For three weeks, hundreds of thousands of Colombians have taken to the streets in large cities and small towns to protest the nation’s dire economic situation and rising inequality amid the COVID pandemic. The police response to the protests has been violent – with more than 40 people killed, including one police officer. Over 900 cases of police use of excessive force against protesters has been reported, some of which could constitute torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, according to Amnesty International. There are additional reports of sexual violence against at least 12 women – and the disappearance of dozens of activists.
A neoliberal tax proposal by Colombia’s unpopular president Iván Duque set off the unrest. Although Duque withdrew his tax measure in the face of major opposition – protesters are demanding a guaranteed minimum income, the withdrawal of a health reform plan that critics charge will further erode the already failing healthcare system and an end to indiscriminate police violence.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Mario Murillo, vice dean and professor at the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, and author of “Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization.” Here, he discusses the current nationwide protests in Colombia, police violence and the U.S. role in providing aid to the Colombian police and military.
MARIO MURILLO: A lot of the news reports talk about a tax reform bill that was being proposed by President Ivan Duque and the right-wing democratic center government in power — the tax reform bill that was essentially meant to make up for a lot of economic hardships that occurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closing down of the economy. But in many ways, the tax reform bill was the spark. The gasoline had already been spreading throughout the country for many years, really since 2016, after the peace accord between the then-government of Juan Manuel Santos and the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, were signed ending five decades of conflict, but that were never truly implemented – and that led to many other problems as a result of that.
But the latest general strike was more directly a continuation of a massive general strike that took place in 2019. Again, over very similar issues — economic social issues. This most recent tax proposal by the Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla was rejected outright by the National Strike Committee from 2019. It was being put forward in Congress in early April. And social movements said, “Enough is enough.” Essentially, the tax measure was meant to give discounts to major corporations. It was kind of a trickle-down approach that we’re so familiar with here in this country. And that led to the protests that were organized in 2019. But now to add insult to injury, as the economy was tanking, as the public health system completely collapsed, as workers and the poor primarily were most detrimentally impacted by COVID-19, I think the public numbers are 90 percent of the deaths in Colombia from COVID, were basically people in below the poverty level.
So the upper classes were not really being impacted as much. And essentially they said, “This is out of control.” And ironically the government, the name of the law was the Sustainable Solidarity Law. And it was supposed to essentially recoup revenue that was lost during the COVID crisis, but it didn’t address many of the other issues. So basically people went out of their way to, you know, say No to this, and hit the streets. But it was made worse by the response of the government, because the government, instead of recognizing that the public was just fed up with this, their response was to hit them head on head on militarily, physically. The day before the protest and the national strike was called on the 28th of April, Duque called on the Supreme Court of Colombia to call these protests during the time of COVID unconstitutional‚ which was actually unconstitutional. And then basically the people said, this is outrageous and hit the streets.
Unfortunately again, the right-wing in Colombia represented most visibly by the failed president of Ivan Duque, but really led by the former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez — their argument to any political opposition is “This is directed by terrorists, by guerrilla sympathizers, by the former FARC, by (Venezuela’s Nicolás )Maduro’s government, by Gustavo Petro, the left-leaning former mayor of Bogota, who’s probably the leading candidate for the presidency coming up in 2022 — as opposed to looking at this as very widespread popular mobilization by every sector you can think of in Colombian society. And their response was militarization, direct confrontation. And that led to even more protests that we’ve now seen just about for three weeks.
SCOTT HARRIS: Mario, tell us about what Congress could do with this moment of crisis in Colombia, in terms of restricting the military and police aid that is contributing to the violence there on the ground?
MARIO MURILLO: The Leahy law, as you may know, is a law that puts substantial human rights conditions on any kind of security assistance to any country. It was actually created as a result of the many years of mobilizing against the human rights violations that were happening in Colombia back in the 1990s, right?
So I was involved in some of that organizing a long time ago. And so the law is meant to free the system to Colombian security forces. And the Colombian government, obviously always genuflects to U.S. pressures. Unfortunately, the Biden administration, you know, they talk out of two sides of their mouth.The good thing is that you do have members of Congress that just signed a letter to the State Department, I think it was released on the 14th, Rep. Jim McGovern from Massachusetts, along with 55 others signed the letter, demanding Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to denounce the violence that’s going on in Colombia, call for de-escalation and do something about it using that military assistance as part of the leverage. But clearly, putting pressure on Colombia and using the security assistance as leverage is a lot because the Colombian government doesn’t want to lose any of that security assistance. So that’s perhaps the most direct way in which the U.S. public could play a role in stopping the violence that’s going on right now.