My Country Divided

|Sofia Caycedo|

Growing up in Canada, I have never forgotten where I came from; my parents made sure. With most of my family back home in Colombia, events that occur still hit close to home. To begin with, it’s rare for social justice issues from Latin American countries to reach Western or mainstream media because unless it’s from the United States or Canada, chances are “the whole world” will not be watching. The most recent protest in Colombia against the Duque administration over tax and healthcare reform ended up reaching national news. That would not have been the case if it weren’t for teenagers and young adults uploading videos of what was going on in the cities of Cali, Medellin, and Bogota to social media. Moreover, having the hashtag #soscolombia allowed for such posts to go “viral” and attract the world’s attention. 

This past April, President Duque became among the first leaders in Latin America to address the economic setback caused by the global pandemic affecting populations and economies in the region. On April 15th, he proposed a new tax reform to help the country’s economic recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, his plan came with massive backlash.

Various people from students, teachers, health workers, farmers, Various people from students, teachers, health workers, farmers, to Indigenous communities, and many others gathered together in the country’s streets to protest the tax reform proposed by the Duque administration, seeing it as an excuse that Colombia does not have the money to help those affected by the pandemic. Even before the pandemic began, many Colombians with full-time jobs struggled to make even the minimum wage of approximately $275 a month. When the government put this reform in motion for many Colombians, it looked like an attack on their hardships. The country is among the most unequal countries globally. Yet, despite reductions in poverty during the pandemic, many Colombians do not have a sense of hope that things will get better and feel the engines of upward mobility are beyond their reach.

Young citizens are now looking for a way to emigrate to other countries, as they feel like things are not going in the right direction in Colombia. Duque’s tax reform will raise  taxes on many everyday goods and services. The middle class will have to pay 19% tax on water, gas and electricity bills, and pay 19% tax on internet bills. If someone dies, their family will have to pay taxes on that individual’s funeral service. For city-dwellers, this reform will allow the creation of tolls within the town. If before the reform you bought a computer worth $490 USD, post-reform it would be at $586 USD. Importantly, citizens will not get any aid from the government to help pay these new taxes. individuals working in the country, who  are often members of minority groups, will also have new taxes imposed. For example, some Colombian workers won’t have a salary increase for five years. Critical sectors such as healthcare and education would have a smaller budget, but that of the military would remain the same. Demonstrations have filled the streets of major cities for three weeks, where more than 40 people have died during protesters clashing with the police.

Since Wednesday, April 28th, Colombians took to the streets to protest this tax and health care reform imposed by the government. They are demanding that President Ivan Duque Marquez revoke the proposal, which he ultimately withdrew on Sunday, May 2nd.

Despite the withdrawal of the tax and healthcare reforms, in Colombia, the protests are ongoing. They are a national outcry over the pervasive problems faced by Colombians, including rising poverty and unemployment levels, and corruption within the government. All of these issues have only been exacerbated in the last year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

By May 2nd, the protests kept going with no signs of the violent uproars slowing down. On May 4th, a spokesperson for the UN Human Rights office in Colombia voiced alarm over the violence and casualties in Cali, Colombia. The office went on to call for calm amidst the widely peaceful protests, urging Colombian law enforcement to protect all human rights, including the freedom of peaceful assembly. Upon reports of at least 14 alleged deaths related to law enforcement’s response to the protests, these are some names that stood out:

Nicolas Guerrero, a 27-year-old artist, killed during the clashes with police in the city of Cali.

Marcelo Agreda, a 17-year-old protester killed during the marches.                                    

Samuel Montoya, recovering from police brutality.

After some time, President Duque ordered the “maximum deployment” of the country’s military and police forces to clear roads blocked by protesters around the country, causing a shortage of food and gasoline. Duque stated this move would “allow all Colombians to regain mobility”, but citizens believed it would lead to more violence.

The demonstrations, originally called in late April against a now-cancelled tax plan, expanded to include demands like a basic income, an end to police violence and opportunities for young people. Yet, it has not done much as the healthcare reform was also opposed by many protesters, who criticized it as too vague to make real change to Colombia’s fragile healthcare system amid a polarized country. 

As of May 19th, the country is going into its fourth ongoing week of these protests. Since reaching international headlines for various human rights violations, people worldwide have stood in solidarity. During the past year, the act of protesting has been a form of political expression protected legally in many countries. My hope by writing this is to let the Colombian community during this time whether within  the Queen’s campus or not to  feel supported or heard, one way or another. In the end I like to think I have the best of both worlds: always grateful for where I came from and where I’ve grown up.

Written by Sofia Caycedo, second year major in Sociology and minor in Political Studies