In recent weeks Colombia has seen massive unrest, with a general strike, huge crowds across the country and significant violence from ESMAD – the riot police. This short piece seeks to clarify the background and underline the significance of this revolt against neoliberal tax policies.
In November and December 2019 there was a massive outpouring of popular dissatisfaction with the approach of the governing class towards social and economic policies, the peace process and a number of other issues. The state reacted in panic mode, and while the right wing media hysterically focused on vandalism, the riot police embarked on a relentless attack against protesters (irrespective of whether they were peaceful). I witnessed the dispersal of peaceful crowds with teargas and stun grenades a number of times. Each time I found myself wondering about the purpose of such interventions. As it was, the police-induced violence led to further confrontations, footage of police abuse significantly out-numberd the footage of vandalism, which only made public outrage increase. 17 year old Dylan Cruz would be the first to die, and the protests would continue for weeks until they faded away as the holidays approached. As a rule of thumb it was pretty clear: the fewer riot police, the less the chance of a riot.
The pandemic came, just as some were organizing a new round of protests. The gesture of good will by the president, who had promised to hold conversations with a broad range of protesters but which never really got started, was now completely abandoned. The pandemic provided cover for an elaborate list of mobility reducing measures, police enforced lockdowns and many other policies which did not necessarily make epidemiological sense. People seemed to submit easily, and courts were not very eager to do anything about it, in spite of numerous irregularities and plain constitutional breaches identified by lawyers.
Jumping to September 2020, in broad daylight the lawyer Javier Ordoñez was assassinated in a police station. The police tried to cover up the crime clumsily, while the right wing media performed their usual ‘blame the victim by means of character assasination’ routine. However, the truth was out. In the night that followed, hundreds of protesters attacked police stations, especially in poor neighbourhoods where police are perceived as corrupt bullies. Police responded with no restraint and a dozen people were killed. Though police insisted they had acted in self-defense, evidence indicated that all those who had been shot by police were unarmed. In fact, many of them were not even close to the police stations. However, Colombia was at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, and its emergent severe economic crisis quickly diverted attention to other matters.
One of the things that makes living in Colombia exhausting is that you go from crisis to crisis, from outrage to outrage, in a type of repetitive whiplash. This explains in part why I need to go through this excercise in remembering…
And so, as weariness about the pandemic and the economic situation grew, and as the political elites got used to the lack of effective checks on whatever they were doing they got careless and greedy. To be fair, in my opinion, intentions were generally decent enough, but they were 1) hopelessly neoliberal in the sense of “let’s protect the vulnerable rich from any discomfort” and “let’s instead rely on the resilience of the middle class”, and 2) just out of touch with the growing resentment and overall fatigue.
In the end, it was an unfortunate tax reform which pushed people over the edge. It has to be said, that the tax reform had many good things for the poorer segments of the population, and offered a more progressive tax policy than has been the case in Colombia for many years. But, it also undid a lot of good by worsening the burdens of the middle class. Moreover, the government did a very bad job at trying to sell the policy, and the usual strong-arm-argument of “if we don’t do this then our credit rating will collapse and everything will go to hell” just didn’t work anymore. Even though the tax reform was doomed from the beginning, the government insisted, and people went back to the streets.
This was the week of the 28th of April. To be honest, I did not expect that so many people would go out into the street. Like most of my colleagues and friends, we felt exhausted by the isolation and the workload and the zoom-drudgery of it all. However, an overwhelming number of younger people filled the streets. Again, riot police were attacking peaceful crowds, but there was also a considerable number of young people seeking the confrontation with the riot police. As always, there was music, art, creative slogans, and people walking very long distances. Moreover, people were filling the streets all over the country, and even in small towns. The usual detractors were less visible and the President seemed more and more isolated. On Sunday they withdrew the tax reform plans, and the finance minister, an old neoliberal financial executive, considered completely out of touch with ordinary people, resigned and quickly left the stage.
Monday the 3rd of May came and things seemed to be calming down, or so I thought from within my bubble. There was even a sense of relief and empowered satisfaction at the success of the marches. However, as the night progressed reports started coming in, with shockingly violent footage, mostly from the city of Cali where in the Siloé neighbourhood the police were being violently deployed. The numbers are still unclear, but at least 18 people died that night. The next morning police and government officials argued that it was all lawful, proportionate and necessary. But that came across as a cynical PR exercise. Meanwhile, the partisan Ombudsperson was pretending that nothing had happened. As Tuesday progressed, the mood got more and more depressed. In the evening students in the Law School where I work were very divided on the question of whether they should join the strike. In the end they did not and they seemed quite polarised about this. That evening there was an attack on a police station that almost killed ten police officers in a fire. In addition, the multiple road blocks around the country led to a situation in which an ambulance carrying a pregnant women giving birth prematurely was attacked which led to the death of the infant child. Meanwhile reports of police violence kept coming in.
In a country that never truly feels stable or in control the feeling that things were getting out of hand was getting palpable.
On Wednesday I taught to two groups, one of about 100 students, nearly all of them with their camera’s off. These were 1st year students, who have known university only through Zoom… Later I had a smaller group of 4th year students, most of who not only didn’t support the strike, but also felt that they were inhibited in their ability to express their opinion. Much was said in both classes, about many things. It was often more akin to group therapy, and in the afternoon I was exhausted, feeling the heavy and volatile mood, the anxiety, the depression, the frustration of the students, while outside, just outside, there was a confrontation between rioters and riot police.
On Thursday (as I write this), things seem calmer, although there is also a rumour mill with people citing “reliable sources” with a bunch of terrible scenarios. We seem to be on the edge between de-escalation and escalation. I think back to yesterday, and feel that my students who spoke, who are both intelligent and aware, and that too calms my spirit. One thing that is different from other times is that, for whatever reason, there is international attention. Somehow, our struggles seem less parochial, less pathological, and more universal. This global gaze, as opposed to previous fascinations with drug trafficking and violence, feels like a solidarity, and offers a strange kind of comfort.
The number of people killed since last week is now close to 40. There are still people on the streets. There are still road blocks. There are riots too, and violence. It’s dispersed. The intensity seems to have calmed down a bit. All of the circumstances however are still there. Though the political map is in flux, it is completely unclear how deep the changes are. At times it does feel as if something profound has shifted. Let’s see if we get time to get used to it before the ground shifts again.