We have all seen the headlines; poverty, unemployment, state sanctioned violence, and unjust taxation has moved thousands of Colombians to rebel against the national government. The country is currently battling a dramatic resurgence of the COVID-19 virus, yet the rebellion persists. The national strike has left 19 dead (5/6/21 update: 24 dead 87 missing), and more than 700 wounded. So, what is happening in Colombia?
It was late on May 2, 2021, when tens of thousands of people, watching an Instagram Live from Cali, Colombia, saw Nicolás Guerrero killed by a gunshot to his head. Horror and despair invaded the scene. Nicolás was just one man in a small crowd gathered for a peaceful sit-in to commemorate the fallen protestors from the national strike that started on April 28th. People next to him tried to help, but Nicolás did not make it to the hospital. He was 21, and according to several eye-witnesses who talked to the media, the bullet that killed him was shot by a cop.
Nicolás’ case is not isolated. According to the ombudsman office, at least 19 people have been killed in Colombia since the rebellion started, the vast majority by police-violence. The show of force by the people is the direct response to what many consider a warmonger government led by Iván Duque since 2018. Duque is a young politician who became president after four years in the Senate, and a few more as a pupil of twenty-years in power and far-right politician, Alvaro Uribe Velez. His crimes against humanity from those two decades are often overlooked by global media because Colombia is one of the United States’ closest allies in South America.
The current uprising was born on April 15, 2021, when Duque’s Minister of Finance, Alberto Carrasquilla, presented a third tax reform project to Congress since the administration took office. The project included increasing taxes on groceries, gas, the income of pensioners, and other instances that directly affect the middle and lower classes of Colombia. This is in a country, where due to the pandemic, the unemployment rate increased to 15.9 percent (10.5 percent in 2019) and monetary poverty rose to 42.5 percent, (35.7 percent in 2019), according to the National Department of Statistics (DANE).
The third tax reform proposal was the tipping point after a year of lockdowns and simmering rage against the government. Colombia was already the second country (right behind Brazil) in South America with the highest rates of mortality from COVID-19, and almost the last to get an (inadequate) vaccine program rolled out to the people. On top of that, more than 60 massacres were documented in the country in 2020, and more than 57 social leaders have already been killed in 2021.
There is a war going on in Colombia and the people are fighting back. Police abuse has been out of control in Colombia for some time, leaving consequences like the assassination of Anderson Arboleda, a young Black man who was beaten to death for violating the quarantine. Therefore, when the government presented the tax reform project, the National Unitary Command was ready and almost immediately called for a national strike.
According to the campaign Defender la libertad, on April 28th, during the first day of the rebellion, 49 people were injured, 73 were arrested, and four were allegedly murdered amid severe actions of repression by the police in 10 cities around the country. The president, however, said that he would not remove the tax reform project. And on the fourth day of the strike, Duque ordered the army “to recover control of the streets” and militarize the cities.
Some Colombian Mayors declined the order like in Bogota and Medellín. But in Cali, the epicenter of the mobilization, the battle flared. One day after Nicolás Guerrero was killed, and right after the truck drivers joined the national strike and shut down the national transportation (and the economy for a few hours), Duque finally removed the tax reform project from Congress. On Monday, Iván Duque informed Colombians that they were going to revise the proposal with the leaders of the strike, and that he had accepted Minister of Finance Alberto Carrasquilla’s letter of resignation.
Even though the episode was celebrated as a triumph of mobilization, the strike continues. The National Strike Committee has called for a massive demonstration on May 5th, and has demanded the government demilitarize the cities, end the massacres, dismantle the Esmad (the Riot Police), and immediately expand the mass vaccination program. The people of Colombia will not be silenced. The world is watching.