Colombian Protests Against Inequality Pass the One Month Mark

An unpopular tax reform bill sparks protest, closing roads across the country, stopping the flow of coffee, and more.

It’s been more than one month since Colombians took to the streets, protesting a tax bill proposed by the government back in late April aimed at easing the economic crisis due in large part to the Coronavirus pandemic. What started as a direct response to some of the provisions in this bill, quickly swelled to a country-wide movement calling attention to deeply rooted issues of inequality, government corruption, and police brutality.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets, shutting down major highway arteries and local roads all over the country. At one point, there were nearly 1,500 road blocks stopping the flow of motor vehicles, including those carrying important necessities like food, gasoline, and of course coffee too.

The police response to the protestors has been brutal, becoming a focal point of the movement. More than 40 people have been killed to date, and hundreds more injured or gone missing.

The security forces more closely resemble a military rather than civilian police, operating under the Defense Ministry. Having a police force built for combat made some sense given Colombia’s history of internal wars with paramilitary groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (“FARC”). But with a peace treaty in place since 2016, the calls for more of a civilian police force have mounted, and the police violence playing out in real time underscores the need for reform.

Obviously, the affects of what’s happening reverberate far beyond coffee. This is all occurring amidst the devastation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, wreaking havoc on the Colombian economy, and pushing the poverty level to a staggering 43%.

The transport of goods within the country has been significantly affected by the limited road access, and movement in or out of some of the Colombian ports has ground to a halt. The Buenaventura port remains completely shut down by road blocks, and shipping lines are cancelling all bookings at this Pacific-side port. It’s estimated that 500k bags of coffee stuck in transport on their way to Buenaventura.

Our export partners in Medellin have been able to reach some of the growing regions currently harvesting coffee without issue, like Nariño and Ibagué, for example. While roads leading to other areas, such as La Plata in Huila, are blocked off to travel. The situation is dynamic, evolving daily, and even hour by hour. An open road one day doesn’t necessarily mean you can truck coffee on it the next.

There’s no end in sight at the moment. We’re watching with hope that the voices of the people will be heard, and that peaceful resolution can be found.

This recent podcast offers a brief timeline of events from the protest outset, and helps provide some context to this dynamic and complex situation. *warning: some of the violence against protestors discussed in the podcast is disturbing.

This piece is more of an op-ed, but outlines some of the details in the now dead tax reform bill that sparked the unrest – information that is missing in the podcast above. This piece was written in late April at the very start of the protests, and mentions some of the more progressive measures included in the bill (there was a substantial redistributive plan that promised universal income, and cash subsidies to the poorest households for education and to help cover VAT increases, for example), but argues it fell short by not aggressively taking on problems of tax evasion and corruption.

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