A roadmap to understanding Colombia’s surging protests.
For the past week, Colombia has been in the headlines of multiple national and international newspapers. On 28th April 2021, after the current government announced a tax reform to alleviate the economic downfall that the pandemic caused, the streets were filled with discontent, and citizens exercised their right to protest. Eight days later, even after the government agreed to remove the tax reform, protestors are still communicating their dissatisfaction. Social media has been bombarded with videos, images, statistics, and information that, if taken out of context, can mislead individuals and cause more harm than good.
For purposes of simplicity, the article will provide the reader with a chronological roadmap of Colombian history. The most conventional division of Colombian history prior to the armed conflict as follows: the Conservative Republic from 1886-1930, the Liberal Republic from 1930-1946, and a Conservative Dictatorship from 1948-1958. But as history has shown, sometimes society, economy, and politics move at different rhythms that must be taken in full context in order to be understood.
As Danielle S. Allen once said to the graduating class of the University of Chicago days after the 9/11 attacks on the WTC that paralyzed the world, “Education can ward off the paralysis of mind that is the worst danger for democratic citizens.” Strong, resilient habits of reflection are what lead to change. It is one’s job to take actions into their own hands, as education is one’s finest weapon and greatest ally that cannot be taken away. Truth is about reconciling with and combining opposite views, and by silencing opinions, one doesn’t wrong just the person silenced, but humanity as a whole.
In order to understand what is happening today, one must situate themselves at least 75 years ago, before the conflict between the predominantly right-winged government and the Marxist revolutionary forces FARC, which triggered more than 50 years of war in Colombia. The unequal repartition of land and lack of political representation paved the way for the use of violence in order to express political, economic and social discontent back in the 1900s. During the 1930s and 1940s, large landowners were permitted to block any initiatives on land reforms, which gave power to then oligarchy, and fostered resentment from the working class. This probably provided the biggest foundation for today’s tension.
The Liberal Party in Colombia, influenced by Russian and Cuban revolutionary ideologies and not given much representation in the past, aimed at the presidency with Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. On April 9, 1948, confrontations between the Liberals and Conservatives, the then only two political parties in Colombia, led to the murder of Gaitan in the streets. This incited a riot known as the Bogotazo, and on April 10th, 1948, 3,000 people had been killed and much of the country’s capital had been burned to the ground.
Colombia has always been modeled by a presidential system, but data shows that even though these governments have been very popular, they tend to be very frail. The fact that political power lies in the hands of a single political leader makes military coups more common. The lack of representation of different political views in the executive power has been persistent in Colombia, which has made many of its population feel unheard, censored, and misrepresented. The problems of misrepresentation and violence have risen due to its political foundations. So, it is correct to say Colombia is a polarized country, but this should be seen as a fact, not as a reason to justify the use of violence or hatred. Tragically, the Bogotazo kicked off the period known as “La Violencia”, and the emotional scars it caused grew even bigger.
The hatred between the Liberals and the Conservatives that festered for years reached its peak in 1948 after Gaitan’s murder. The working class finally saw a slim chance of representation in the government after decades, and the murder of their leader brought resentment towards the oligarchy. This period from 1948 to 1958 was characterized by the creation of death squads, representing different ideologies, and parties. The solution to this problem was once again the brutal one; a tough military regime was forcefully implemented in order to stop the violence. Once again, the opposition was silenced. Because of the murder of Gaitan, Colombia never underwent a period of populism, which brought consequences to the political legitimacy of the modernized state.
From an economic view, since the 1920s Colombia witnessed a small aggregate demand for goods and services combined with a large supply of unskilled labor, which opened a vicious cycle of poverty that has, to this day, not been addressed or solved. Colombia’s capitalism has persistently reinforced a culture of individualism, and has been resistant to solidarity and collective responsibility. During the period of industrialization (1945-1990), the government maintained a passive and reactive role in order to foment positive relationships with foreign countries. But, with foreign investment being one of their largest source of national income, Colombians have never been fully independent.
In summary, Colombia has tried to replicate both the political and economic model of the United States. In the 1960s, the Marxist revolutionary armed forces of Colombia (FARC) wanted to change the foundations of Colombia. Once again, the lack of representation and the censorship of ideologies led to a 50-year war, which today still has not ended. The FARC wanted to impose their ideology regardless of the repercussions, and the government was reluctant to listen to different points of views. The whole country suffered the consequences of both the violent crimes committed by the FARC and other revolutionary groups, along with suppression of contrasting ideologies by the government. Moreover, Pablo Escobar and drug cartels asserted dominance through even more violent crimes.
There is a lot of information to explain what is happening in Colombia, and this will be left for the reader to research and examine. These historical roots have shaped the current political and economic atmosphere, and the following statistics need to be analyzed to understand the current protests. As stated before, education is the only tool that neither the state, the armed forces, the drug cartels or anyone can take away However, as of 2018, the number of out-of-school children in Colombia was 8 thousand, according to a UNESCO database.
And now, with the movement restrictions of the pandemic and lack of technological devices, these numbers are likely to increase. Even before the pandemic, the right to education was already violated in Colombia for the lower classes. Children were forced into child labor due to lack of monetary resources and opportunities. According to Reuters, as of 2017 around 850,000 children still work and are not in school (either full-time or at all).
However, since the world is moved by money, here are the facts regarding the country’s financial situation. Colombia relies mostly on international investment, exports, and taxes to obtain revenues. Due to the pandemic, the first two have decreased notably. Therefore, Colombia has been relying on the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) loans, which are publicly guaranteed debts extended by the World Bank Group. In 2019, Colombia’s loans amounted to a grand total of 10.6 billion USD. As of 2021, just two years later, the total commitment amount increased to 28.7 billion USD.
If Colombia doesn’t pay off this loan to the World Bank, it will be cut off from future access to international bond markets, which is why countries pay their debt even after defaulting. Additionally, according to the ATLAS of economic complexity by the growth lab at Harvard University, Colombia’s exports have been declining by an annual average of 4.3% over the past five years. This was the underlying reason for the introduction of the tax reform.
The bill would have eliminated the VAT exclusion currently applicable to specific goods and services, and impose a 19% VAT rate. The bill would’ve increased the marginal tax rates applicable to individuals, and limit tax exemptions and deductions to no more than 25% (previously 40%) of an individual’s net income. Pension payments would be subject to income tax withholdings under the same rules and rates applicable to employment income. Colombia is one of leaders in wealth inequality, where the percentage of income held by the richest 20% of the population is over 55% of the whole income generated.
While the minimum wage in Colombia is around 262 US dollars, the gross monthly salary of Congress members in 2018 is around 20% more, with a total of 5,907 US dollars. Notwithstanding this difference, the tax reform did not mention any reduction to it in order to contribute to paying the national debt. The tax reform is needed, but the citizens demand a fairer and more just one. Although most protests have been peaceful, violence and hatred have wounded Colombia’s cities. The people are angry, but they are expressing their discontent through dire means, which has led to loss of clarity of the purpose of the uprisings.
It is also true that, in the past, alternative ideologies have been silenced, censured and ignored. But this new generation cannot repeat the mistakes Colombians have made in the past. Colombia’s history will teach the lesson intended if the citizens analyze it correctly. A re-structure of the country is needed, and all parties are suffering the consequences of mishandling previous crises and conflicts. Every crisis is a new opportunity to re-form a country, but with violence, the country will end up once again where it was almost 100 years ago.