By Boaventura de Sousa Santos, ESPEJOS EXTRAÑOS, May 8, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Colombia is in flames. Right now it’s one of the countries with the most deaths from Covid-19, occupying fourth place in the region behind the United States, Brazil, and Mexico, with only 3.5% of the population totally vaccinated as of this date, and being one of the countries that has refused to support the request to free the patents for the vaccines. It’s also the country that in 2020 had 42.5% of its population in poverty and 15.1% in extreme poverty. To that minimal but significant data, we can add that, since the signing of the Peace Agreement in 2016, between 700 and 1,100 defenders of human rights have been murdered. (The statistics vary between the NGO’s and the government agencies.)
The areas formerly held by the FARC-EP are now being disputed among the different illegal armed groups. They are not just looking for economic benefit (drug trafficking, illegal mining), but also they bring with them a horrible and bloody interest in controlling the civilian population. This seriously affects the social fabric and, as a result, we see only the tip of the iceberg of the new outlook for the country.
It’s in this context, and after nearly three years under the right-leaning administration that opposes the Peace Agreement, in the midst of a pandemic that has killed thousands of people, that working people have taken to the streets to raise their voices against an announced tax reform bill that is intended, under the administration’s logic, to take in 23 billion pesos (roughly USD $6,300,000) to boost the federal budget and finance the social assistance programs. Although it’s true that the country needs to improve its tax system, this reform included increasing the number of people that file and pay taxes on their income, with the support, the vision, and the conceptual framework of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Promoting the idea that if more people were required to pay taxes to finance government expenses, in theory, doesn’t sound so unreasonable, and furthermore, it could lead to thinking that the people with higher incomes would be the ones that would be paying more, keeping in mind the principles of tax progressivity, equity, and efficiency, established in Colombia’s Constitution. But, according to data from the World Bank, Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America (its Gini coefficient is 51.3), reflecting an inadequate and regressive fiscal policy that makes possible a high concentration of income and wealth. That results in decreased development, given that the income and wealth remain in the hands of a very small percentage of the population. The proposed reform would be part of a long and complicated tax system in the country that doesn’t reflect a truly progressive policy, and which is full of tax benefits directed to the people with the highest incomes.
We could argue that beginning in 2016, working people have flooded the streets and plazas of Colombia, demanding defense of the peace and carrying out of the Agreements, protection of social leaders and solidarity with those that have been murdered, as well as rejection of proposals to modify the pension, labor and tax systems. Thus, in the last five years, Colombia has seen its streets filled with young people, women, indigenous people, Afro-Colombian people, teachers, pensioners, and students that have carried out unusual events like one of the largest demonstrations in the country since the decade of 1970, like the one on November 21 of 2019.
Thanks to that popular empowerment, and in spite of the pandemic of Covid-19, Colombia went back to marching on September 21 of 2020 to protest police abuse, the government’s poor management of the economic and social crisis provoked by the pandemic, and to provide a voice that would say “Enough already!” to the massacres in the country, from which there has been no respite, in spite of the confinement rules. The marches were intended especially to emphasize the Minga (a demonstration by indigenous people) in southwestern Colombia that took place in October 2020, led by indigenous organizations. It was exciting because of its mottos and the courage they showed when they were able to mobilize most of the society regarding their demands after their journey around the country. They gained the favorable opinions of millions of people that received them warmly in every city during their trip to the capital.
With that outlook, the people decided to march beginning April 28, 2021, against the tax reform bill and against the do-nothing government. The repression by the Police forces was brutal. The citizens’ discontent has been the object of stigmatization and repression by the Armed Forces, which has led different human rights organizations to report a total of 1,708 cases of Police violence, 381victims of physical violence by the Police, 31 deaths (in the process of verification), 1,180 arbitrary arrests of demonstrators, 239 violent acts by the Armed Forces, 31 victims of attacks on the eyes of the demonstrators, 110 cases of discharges of firearms by the Police, and ten victims of sexual violence by the Armed Forces between April 28 and May 5. Likewise, the Public Defender (the function of ombudsman in Colombia) reported registering 87 complaints alleging disappearances during the protests of the 28A National Strike.
What began as a strong opposition to an unpopular bill, and to a Treasury Minister who did not know the price of a dozen eggs (and in general of anything contained in the family shopping basket), has escalated to the point of not only achieving the withdrawal of the bill in Congress and the resignation of that Minister, but also that the President, Iván Duque Márquez, has proposed a space for dialog with different sectors of civil society. Such a dialog, which up to now seems to be only between the elites of the country, from above, and never from below. The social organizations know from experience not to expect anything good from this administration, but as they have always done, they did not refuse the dialog. The first victory for the citizen movement in the streets over the withdrawal of the reform did not arrive peacefully or without cost. In addition to the statistics mentioned above and collected by the NGO’s in the country,
President Duque announced the militarization of Colombia rather than giving in to the social clamor. Beginning on May 1, by means of social networks and in the streets, Colombians have seen the horror of a military deployment typical of a dictatorial state of emergency, with the Police firing at the peaceful and unarmed demonstrators. This has been perhaps the most violent and repressive response in the times of a worldwide pandemic.
