As It Happens·Q&A

Colombia protests are an act of 'desperation' from people struggling to survive: prof 

The deadly, weeks-long protests in Colombia were always about more than taxes, says a political science professor in the country.

Proposed tax hikes sparked the initial demonstrations, but the roots go much deeper, says Sandra Borda

Protesters raise their fists and shout slogans during an anti-government protest in Bogota, Colombia, on Monday. (Fernando Vergara/The Associated Press)

Story Transcript

The deadly, weeks-long protests in Colombia were always about more than taxes, says a political science professor in the country.

Dozens of people have been killed in the protests that originally broke out on April 28 in response to a proposed tax hike on public services, fuel, wages and pensions.

But even after the tax plan was axed and the finance minister resigned, the protests have continued. Demonstrators are now demanding basic income, free tuition, and an end to police violence, among other things.

Sandra Borda, political science professor at Los Andes University in Bogota, Colombia, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off on Wednesday. Here is part of their conversation. 

Can you describe the protests today in Bogota?

Today, the different social organizations have called a strike…. They are expecting ... unions, student organizations, [and] Indigenous organizations to participate in this in order to demand a social and economic policy from the government to address the economic distress that resulted from their confinement during the pandemic.

Earlier protests have been met with quite a heavy hand on the part of police. Numbers of people have died. How are the authorities responding to the demonstrations today?

I think that the use of violence by the public force in Colombia has reduced recently. We had a very strong response a couple of weeks ago…. We're talking between 25 and 35 people killed by police. And, you know, it's very bad because we don't have state organizations or official sources that confirm the amount of people that have died during these demonstrations.

Today, we're expecting police to be a little bit more restrained to the extent that the international community has put some pressure on the government, especially the U.S. government and the United Nations

The big problem is at night when it's a little bit more difficult to monitor the situation. Media is not out. And then this is precisely the time where violence tends to take place.

Police officers walk along a street in Bogota during as protesters demand government action to tackle poverty, police violence and inequalities in health-care and education systems. (Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters)

The only official number we have at this point, Colombia's Human Rights Ombudsman said … 42 people died during these protests, but another 168 people have been reported missing during the protests. And so what does that tell you?

Police [are] using a lot of illegal detentions in order to deal with the protests. And people are not very clear [about] the whereabouts of many young people who have participated precisely at night during the protests.

But we don't have an official report by police, and families are continuously demanding from police and from the state a very clear statement about where their families, their sons and daughters, are at this point.

There's also reports that there are armed civilians, weapons-wielding civilians, who have gone into some parts of Colombia's protests and taken matters into their own hands. Who are these people?

That's another thing that we don't know yet. And these took place in two different cities in Pereira and in Cali. 

During the weekend in Cali … what we saw was the Indigenous community blocking some streets in the city and people from those neighbourhoods reacting by using weapons and shooting at the members of the community.

We're talking about desperation, basically. Families that don't have any means to survive right now are the ones that we have on the street asking for help from the government.- Sandra Borda, Los Andes University 

The protests began in April in response to a tax reform bill. That bill has been withdrawn and the finance minister has resigned since then. So what are the protesters demanding from the government of President Ivan Duque?

I think the tax reform was probably the easiest thing to react to … but the real problem is the very difficult economic situation in which people were already in … before the pandemic. They are even worse now. 

They are asking for subsidies from the government, what they call a basic mandatory salary. They are asking for free tuition for their sons and daughters in public universities. They are just asking the government for help in this very difficult time.

The [COVID-19] confinement was very hard on the poor people, especially poor people in big cities. They are trying to get into the job market, but it hasn't been easy. So they are just asking for governmental help in this scenario. 

A woman sports a mask over her eyes and fake blood streaking down her face as part of a performance called 'Who Killed them?' in response to police violence during the Colombia protests. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)

I understand the economy of Colombia has contracted considerably during this pandemic. Lots of people without work. And so that burden of extra taxes and the cost of health care is, I guess, what has pushed people over the edge, do you think?

That's part of the problem. The other problem is that the government itself announced that our level of poverty increased by seven points. So we were already a poor country. We were already a very unequal country. And what the confinement did was basically to worsen in that situation.

At this point, we're talking about desperation, basically. Families that don't have any means to survive right now are the ones that we have on the street asking for help from the government. 

Then the problem is state capacity is not that salient now anymore because the state doesn't have that much money. This is the reason why they wanted to put forward this tax reform, because they need to collect resources in order to help people. But they didn't present this in the right way. They didn't form a political coalition in order to support this tax reform. And we're seeing the consequences now.

A demonstrator wields a flag during the protests in Bogota. (Nathalia Angarita/Reuters)

How has the president been responding, I guess, this week? He has met the demonstrators and strike leaders. Is he changing? Is he starting to come around to see that he needs to do something?

Little by little, I think that they have realized that they are in a very weak political situation right now and that they need to respond somehow to the demands. So they had a meeting with the strike committee yesterday. They didn't come to any agreement. 

But today the government announced that they are implementing the free tuition program for a semester for the poorest people in the cities. So this is going to be an advance. Not a very substantial one. I mean, this is not going to resolve the difficult economic situation in the long term, because this is free tuition just for one semester. 

This is not a long-term policy, as I said. But I think that it's a start. We'll see how much they advance in the coming weeks.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Kate Cornick. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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