Conflict Alerts # 405, 7 July 2021
In the news
On 1 July, Colombia's President Ivan Duque said that he plans to present a new law to Congress which will introduce stringent measures to curb vandalism, roadblocks and attacks on police. This statement came days after the country marked two months of protests that started against the now-withdrawn tax proposals but have since expanded to include a host of demands.
According to Reuters, Duque said: "We've seen some acts of vandalism that have destroyed public infrastructure, that has burned municipal courthouses, that have also attacked commercial premises and clearly we need to toughen penalties". He added: "Peaceful protest is a constitutional right that we all have, and peaceful means without violence and without violating the rights of others".
Issues at large
First, two months of continuous protests. The protests started on 28 April against a controversial tax reform proposal by the Duque administration that sought to raise tax revenues. After violent protests, Duque withdrew the proposal and then Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla, who piloted it, resigned from his post. The protests, however, have continued regardless. The talks between protestors and the government at the end of May, which showed some progress, also collapsed in June. Even though the national strike group has suspended weekly protests to prepare drafts to present to Congress at the end of July, protests have continued in small pockets in the country.
Second, the expansion of demands. Stemming from a larger discontent in society, the inclusion of multiple groups in the protest movement — youth, middle class, unions and the indigenous communities — has resulted in a commensurate expansion of demands. This includes basic income, better employment opportunities, police reforms and respect for human rights. The indigenous communities also recently toppled the statue of explorer Columbus — after whom the country is named — demonstrating their opposition to colonialism and bringing to light the exploitation suffered by them to date.
Third, Duque's heavy-handed response. While Duque took the right step early into the protest movement by withdrawing the tax reforms, he has also been blamed for a brutal police response that has killed several dozens of protestors, according to right groups.
The last two months have exposed the discontent boiling in the Colombian society, which initially found an outlet in the tax proposals. The strong-arm tactics approach by Duque has not been helpful in addressing it. His new announcement of bringing a new stringent anti-vandalism law, when a law for that very purpose already exists, is only going to make matters worse.
Colombia will only come out of this tense stalemate if the negotiation process with the wide array of protesting groups is restarted and the Duque administration takes steps to address genuine popular demands.