Colombia – the masses fight back

The months of April to July this year have been marked in Colombia by mass protests on the part of people who have simply had enough of being poor and subjected to violent repression when they live in a country so rich in natural resources.

The protests were sparked by a government announcement of huge tax increases falling disproportionately on people barely able to survive on the income they receive. This announcement infuriated the masses of working people in Colombia, who had already been taking to the streets in protest against poverty before the pandemic but most of whom are now suffering from even lower living standards as a result of the pandemic lockdowns that have caused economic output in the region to fall by some 7% while unemployment has skyrocketed.Some 2.8 million people have now fallen into extreme poverty, earning less than $38 a month.

The proposed tax reform was the last straw that drove the angry Colombian masses to the streets in their millions, determined to keep on loudly protesting until these outrageous proposals were withdrawn.

As the New York Times of 6 June 2021 explained: “The tax proposal was a catalyst that brought longstanding frustrations to a boil.

“Colombia is among the most unequal countries in the world. A report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2018 said that it would take 11 generations for a poor Colombian to approach the mean income in his or her society — the highest number of 30 countries examined” (Julie Turkewitz, ‘Why are Colombians protesting?’).

Forbes further elaborates: “The country’s wealthiest 10% earns annual income worth 40% of GDP. Luis Carlos Sarmiento, the country’s wealthiest businessman, is worth over $8.8 billion dollars. On the other hand, the poorest 20% earns less than 4% of total income. Around 80% of the land in Colombia is controlled by just 1% of the population. … Meanwhile, 42.5% of Colombia’s population lives below the poverty line” (Nathaniel Parish Flannery, ‘Political risk analysis: what do investors need to know about Colombia’s 2022 election?, 12 July 2021).

As a result once the fuse was lit:

On Wednesday [5 May 2021], after seven days of marches and clashes that turned parts of Colombian cities into battlefields, demonstrators breached protective barriers around the nation’s Congress, attacking the building before being repelled by the police…

“Demonstrators now include teachers, doctors, students, members of major unions, longtime activists and Colombians who have never before taken to the streets.

“Truckers are blocking major highways. And on Tuesday [4 May], demonstrators in the capital burned buses and lit over a dozen police stations on fire, singing the national anthem, yelling ‘Assassins!’ and sending officers running for their lives” (Julie Turkewitz and Sofía Villamil, ‘Colombia police respond to protests with bullets, and death toll mounts’, New York Times, 5 May 2021).

Colombia’s President, the right-wing Ivan Duque, had tried to pass of his proposed tax reforms as a measure to lift people out of poverty.

President Iván Duque claimed it would raise 23.4bn pesos ($6.4bn) and help reduce Colombia’s fiscal deficit (set to reach 8.6% of GDP in 2021, from 7.6% in 2020), lifting 2.8 billion people out of poverty and enabling the creation of a fund to tackle the effects of climate change.

“But this was not a progressive tax reform: it would have expanded the scope of VAT, taxed people until then considered to be earning too little to pay, and abolished many exemptions for middle-class households, already hard hit by the Covid-19 crisis” (Lola Allen and Guillaume Long, ‘Colombia’s growing repression’, Le Monde Diplomatique, June 2021).

Duque’s excuses, therefore, did not pass muster. It is clear that most of the extra revenue was related to Colombia’s debts to imperialism. It makes economic sense that Colombia would want to minimise its indebtedness as it is quite likely that interest rates will soon start soaring (in an effort to control inflation) as a result of the worldwide spree of quantitative easing. However, the major beneficiaries of the borrowing are the very rich, and it is they who need to be asked to fork out to reduce indebtedness, not the poor or the just-about-managing. But a government of the elite is never inclined to go to the elite for money! And a puppet of imperialism will always tend to be reluctant to default for fear of being ousted in favour of a government that is more respectful of the imperialist diktat.

The government response to the protests started with its usual resort to brutality, violence and murders: as early as 12 May, “Colombia’s highly reputed Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Indepaz) recorded 39 police killings, 1,055 people arbitrarily detained and 16 cases of sexual violence” (ibid.). This brutality, however, merely had the effect of enraging the masses still further, so that not only did the protests continue and grow, but in addition they took on new demands:

“’This is not just about the tax reform’, said Mayra Lemus, 28, a schoolteacher … ‘This is about corruption, inequality and poverty. And all of us young people are tired of it’” (Julie Turkewitz and Sofía Villamil, op.cit., 5 May 2021).

