For a week, Colombia has been undergoing a major social upheaval. The mass movement that broke out in opposition to the tax reform proposals presented to Congress by the government of President Iván Duque has not only succeeded in forcing the withdrawal of those proposals, but has shed light on a much broader situation of discontent. A general strike began on 28 April and is ongoing at the time of writing. Red Eco Alternativo interviewed Pietro Lora Alarcón, a university professor and member of the executive body of the Colombian Patriotic Union, a leftist party refounded in Colombia in recent years following decades of severe and murderous state repression of its initial iteration from the 1980s onwards.
Redeco: What explains this wave of protest over the last week, despite the repression aimed against it?
Pietro Lora Alarcón: It’s important to note some of the issues that have been central in bringing about the current situation. In theory, the tax reform package presented to Congress on 5 April by Iván Duque has now been defeated by the wave of actions that began on 28 April and have continued since then.
The problem is that, under the proposed reforms, those people with 2 million dollars in the bank – a very wealthy stratum, in Colombia – would pay a 1% wealth tax, and those with more than 4 million dollars would pay 2%, while the majority of Colombians would pick up a much heavier tax burden.
What’s more, the reforms would apply 19% VAT to basic goods like water, electricity, phone usage, funeral services, Internet usage and computer goods – basically, everything which is essential to life in the midst of an acute health crisis.
You put all of this together, in a country that has counted some 5.4 million job losses in from the start of last year to now; where unemployment is at 17%; where 2 million young people have left university without work to go into; where 3.9 million people are now unemployment and 5.7 million are relying on the informal economy; and you have an extremely difficult situation.
Meanwhile, the so-called “Basic Income Programme” promoted by Duque’s government has delivered three payments of 40 dollars, and these have only reached some three million people, rather than the 15 million Colombians who were initially found eligible to receive the benefit.
RE: What did the proposed tax reform package mean for the mass of the population in Colombia?
PLA: The main points of the tax reform were a consolidation and a broadening of an earlier set of reforms brought in in 2019. The package that has been withdrawn, called the Sustainable Solidarity Law, would have been very difficult for Colombians to tolerate; for instance, it would have placed 73% of the overall tax burden on individuals, with only the remaining 27% falling on businesses.
Duque argues that the country has a fiscal deficit, and that these reforms are of fundamental importance in resolving that problem. But, who brought about that deficit? The deficit was brought about by the Duque government taking on debt to various international entities and issuing public bonds that are now generally seen as junk bonds by international firms, having lost all value due to the devaluation of our currency in international markets.
The rationale given for the prior tax reforms in 2019 was that, if we cut taxes on the big corporations and financial capital, more tax would be brought in because it would stimulate economic growth. It’s a formula that’s never produced positive results in any country in the world, but that was what [Finance Minister Alberto] Carrasquilla staked everything on in 2019.
Without engaging in self-critique over that episode, and in the mid of this fresh crisis, the new reforms would have increased the burden on the most vulnerable sections of the Colombian population.
These were the reasons for the eruption of the huge protest movement underway in Colombia, a legitimate movement that is seeking an alternative to the current economic model and a reorientation towards social spending, so that we can move forward with mass vaccination and a liveable Basic Income for workers that will allow people to survive this Dantean crisis that Colombians are currently living through.
RE: How has the general strike been organised?
PLA: The beginning of the strike on 28 April was the result of a decision by the National Strike Committee, but the extension of the strike and the turns that that has taken since have been the result of longstanding social discontent, traceable back as far as the previous strike movement of November 2019, which were interrupted by the start of the pandemic.
The National Strike Movement brings together organised sections of social movements, workers across the country, trade union organisations, women’s organisations, LGBTI groups, peasant groups – a huge range of different sectors of the population. But the important thing is that the people have responded to the call to strike, and have taken the reins of the process, and have advanced to start connecting the economic question with the need for political change in Colombia. People are becoming increasingly aware that this isn’t solely a situation about the current state of the economy, but a crisis that certain people in the government are responsible for, that we need a change in government and that that necessarily entails a realignment of Colombian politics. The role of young people in all of this has been particularly notable.
RE: How has the Duque government executed its U-turn [on the tax reforms]?
PLA: All of this is an indication of the deterioration of the Duque government and of the hegemony in Colombia of Uribismo [the militaristic right-wing politics associated with Duque ally and presidential predecessor Jorge Alberto Uribe]. This entailed a logic of treating all social protest as a public order problem, and treating as an enemy of the state anybody who opposed our current economic model or expressed oppositional views. The idea, accepted by the current government, that we should be living in a constant state of exception. At this moment, that logic has reached the end of its line.
Faced with this loss of uribista hegemony, the right wing are conferring among themselves and are looking for a new formula they can put into action across the various sections of the right in order to halt the mass movement.
Most people with sense believe the government will bring back the tax reform with some cosmetic alterations – the same key points but presented in a different way. The Colombian people will not put up with this; the subjective conditions to allow the government to get away with that are not there. What Duque has left to him is to use the internal upheaval as a pretext to demand he be given emergency powers, allowing him to rule by decree and impose emergency tax reform to resolve the deficit issue and the current incapacity of the state to organise mass vaccination.
RE: How would you describe the current situation of open repression of demonstrators and militarisation of the streets?
PLA: There is an acute human rights crisis. Why? Because the government’s strategy in the days since 1 May has been to forcibly occupy the cities, creating a critical situation. These military occupations, particularly in Cali, have created an unsustainable situation in which the armed forces have been sowing terror, intimidating the population, shooting at the people and obliging local governments to cooperate with them in their repression. It was the police force that initially began the repressive response, and now the ESMAD [Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron] and the military have both opened fire. Currently the police, the armed forces and the intelligence services are all acting against the movement. This is an asymmetrical conflict leading to tragic results, with 27 deaths, more than 1100 reports of police violence, and 726 arbitrary arrests.*
We have to demilitarise the country. The Duque government has to order the armed forces to withdraw. The current situation [of military occupation] is only going to worsen things, not lead to any kind of democratic outcome.
There is an appeal for international solidarity from human rights organisations, political parties and social organisations around the world because the Colombian people cannot keep fighting alone in this extremely severe situation; it is a just cause, and the armed forces are unleashing their full arsenal against the people. The right is using the armed forces in their own class interests, making them into an instrument for defending class power and the privileges of the World Bank and financial capital.
*At the initial time of publication of this interview on 7 May, NGO Temblores had counted 37 deaths, 222 injuries, 10 instances of rape, 831 illegal arrests, and 108 people disappeared.