The protests had special intensity in Cali because of the mobilization of indigenous organizations after the cruel murder of Sandra Liliana Peña, the younger than 35 indigenous Governor. She was proposing the recovery of traditional wisdom, and rejected the presence of all of the armed actors in her territory. This city has the second most black residents of any city in all of South America. It’s full of contradictions and struggles, and has seen how its people have been repressed in the most abhorrent manner possible. The situation is such that, in the midst of a peaceful gathering that was broadcast live on social media, you can see how the Anti-Disturbance Squadron was present to disperse the demonstration, causing the death of a young man in front of more than 1,000 spectators that were watching on the internet. From Siloé, a neighborhood (slum), there were also complaints that during the night of May 4, there was no access to Internet service in the area.
The weak response by Colombian agencies to the Police violence (administrative as well as judicial agencies) has given rise to armed civilians threatening the demonstrators with the idea that they are “vandals” and “terrorists”. In Cali, the students circulated the following “dialog”: “We have 25,000 guns,” shouted a man dressed in white from his expensive SUV parked in front of the University of Valle (Univalle). “We have one of the best libraries in the country,” answered a student. In Pereira, the Mayor advocated a “common front” that would include members of private security, the Army, and the Police, to “recover order and citizen security,” giving rise to a situation where a young man suffered eight gunshot wounds and is fighting for his life in a hospital there.
Where is Colombia going?
This question is important for Colombia, but beyond Colombia, I think I see in recent events the embryo of much of what is going to happen in the continent and in the world in the coming decades. Of course every country has its own specificity, but what’s happening in Colombia seems to announce the worst of the scenarios that I identified in my recent book about the post-pandemic period. (“The Future Starts Now: From The Pandemic To Utopia”, Madrid: Akal.2021) This scenario consists in the denial of the seriousness of the pandemic, the policy of putting the economy ahead of the protection of lives, the ideological-political obsession with getting back to normal even when the normal is hell for the great majority of the population.
The consequences of the pandemic cannot be magically halted by the ideology of conservative governments; the post-pandemic social and economic crisis will be extremely serious, above all because it accrues along with the crises that were there before the pandemic. That’s why it will be much more serious. The policies of emergency assistance, as deficient as they are, combined with the softening economy caused by the pandemic, will cause an enormous amount of government debt, and the worsening of debt will be one more cause for more and more austerity. Conservative governments don’t know any other way to deal with peaceful protests by working people against social injustice other than repressive violence. They will respond that way and the message will include increasing militarization in daily life. That implicates the use of lethal force that’s designed for external enemies. The degradation of democracy, already evident enough, will intensify even more. How far before the minimal democracy that still exists collapses, giving rise to new dictatorial regimes?
This scenario is not unrealistic speculation. A recent IMF report makes the same prediction. The authors Philip Barrett and Sophia Chen say that pandemic can have two types of effect on social turmoil: an attenuating effect, suppressing the possibility of causing disturbances that interfere with social activities, as well as a contrary effect that increases the probability of social discontent, and as a result, generates disturbances or protests as the pandemic fades. What they don’t say is that the protests will be motivated by the very policies that the IMF and the financial agencies are promoting all over the world. The hypocrisy of the world we live in is so great that the IMF ignores or hides the consequences of its guidances. The Colombian people deserve and need complete international solidarity. I’m not sure they will have that openly; while the international agencies say they are promoting human rights, in spite of the fact that they are being violated so seriously in Colombia. Let’s imagine for a moment that what’s happening in Colombia were happening in Caracas, Russia, or any other part of the world declared not to be a friend of the United States. Certainly the Organization of American States (OAS), the United Nations High Commissioner, and the United States government would already be condemning the abuses and proposing sanctions on the offending government. Why the mildness of the communications issued up to now?
It won’t escape anybody that Colombia is the United States’ best ally in Latin America, being the country that offered to install seven United States military bases in its territory (a situation that fortunately did not happen, because of intervention by the Constitutional Court). International relations at present are in the most scandalous moment of hypocrisy and partiality: only the enemies of North American interests commit violations of human rights. It’s nothing new, but it’s more shocking now. The multilateral agencies surrender to this hypocrisy and partiality without shame of any sort. That said, the Colombians can expect the solidarity of all of the democracies in the world. Hope resides in their courage and in our solidarity. Neoliberalism won’t die without killing, but the more they kill, the more they die. What’s happening in Colombia is not a Colombian problem, it’s our problem, the problem of all the democracies in the world .
For the time being, the demonstrations in Colombia don’t appear to be nearing an end, and in spite of the fact that only a week has passed since they began, we have to insist on overcoming the fear that haunts the streets of the country and in the hope of a promising future, more just and in peace, for a country that has desired to end a conflict of more than fifty years, through an Agreement that is dying under the claws of Abyssal Capitalism.
 “Social Repercussions of Pandemics”. IMF Working Paper. 2021