Sarah Gonzalez: I'm Sarah Gonzalez, in for Tanzina Vega and you're listening to The Takeaway.
[noise from protesters]
Sarah Gonzalez: This is the sound of protesters in Colombia running away from police as demonstrations continue against the government. For two weeks protests have continued to escalate. What started as a general strike on August 28th against a tax reform has now evolved into a broader movement challenging widening inequality in the country.
According to local observers, more than 40 people are thought to have been killed by state security forces. For the past year, Colombians have been facing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic crisis. Over 75,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Colombia, and inequality in the country has only widened during the pandemic.
The present demonstrations are now seen as an extension of the massive protests we saw throughout Latin America in 2019. I'm joined now by Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America. Gimena, thank you so much for joining us.
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli: Hello, Sarah. Thanks for having me on.
Sarah Gonzalez: Gimena, for context, remind us what the 2019 protests were about in Colombia and in much of Latin America.
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli: In 2019, we saw protests in multiple countries, in Colombia, basically, people really upset about their economic situation, feeling that a lot of the global policies that were put in place to spur the economies were not reaching them. In the case of Colombia, you also had, in 2016, the signing of a historic peace accord after five decades of violence, and the new president, Duque, was basically not implementing those accords.
There was rising discontent in Colombia, both because of the economic situation for the poor and working-class Colombians, in addition to a lot of discord because the peace accord which brought so much promise to many of the most affected parts of Colombia was not being put in place.
Sarah Gonzalez: Give us a better sense of what this inequality has looked like in Colombia in the past few years.
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli: The inequality in Colombia has basically been that in the city of Bogota, you have some of the first-class services of medical attention, education, high fashion, and in areas like the Pacific region of Choco people don't have access to potable water. There are no running aqueducts in most of those areas. There is no health services, people die of malnutrition in Choco and in another state called La Guajira. Often, because of the lack of education, people are unemployed or unable to make ends meet.
This incredible disparity really has to do with the fact that Colombia is actually a rich country and it's a very biodiverse country with tremendous economic and other resources, but it is very poorly distributed. At the same time, access to political parties, access to power, access to decision making, that democracy has always been very limited, which is why you had a series of armed guerrilla movements over the years that have basically rised up against the state.
Sarah Gonzalez: How has the COVID-19 pandemic tied into the protests we're seeing today?
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli: The protests took a hiatus basically, because of the COVID pandemic. Colombia went strictly into lockdown right away, and people weren't able to protest. The simmering issues that hadn't been resolved from 2019 remained. In addition to that, you had a situation where most of the informal economy of Colombia was put to a complete standstill, and people were unable to make ends meet, were unable to even eat, and in some parts of the country, there was even hunger.
During that time, the government decided to pass some relief bills. Unfortunately, those relief bills were plagued with tremendous allegations of corruption. On the one hand, people couldn't go out and figure out a way to survive for themselves, and on the other hand, the relief that was supposed to reach them was being, in their view, stolen by the government.
In addition to that, you also had, in spite of the restrictions, rising insecurity in different parts of the country, illegal armed groups continue to go after people and the state was not protecting them and so you had rising massacres and rising killings of social leaders.
All of that led to much discord because people felt that the government was not only not taking care of them, but also not protecting them from the insecurity that was taking place.
Sarah Gonzalez: Then President Iván Duque proposed a new tax that reignited these protests, tell us about this tax.
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli: In Colombia, you already had simmering discontent that had started in 2019 with the general populace being unhappy with the lack of governability of the Duque administration towards the middle and working-class Colombians. There was also much discontent because of the government's refusal to implement the peace accord and as such, we've rising massacres and killings of social leaders. Since 2016, we've had more than 1,000 social leaders killed in Colombia, for example.
Within that context, and after going through the pandemic, and the severe economic restrictions, which basically devastated the economy, especially for working-class and rural Colombians, the Colombian government decides to introduce a tax reform that, rather than helping stimulate the economy for working-class or middle-class Colombia, actually, places more taxes on them in terms of basic goods and basic things that they need to operate every day.
Sarah Gonzalez: Can you give me an example of what kinds of things the tax would have been on?
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli: It would have been on basic things like eggs, transportation, everything you need to get by every day. It was basically targeting what is known as the canasta familiar, the daily food basket.
Sarah Gonzalez: The bread basket, yes.
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli: Yes. Also, transportation, and so forth.
Sarah Gonzalez: Gimena, have security forces been targeting particular groups?
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli: Yes. We see that there's been a disproportionate impact on protesters who are Afro-descendant, or poor neighborhoods. The situation in the city of Cali, for example, has been particularly alarming, because there you had the security forces basically, take over the civilian authorities, put them aside, and have gone on a situation where they've basically taken over the city in the evenings, the internet has been blocked, the electricity has been shut off. The information that is able to get out of there is of the police, specifically targeting youth, especially in Black neighborhoods.
Sarah Gonzalez: How much is the police and security forces response to demonstrators connected to the president?
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli: It's totally connected. The Colombian government has been promoting a narrative that those who are protesting aren't legitimate protesters, but they're vandals, they're criminals, high-level members of the ruling party have accused the protesters of being terrorists. They've also said that the ELN guerrillas and narco-traffickers are behind some of the protests, basically, delegitimizing the rightful protests that are taking place throughout the country.
That said, there has been vandalism, but it's really been minority, and protesters that have attacked police, which, again, have been in the minority who did not stop doing so until all of these videos were circulating, and the police responded with such tremendous violence.
Sarah Gonzalez: The tax bill has been repealed. What are demonstrators demanding now?
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli: That's the thing, the tax bill was defused that basically blew up the protests, but it was basically the icing on the cake. Already, in Colombia, there was a tremendous amount of discontent about the government's inability to really govern in favor of the middle class and rural areas of the country. The government also has other reforms that it wanted to move forward like health bill, education bill. The health legislation was stopped basically yesterday as well.
Basically, the sense is that the government has no empathy for the majority of working-class Colombians that it wants to resolve the economic crisis basically by favoring the rich and elite. This has been one of the root causes of the conflict that Colombia has had for multiple decades, which is that the economic elites basically do not share the wealth of the country and that they often are making tremendous profits at the exploitation of rural Colombia, Afro-Colombian, and indigenous Colombia.
Sarah Gonzalez: What has the international response been to these protests?
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli: The international response from The United Nations, The European Union has all been to condemn the violence, call for dialogue. Yesterday the US ambassador met with the Vice President of Colombia, also calling for dialogue. Members of the US Congress, most notably, Senator Patrick Leahy, also condemned the violence. Representative McGovern condemned the violence. Representative AOC did as well.
However, we don't think it's sufficient given the relationship that the United States has with Colombia. The US has basically given Colombia billions of dollars over the years for security assistance, that security assistance has human rights conditions. We don't see the same level of condemnation and effort to seek justice in this situation and major reforms of the police, especially the anti-riot police as we would on other countries, let's say Venezuela and otherwise given the severe gravity of the situation that's taking place and just the sheer alarming numbers in terms of the violence committed.
Sarah Gonzalez: Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli is the Director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America. Gimena, thank you so much.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.