COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 55
As the pandemic continues to ravage Latin America and the Caribbean, Colombia has become one of the hotspots of COVID-19 in the region. Recent calculations indicate 10,000 new infected cases on average every day in April and May and more than 80,000 deaths in the country due to the virus. Vaccinations are not keeping pace with the need and currently an average of 200,000 people receive a vaccine per day. Bogota is a point of concern with the continued increase of cases reported and hospital ICU occupation surpassing 94 percent. Named as the “third wave“, this new surge of cases in the country has also impacted other departments such as Antioquia (Cali), Santander (Bucaramanga) and Atlántico (Baranquilla). Bordering countries are observing the rapidly evolving situation. Recently, Panama decided to close its international border with Colombia.
It is in this context that massive protests against the government exploded in different parts of the country on April 28 and the following days. The ongoing public protests have been a cause of concern for the spread of the virus in major cities such as Bogota and Cali since marchers are not following established COVID safety protocols. In this brief report, I will enumerate the different reform elements proposed by the Duque government in early 2021 as well as the ensuing massive protests which continue to this day.
In and Out on Tax Reform
In April, President Iván Duque proposed a tax reform bill to lower the threshold for taxes on salaries. This proposed tax legislation was Duque’s third tax reform since he took office in August 2018 and his most ambitious yet. One of the main purposes of this tax reform was to find new revenues to fund the universal income program as well as other measures against the pandemic which have created a significant fiscal deficit in the country’s economy. Law no. 594 called the Sustainable Solidarity Law (Ley de Solidaridad Sostenible in Spanish) had been packaged together with a controversial legislative bill no. 010 concerning a health care reform.
Given the current disastrous state of the country’s economy, Colombians feared higher taxes would lead them to poverty. In addition, business taxes were slated to increase. The country is going through a huge drop in its GDP and increased unemployment. According to recent government statistics, almost half of the country’s population was living in poverty at the end of 2020.
In response to the growing social inequities, Colombians have taken to the streets and are protesting Duque’s actions or lack of action, as they see it. Duque withdrew the proposed tax plan as well the proposed health reform shortly after, but Colombian public opposition to the government persists.
Ensuing Protests and Ongoing Demonstrations
In major cities throughout the country, citizens marched to express their opposition to the country’s administration specifically President Duque and his predecessor Alvaro Uribe. Reports indicate that protests and clashes in Cali with law enforcement have resulted in numerous deaths. In addition, protests have forced road closers and disrupted transits systems. Foreign governments, including the United States, threaten to cut military funding unless the Colombian administration takes steps to protect human rights. Protestors’ demands include improved work opportunities, an end to police brutality and the repeal of the health reform proposal.
In the past few weeks, meetings between government officials and protest groups, which include teachers and trade unions, have failed to agree terms to end the demonstrations. The protests have forced Copa America organizers to move the soccer matches scheduled in June and July from Barranquilla. President Duque contends that talks with protest groups have been productive. Colombians continue to march despite concerns that the protests heighten the possibility for the super-spread of COVID in cities across the country.
The public outcry against the Colombian government has politicians concerned about the upcoming 2022 election. Duque cannot run again but members of his party as well as politicians from other parties are strategically positioning themselves during the crisis so as not to harm their election hopes.