Protests in Colombia reflect a deep legitimacy crisis | Latin America

On April 28, during the third coronavirus pandemic, after the right-wing government Ivan Duque proposed tax increases, protests broke out across Colombia. Although the president withdrew the controversial tax reform proposal in the face of public anger, demonstrations continued, and the brutal suppression further intensified the demonstrations.

Security forces and armed men in civilian clothes killed at least 40 protesters and injured hundreds. Many were arrested by the police and dozens of women were sexually assaulted.

The escalation of violence not only reflects the government’s failure to resolve long-standing social and economic dissatisfaction, but also reflects its ever-losing legitimacy and democratic retreat. This puts the country at risk of falling back into conflict.

Trigger: Unfair tax reform

The Colombian government initially announced its proposed tax reform measures aimed at collecting taxes to launch a “solidarity income” program to help Colombians who have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the way the reform plan is formulated clearly shows that it will cause more harm than benefits to the poor and disadvantaged groups.

Although the reform package includes a property tax on individuals with assets of more than $1.35 million, there are many provisions that may harm low-income families. It will lower the taxable income threshold and increase pensions and value-added tax, which will greatly increase the price of daily necessities such as eggs, milk, cheese and meat.

Other elements of the reform benefit the private sector and specific economic groups. These include maintaining several tax exemptions for various industries, including the financial sector, most of which benefit wealthy entrepreneurs.

Although the government claims that tax reforms are necessary to reduce the impact of the flu pandemic on Colombia’s economy and national budget, it is also pushing for some suspicious spending, including the purchase of expensive weapons from the United States.

Although certain reforms may have a positive impact on the economy, such as tax reductions and exemptions for disadvantaged sectors, the increase in value-added tax shows that there is a disconnect between the living experience of the ruling elite and the general population.

It is estimated that 3.5 million people have fallen into poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing the number of people living in poverty from 17.5 million in 2019 to 21 million in 2020 (42.5% of the population). The crisis has severely hit people employed in the informal sector accounting for half of the workforce. They will not be able to benefit from any tax rebates due to regular workers as compensation for the increase in value-added tax.

The government’s response: violence and slander

The government’s initial response to cross-border criticism of its tax reform proposal was completely deaf and dumb. Treasury Secretary Alberto Carrasquilla addressed the media in an attempt to defend the package, but eventually revealed that he did not know how much basic daily necessities would cost. When talking about the impact of the expansion of value-added tax, he claimed that the price of eggs is one-fourth of their actual price in the market, arousing more public outrage.

When the protests began, the government did not engage in open dialogue and listen to the dissatisfaction of the people, but adopted a smear campaign. It tried to portray the demonstrations as a radical left-wing conspiracy that would destabilize the country.

Several pro-government figures publicly accused the protest organizers of trying to establish a “Castro Chavesmo” regime in Colombia. This conspiracy theory has been mainstreamed in certain branches of the armed forces and police, who truly believe that the protesters are aiming to overthrow the country in order to advance the left-wing revolution.

The government provided weapons for these narratives and took further action, ordering the suppression of the protesters, the deployment of security forces and the military, the latter deployed tanks and used violent means to disperse the unarmed, mostly peaceful crowds.

Even when the United Nations and human rights organizations condemned the violence, the government failed to respond and control the security forces. It ignores the dissatisfaction of the population in all aspects, and even disregards their lives, so that the mobilization of the whole people has reached the highest level in decades.

Mobilized as a result of the 2016 peace agreement

Although the proposed tax reform was the trigger of recent protests and the motivation for the government’s violent response to it, the social roots of widespread dissatisfaction are far more than this.

Over the years, due to stagnant poverty reduction efforts, governments have failed to address the growing inequality in Colombian society. Under the influence of the wealthy class in Colombia, they repeatedly made policy decisions, making citizens more vulnerable and distrusting the country.

However, in the context of the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), protests should also be seen, which ended the five-year conflict between them.

As the violent conflict between FARC-EP and the government decreased, social movements gained more room for mobilization. The peace agreement also created the expectation that after this armed conflict is over, the government will respond more to citizens’ dissatisfaction.

However, even after the peace agreement was reached, violence against civilians continued. Indigenous leaders, social activists, human rights defenders, farmers and environmentalists who defended the rights of various communities and worked to implement the terms of the 2016 peace agreement were assassinated. The government has not taken any serious action to stop the continued violence or to hold the security forces or non-state actors responsible for the cartels, left- and right-wing armed groups that are still victimizing Colombian civilians.

At the same time, many political elites continue to view the demand for democratic reform as a left-wing conspiracy to overthrow the country.

Legitimacy crisis

The protests in the past few weeks, triggered by various socio-economic dissatisfaction and intensified by the government’s violent response, also show that there is a continuing lack of proper channels to hold citizens accountable to the government.

The ruling elites seem to want ordinary people to acquiesce in any policies they choose to adopt. The narrative they used in the face of popular mobilization focused on “rebuilding order,” which meant the use of brutal force to ensure obedience.

However, the view that state legitimacy stems from the monopoly of force is outdated. The ruling elite’s embrace of compulsivity is part of the dangerous trend of erosion of participatory democracy in Latin America and Latin America as a whole.

Colombia is a country where political leaders have always feared mobilization, even if it is peaceful. This fear has led to the closure of political representation and access to participation. They have contributed to the cycle of violence, including the armed conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and the country is still recovering from it.

The current government has repeated the same mistakes by discrediting the protesters and ordering the violent dispersal of the protesters. It has not yet implemented the 2016 peace agreement.

The loss of legitimacy poses a high risk to Colombia. The escalation of violence against the police force reflects this, which has the dangerous potential to encourage civilians to join armed groups that are still active in the country. In turn, the ruling elite can use it to relaunch counterinsurgency operations and close democratic channels for participation and representation as in the past.

Current events put Colombia at a crossroads. If the government chooses to recognize the dissatisfaction of the people and engage in dialogue, it can help the government restore legitimacy and work hard to strengthen the social contract. If it chooses to continue to militarize the city, ignoring the needs of the population, it should prepare for more turbulence and international pressure to change the course before the country falls into another conflict.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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