/ 11 May 2021

#SOSColombia: Remember Sharpeville?

Colombia Politics Protest Rights
Solidarity: On a pavement in Cali, candles spell out the words “for our dead” during a vigil on 5 May in honour of the demonstrators who died during protests against the government. The current death toll is at least 45 people. Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP

The protests and clashes which have taken place in recent days in Colombia have led to the deaths of scores of civilians, the militarisation of public spaces and internet blackouts in cities such as Cali. These events resemble the dynamics in countries in which military juntas rule, such as Myanmar, or in the South African context are reminiscent of the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. 

It has been reported that more than 30 civilians and one police officer have been killed, hundreds have been assaulted, there are hundreds of citizens unaccounted for and the violence has not subsided. As police force abuse has triggered protests and riots in different locations in the country and clashes with civilians continue, the escalation of violence may further delegitimise the state, as the government continues to refuse to meet protesters and acknowledge the human rights’ violations of its citizens.  

Were the protests about taxes?  

Protests started on 28 April in response to hugely unpopular tax reforms. Mobilisations were collectively organised by unions, student movements and civil society organisations against an announced increase in direct and indirect taxes. This reform was the third tabled tax reform in congress in the last three years.  

The reform initially aimed to increase revenues to finance policies put in place by the Colombian state to curb the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. It included the roll-out of a “solidary income”, the tabling a wealth tax for individuals with assets above $1million and an increase in value-added tax — heavily affecting subsistence items, taxes on pensions, and changes in the taxable income for income rent tax, that is, lowering the threshold at which salaries are taxed. The government eventually withdrew the proposal after the murder of several citizens by police forces during protests, but the disconnect between the government and the population had already been made explicit.  

Thus, while some of the reform elements could have had positive effects on the country, such as some degree of progressive taxation, the killing of unarmed civilians indicated a disconnect from the lived experiences of vast segments of the population. It is estimated that at least 3.6-million people, out of a population similar in size to that of South Africa, have fallen into poverty because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the poorest Colombians are 10 times more likely to die from the virus. In a country where employment in the informal sector amounts to more than half of the labour force, and most employees work in precarious conditions with unstable incomes and without access to social security and other rights at work, the violence from police forces towards civilians might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  

The government’s aloof reaction resembles a contemporary version of Marie Antoinette. In the context of previous anti-government protests and increasing use of violence by police against civilians, the government’s indifferent approach disregards those who remain on the margins and excluded from the promises of the Colombian constitution of extending social and economic rights. Further still, this distant response from the government illustrates and makes explicit, for better or worse, what it envisions as the desired relationship between the state and its citizens.    

Mobilisations as an outcome of the 2016 peace accords  

These protests are not a new phenomenon; mobilisations gained momentum following the 2016 peace agreements between the state and The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Army (FARC-EP) and the promise of a democratic understanding between the state and guerrillas. The demonstrations also express grievances that have remained unaddressed by the government over the past few years, including homicidal violence against activists and social leaders, delays in the implementation of the peace agreements and unmet demands for reform.

In recent years, in light of these demands, the government has rehashed Cold War discourses rooted in conspiracy theories that radical politicians have mainstreamed to depict protests as inherently destructive of the social order and orchestrated by hidden enemies. Some of these discourses have been mainstreamed in military academies and used to train police and military officers. Because of this, and the incitement from some politicians to use violence against civilians, soldiers and police officers see protestors as a threat to the state.

Protestors continue to mobilise despite the fact that Colombia is in the middle of its second wave of Covid-19. In the capital of Bogota, less than 6% of ICU beds are available.  

Delegitimising the state from within  

The Colombian government remains distant and disconnected from the needs of the majority of its population and appears unable to understand the demands voiced through mobilisation and protests by its youth. Instead it has opted to deny civil society’s grievances and stigmatise protesters.  

Even in the face of pressure from international organisations such as the United Nations or Amnesty International, the government still portrays demands for political participation, peace and fundamental rights as illegitimate. Such actions fuel conflict and delegitimise the state further. It seems that in the minds of the elites in power, silent acquiescence is preferred to mobilisations, even if such obedience is the result of the use of force.  

Colombia is a country in which the elites in power fear mobilisation, maintaining the social order through states of exception and counterinsurgency. These fear-induced responses have led to the closure of avenues for direct representation, as protests are depicted as a danger to the stability of the social order though they can complement conventional political representation when citizens feel politicians are unresponsive to their concerns. Instead, the criminalisation of political dissent, has fueled cycles of violent coping mechanisms, including the armed violence from which the country still carries deep wounds.  

The loss of legitimacy carries high risks for Colombia. It can help justify the escalation of violence against police forces, which has the dangerous potential of supporting the recruitment of civilians into existing armed groups still active in the country. In the face of reduced political support and the rise of new demands for representation and participation, the government may use violence to revive the counterinsurgency narrative that closed avenues of representation for Colombians and benefited specific elites in previous decades. In the meantime, actors and societal groups striving for peace have called for a de-escalation of the violence.