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Tue 22 June 2021

Protestors are facing physical and sexual violence amid police crackdowns of anti-Government dissent, reports Nadja Sieniawski

As food prices rise and cities disintegrate into scenes last seen during the country’s bitter civil war, Colombia continues to be rocked by unprecedented anti-Government protests.

Originally erupting in response to a proposed tax reform, the nationwide protests have turned into an uprising demanding radical change for the Andean country. But as the protests continue – largely ignored by the international media – hopes of change are beginning to wane, and human suffering is growing. 

The protests began as peaceful marches on 28 April across the country, from Colombia’s capital Bogotá to lively Cali, historic Popayán and many smaller cities. 

In response to the economic challenges posed by COVID-19, Colombian President Iván Duque proposed a tax reform which would have seen an increase in utility and food prices, as well as a hike in income tax for both lower and higher earners. A year into the pandemic, the country’s economic downturn has pushed more than three-and-a-half million Colombians into poverty.

“At first, the protests were really beautiful,” Daniela Agudelo Pinta and Jonathan Grajales Delgado, youth activists from Buga, a town north-west of Cali, told Byline Times. “We were all united like never before, one family standing up for our rights.”

However, while the protests were successful in halting the proposed tax reform, they soon turned violent as Colombian’s militarised anti-riot police unit, the Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD), cracked down on protestors with the use of tear gas, water cannons and lethal weaponry

“Unfortunately, it did not take long for the police to attack us brutally; they are trying to scare us,” said Jonathan. “But we will continue to protest with courage, because we know that there must be change. It is worth the pain.”

Human rights groups are currently investigating the role of the Colombian police in 41 civilian deaths, with most victims in Colombia’s third-largest city, Cali. The death toll is disputed, but the real number is believed to be much higher. More than 400 people are reported missing. Sexual abuse of women and underage girls by police officers has been reported repeatedly. 

As state-controlled media propagates a different narrative, Colombians rely on social media, in which videos of police shooting at civilians and helicopters hovering above cities are circulating widely. 

“We are fighting for our rights,” Jonathan added. “And for that the state is killing us. Their attacks are a sign of the Government’s fear of the people’s power. They are trying to stifle this power”.


Life After Lockdown

The Colombian police, notorious for its use of excessive force, is the only police force of a democratic country entirely controlled by the National Ministry of Defence.

Instead of taking accountability for the civilian deaths, the Government of the Centro Democrático party has been busy smearing protestors as “vandals” and “terrorists” – claiming that they have links to paramilitary groups. 

The unrest has not abated and the protests are now entering their fourth week. Many have pledged that they will not end the protests until much-desired change has been achieved. Demands, however, are wide-ranging: fighting corruption, scrapping university tuition fees, amending a public health bill, and even calls for the Government to resign. 

“These protests are the direct result of a Government that has been unable to listen to its own citizens,” said Diego Fernando Campo Valencia, founder of the NGO Fundación Proyectando Vidas.

Driven by young people, the protests have united ethnic groups including indigenous communities which, over years of protesting for their own rights, have gained much experience in causing effective disruption, largely through blocking Colombia’s most important commercial routes.

Other Colombians feel that roadblocks, which are responsible for critical supply issues, have gone too far, causing the unity of the protests to fray. “In Cali, many food prices have tripled and people fear leaving their house,” said Diego, whose NGO is based in Cali.

Protestors insist that they are fighting for a better, more just future for all Colombians, and that radical measures are required to force the Government into action.

At the same time, they express little hope that the Government will engage in any meaningful dialogue. A set-piece meeting on 8 May between protestors and the Colombian Government led to nothing. 

Diego told Byline Times that there are no easy solutions to today’s problems in Colombia: “The Centro Democrático Government has reached its end. They have no political capital, nor ability to truthfully listen to the Colombian people.” 

Today, Colombia’s last hope is for the international community to act and put pressure on the Government. But rich countries are failing to grasp the wider message about Colombia’s social unrest: unless economies across the globe recover after the pandemic, with all citizens benefitting, hard-won gains in relation to poverty elimination and democracy proliferation will be lost.

Before the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, Colombia’s economy was on a growth trajectory. Now, the COVID-19 crisis has thrown the country into its worst recession in almost half a century. And, unlike in rich countries, hopes for a quick economic recovery are dwindling rapidly. 

But Colombia is not a standalone case. Across the globe, economic recoveries from the pandemic are increasingly unequal, placing a disproportionate burden on the poor and middle class. In its latest World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund warns that the developing world will take significantly longer to recover. 

The strong resistance seen in Colombia in response to the Government’s economic policies are a warning sign to other Latin American and developing nations. Not long ago, Colombia and Latin America were experiencing an economic transformation. Poverty was decreasing, inequality was falling. As the pandemic threatens to reverse this progress, we are likely to witness many more social uprisings unless the international community decides to act.

“We are tired and exhausted,” concluded youth activist Daniela. “The Government is building on people’s fear of instability. At this point, we cannot give up, we need to be patient to win this fight for our country.”

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