Colombia’s elite, in order to maintain their privileged status in the face of the anger of the masses and the armed rebellion on the part of FARC and ELN representing the interests of the downtrodden, rushed to sign up to the role of US puppet opening the country to the unbounded depredations of imperialism in return for protection from their own people. As a result, Colombia has been for decades the largest recipient of US military aid and one of the largest buyers of US military equipment in the West, with the bill being paid, of course, by the Colombian working class and peasantry, forced to pay for the abundance of instruments and knowhow of repression, which Colombia’s armed forces and police deployed, and still deploy, with gay abandon against anybody the slightest bit progressive who puts his or her head over the parapet.

This condemned the country to years of violence as the government, on behalf of the elite, sought to wrest control from the FARC and ELN of the vast territories they had liberated. However, only 5 years ago, with a view to putting an end to the perpetual bloodshed, the FARC signed a peace agreement with the then government which allowed for its personnel to be reintegrated into mainstream Colombian politics and armed forces in exchange for the liberated territories being returned to government control. It didn’t take long, however, for the Colombian elite and their US protectors to row back on all the promises they had made.

Le Monde Diplomatique (op.cit.) reports: “last year alone … a total of 91 massacres claimed 384 lives. In March 2021 the UN Verification Mission in Colombia reported that 262 former FARC combatants, signatories to the peace deal, had been killed after signing the 2016 accords, despite the fact that one of the deal’s key government commitments is the duty to provide security protection to former combatants”.

And it is not only FARC combatants who are being murdered: according to the Orinoco Tribune, “State-sponsored terrorism against social leaders and activists has a long history in Colombia. Some social organizations estimate that every 4 days a social activist is killed in the country. The website of Pacifista.TV features 384 murdered social leaders; among them are board chairpersons of community organizations, peasant guard members, indigenous leaders, students, and others. The list is described as an extensive ‘tragic logbook of what it means to lose the men and women who try to maintain peace in their regions or who defend community rights…’

“…since the end of the 1990s, military plans have been strengthened and applied extensively via Plan Colombia, Plan Patriota, and the National Plan for Territorial Consolidation, all with US support and financing, which have resulted in an overwhelming militarization of society and the State” while “…current military manuals promote military extermination of civilian ‘enemy’ populations and the promotion of covert operations as well as the creation of paramilitary structure§s” (Anahí Arizmendi, ‘Selective assassinations: The US agenda for Colombia’, 18 May 2021).

Duque forced to retreat

As it became obvious even to those most reluctant to see it that the brutality meted out by the Colombian state to the protesters was only galvanising more and more people into more and more determined action, Duque was forced to retreat and withdraw his iniquitous tax proposals: on 20 July a revised tax reform bill was put before Congress that not only significantly reduced the amount that the government was hoping to raise (from 23.4tr pesos to 15.2tr) but also redirected these levies to some extent against big business rather than the masses by increasing corporation tax from 31% to 35% which it is estimated will raise 6.7tr.  Further sums are expected to be raised by cracking down on tax evasion.

There are also undertakings to reform the police and to provide a 25% minimum wage subsidy for young workers. The government has also promised that the poorest 50% of students, who account for 97% of those at public universities and technical schools, would get free education from the second half of the year. Whether such promises would be kept once the protests subsided is in some doubt since nobody knows where the government would get the finance to support them.

Suffice it to say that, seeing its client state’s distress, the imperialists have leaped in to make matters wrose: its credit rating agencies have now announced that the country’s credit rating has been reduced to junk status, meaning that any money that Colombia borrows from now on will be at astronomic rates of interest payable to the imperialist blood-sucking financiers.

There can be no future for the masses of the Colombian people without overthrowing its craven elite who prosper by selling out the interests of the masses to imperialism.  We have no doubt that protests will turn into rebellion and rebellion into revolution as the working class and peasantry of Colombia as they protest come to realise revolution is the only way forward.

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