“I’m drowning, I’m drowning, I’m drowning in this sewer,
and I ache for Spain in the depths of my heart.”
(From a letter of Miguel de Unamuno to a Spanish university professor residing in Buenos Aires)
In the same way as the great Basque philosopher, my heart aches for Colombia, my homeland. I write these pages from a geographical distance that increases the pain. I write out of the respect I owe the victims who are leaving the current popular mobilizations. I write in recognition of the work of those who are giving their all to achieve social peace.
Colombia, one of the countries of greatest potential in Latin America, is once again international news because of the situation produced by the national strike called on April 28 to protest against the tax reform presented by the government of President Iván Duque and to demand its repeal.
One week later, even though the government has withdrawn the tax reform project, there are still demonstrations in several cities of the country, with the disastrous results we are learning about from the press. More than 30 persons were killed in clashes with the security forces, and some 800 people were injured. Extensive damage has been done to the urban infrastructure and the mass transport systems in cities such as Cali and Bogotá. There are shortages in the markets and higher prices of basic products, caused by blockages on the main roads. Above all, mistrust, fear, and tension have invaded the souls of Colombians who no longer resist.
The drop that made the glass overflow…
The national strike of last April 28 is but the tip of the iceberg, the drop that made the glass overflow. So many were the pages of pain and frustration already weighing on the Colombian people that President Duque’s tax reform was just a pretext to say “No more!”
Important sectors of the population were experiencing growing frustration with the course that the peace process with the FARC guerrillas was taking. The excitement and enthusiasm that at first were felt at the prospect of seeing the end of 60 years of fratricidal clashes have turned into dismay as people see that the rates of violence have not dropped; to the contrary, the murders of social leaders and former guerrilla fighters have increased both in the cities and in the countryside.
Political polarization has divided families, towns, and communities. Hate speech and confrontation are not innocuous. Far from promoting dialogue and reconciliation, they inflame and foment the climate of violence we see reported in press releases and on social networks. Political leaders from both sides are behind this climate of tension, and sooner rather than later, they will have to recognize their responsibility for what is happening and offer alternative ways of solving the pressing problems of citizenship.
The pandemic caused by COVID-19 cannot be ignored in this brief analysis, for it has revealed the enormous fissures in the system of social organization of Colombia and of many other countries as well. The number of deaths, the collapse of health services in some cities, the systematic abandonment of vulnerable people, and the lack of opportunities for achieving a dignified life are just a few indicators showing that “normality” was not so normal.
Certain social indicators can help us understand the reasons why Colombians continue to express their discontent. In January the unemployment rate reached 17.3%, which is 4.3% more than it was in December 2020.
But this statistic does not reveal the whole picture. Informal employment in the country is 49.2%, according to the latest report of the National Statistics Department (DANE), and unemployment in March reached 14.2% (1.6% more compared to the same month last year). These are troubling indicators because they reveal that there are hundreds of families who do not have enough to cover their basic needs.
The indicators of poverty are, unfortunately, more painful still. As a result of the pandemic, the percentage of those living in poverty is expected to increase to 42.5% , and of those, 15.1% live in a situation of extreme poverty. Do we imagine that a family is able to live on less than € 2 per day?
Colombia needs a tax reform, I do not doubt that, but not just any reform and not at just any moment. For several years now, successive fiscal reforms have reduced the government’s revenues. Everyone is aware that the 2019 reform, which lowered the contributions of large companies, has left the country bankrupt. As a result, there has been a sizable decrease in the budget for social programs and policies of inclusion. With the government on the brink of financial collapse, as the finance minister stated shortly before the strike, the people have seen no signs of austerity and restraint in government spending. Many voices have been raised to protest the excessive spending of the executive branch and the purchases announced right at this time of crisis. Is there any need for the latest generation of fighter jets? Is there any need for so many armored cars for state officials? Is it necessary to invest so much money in maintaining the president’s image?
Against this background, the government submitted to parliament a reform that would have heavily taxed middle-class people. One Colombian politician stated that this reform would tax the food of those who don’t have enough to eat and the wages of those who still have a job. The public unrest was evident, and it led to the call for the strike on April 28. Certainly the reform proposal could not have come at a more inopportune moment.
The demonstration, initially conceived as a peaceful protest within the constitutional framework of the right to protest, very soon changed its direction and moved toward violence, vandalism, and death.
The security forces attacked the demonstrators with an excess of violence that has already been denounced by the delegate of the United Nations Human Rights Council and by other institutions and governments. Particularly tragic have been the events in Cali, Bogotá, and Pereira.
Some protesters, perhaps spurred on by people intent on sowing chaos and anarchy, have resorted to vandalism and brutality. Such lawlessness puts them beyond the sphere of legitimate protest and its just demands. This is deplorable, as is the balance of human lives lost, which we already pointed out.
The use of force against unarmed persons seems to me unjustifiable. At the same time, and with the same radicality, I repudiate those who have incited the protesters to violence, most likely for reasons unrelated to the marches. I exercised priestly ministry in La Aurora, the neighborhood in which some protesters set fire to a police station with the uniformed officers inside. I affirm that I cannot imagine the young people I knew there perpetrating such an inhumane and inconsiderate act of violence.
The strike has now lasted one week. Sanity is apparently gaining some ground, but there is still need to calm people’s spirits and to summon political actors to the table of dialogue and reconciliation. The recourse to violence leads only to more violence and more pain, and given the current circumstances, it weakens the country’s already fragile economy.
The national anthem of Colombia declares that “the horrible night has ended.” Let us hope that Colombia, this thriving country of Latin America, will rise from the ashes and occupy the place that its people deserve and that history should bestow on it.
[Image from Wikimedia Commons]