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‘Time to do something’: Colombia protests now a family affair

For the first time in his life, 63-year-old Carlos Camargo took to the streets in protest this month.

On May 1, alongside his wife, two adult children, and son-in-law, the recently retired plastics factory worker decided it was his time to raise his voice for the government to hear.

“I’ve always supported these types of protests – I think they are necessary – but I’ve never gone out myself,” says Mr. Camargo. He has noted an uptick in poverty in the mountainous capital, Bogotá, and is concerned only wealthy people will emerge from the pandemic’s struggles above water. The protesters’ loud chants and the fluttering of Colombian flags he witnessed during the demonstration have stayed with him.

“We are all fed up with the bad management of the current government,” says Mr. Camargo’s daughter, Jessika, who works for a nonprofit organization. This is the first time she’s protested with family members. Together, they decided “it was time to do something instead of just complaining.”

Unrest has spread across Colombia since a tax increase proposed by the right-wing government of President Iván Duque last month, which he argued was urgently needed to shore up the pandemic-hit economy. Violence quickly escalated in big cities, with almost 50 people killed, many at the hands of police.

Although the proposal sparked the protests, public frustration goes far beyond it. The poverty rate in Colombia went up nearly 7% over the past year, to 42.5%, according to Colombia’s national statistics agency. Today, protesters’ demands have grown to include everything from universal basic income to halting health care privatization to the dissolution of Colombia’s riot police.

The widespread discord after more than a year of pandemic-related lockdowns and losses may be a harbinger for what’s to come regionally. Governments across Latin America are faced with jump-starting pummeled economies, while citizens increasingly lose patience awaiting slow-to-arrive vaccines and a return to some kind of normalcy. Even pre-pandemic, Latin America had one of the highest levels of inequality in the world. The presence of entire families on the streets of Colombian cities put front and center how the past year has exacerbated preexisting challenges that are acutely hitting people regardless of age, race, or occupation.

“We know that the pandemic has affected people terribly,” says Ms. Camargo. Protesting with her parents and brother “was important for me because it shows that the protests aren’t only for young people and students.”

Underlying unemployment, poverty rates, and inequality have contributed to Colombia’s unrest, says Sergio Guzmán, director of Bogotá-based Colombia Risk Analysis.

“The pandemic worsened all of those problems at the same time,” he says. “The tax reform added insult to injury, because it didn’t address this issue of inequality and unequal tax distribution.”

“Better opportunities”

From a humble background, Mr. Camargo began working when he was 15. One of his main reasons for joining these protests was indeed the tax reform, which he believed would shield the rich while battering the working classes.

The increase in poverty over the past year has been impossible to ignore, Mr. Camargo says. Extreme poverty more than tripled in Bogotá between 2019 and 2020, when the pandemic upended the economy.

“There are more people on the streets, begging at the traffic lights, more are competing to clean the car windows for money,” he says. Personally, he’s felt a crunch since retirement last year, but his children’s future is on his mind, too. “I want my children and grandchildren to have better opportunities,” he says.

President Duque’s tax proposal would have removed some tax exemptions and lowered the threshold for who must pay income tax. Days after the demonstrations began, he withdrew it, directing the legislature to quickly draw up a new plan to “avoid financial uncertainty.” He has attempted to hold talks with major unions and other groups in charge of organizing national strikes and protests, but they have yet to sow results. Many citizens in cities like Cali are suffering food and fuel shortages as more extremist protesters enforce blockades and halt supplies from entering the cities. Last week, weapon-wielding civilians tried to disperse demonstrators from roadblocks, further raising tensions and propelling a last-minute visit from Mr. Duque to calm the situation.

Mr. Guzmán, the political analyst, says Colombians felt the tax reform was untimely and would make their lives more expensive. Many were further frustrated in the days following the tax reform announcement when the finance minister woefully underestimated the price of a dozen eggs in a television interview.

“You can argue about the [tax reform] numbers all day long, but you can’t argue about the simple fact that the government and many of the members of the ruling party showed a huge disconnect with people,” Mr. Guzmán says. “The tax reform became a trigger for this wave of anger that had been repressed and pent-up for a while.”

Police crackdown

Security forces’ clampdown has further unified opposition, drawing people of all generations to the streets.

“I absorbed the energy of the young people there,” says María del Pilar Barbosa, a Bogotá business owner in her 50s who went out to protest with her daughter, Daniela, for the first time. They attended a special march for the mothers of children who have died during protests. “It hits you hard when you see [young protesters] playing their drums, holding their signs,” she says.

Her daughter gave her tips in case of any violence, and they stayed together the entire march.

“There’s a lot of older folks who really want to leave a better country for their children, and a lot of children … telling their grandparents ‘Look, you have to march because of the environment or because of pension reform or health care reform,’” says Mr. Guzmán. “These protests have brought together a very diverse cast of characters that makes a formidable opposition to the government.”

The recent surge in protests is a continuation of what began pre-pandemic, in 2019. Tax reform wasn’t on the table, but frustration with government services and inequality was already festering. Now discontent is far more widespread, says Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“Grievances run a lot deeper,” Ms. Dickinson says. “Fundamentally it’s about … a feeling among many people that it’s impossible to have any social mobility and that’s because of the way the access to education and the labor market works.”

The police clampdown has garnered demands for a security overhaul. Colombia’s police, which report directly to the Ministry of Defense, are trained to deal with guerrilla warfare due to the country’s five-decade armed conflict. Since the 2016 peace accord, many question whether the country still needs such an aggressive police force.

“We have a security force that is used to looking for an enemy from within, looking for guerrilla forces, and so when you have peaceful protesters on the street, the way they feel they’re being treated is as if the security forces are at war with them,” Ms. Dickinson says.

For Mr. Camargo, the protests must go on “until something is achieved,” despite the violence.

He has a message for his president, who he says “has to listen.”

“Put yourself in the shoes of working-class people. … You have everything and there are some people who have absolutely nothing,” he says. “While people continue to go hungry, while there’s so much inequality, there will never be peace in Colombia.”

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