police officer had been killed, according to the office of Colombia’s human rights ombudsman.
Some NGOs have accused the police of firing at civilians, with most of the violence occurring in Colombia’s third-largest, Cali, where at least four deaths were recorded.
The police officer was killed in Soacha, a town on the edge of the capital Bogota.
Duque has criticized the protesters for demonstrating during Colombia’s second wave of COVID-19.
Colombia has accumulated 2,919,805 cases and 75,627 deaths associated with covid-19. and On Tuesday, the country reported 14,551 new cases and 463 deaths, according to data from the Coronavirus Colombia government website.
More than 500 police officers have been injured during the protests, according to the Policia Nacional (National Police), who also identified thousands of people who have not been complying with COVID public health measures, by not wearing masks for example.
Alberto Carrasquilla, the now-former finance minister and author of the controversial tax reform, resigned on Monday evening after the day meeting with the president.
The Colombian peso exchange fell the most among the major currencies following the move.
In a bid to end the protests and violence, Duque announced the withdrawal of the tax reform from the legislative agenda in the midst of debate by lawmakers.
In his announcement, the president said his government would present a new draft bill soon.
In his address to the nation Sunday, Duque urged congress to quickly put together a new plan “and thus avoid financial uncertainty.” However, Duque’s political party has less than 20% of the seats in Congress.
“The reform is not a whim. The reform is a must,” he said.
Defense Minister Diego Molano blamed the violence on armed militia groups, mainly on Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) dissidents and members of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN).
The FARC signed a peace deal with the government in 2016 ending decades of conflict, leaving the ELN as the last recognized guerrilla group in the country.
Colombia, unlike many other Latin American countries, has a relatively stable economy and hasn’t defaulted on its debt since the 1930s.
The UN, United States, European Union and rights groups expressed concern Tuesday after reports of the disproportionate use of force against protesters, calling for calm and respect for human rights.
In Bogota and Medellin, opposition mayors declined military help, yet soldiers were seen patrolling the capital by presidential order.
In such a volatile situation, adding soldiers to the mix is “a terrible risk,” said Ariel Avila, the deputy director of Colombia’s Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation.
International security expert Florent Frasson-Quenoz of the Javeriana University said Colombia was experiencing a return to the “heavy-handed” way of governing of the 2000s, “when the security situation was at its most difficult”.
New demonstrations have been called for Wednesday as the public mood seems to have turned against those in power.
“The people in the streets are demanding much more than the withdrawal of the tax reform,” said the National Strike Committee organizing the protests.
This is an opportunity, said Eduardo Bechara, a professor of public policy at Colombia’s Externado University., for “the government and other political, social and economic sectors to converge around the need to rethink security.”