For those not on the marches, the last week has been a quarantine within a quarantine – a quarantine squared. This is how the nights, and sometimes the days as well, have felt in this country that had closed in again to survive a third covid peak, more deadly than the previous ones. Everything got complicated on Wednesday the 28th, when the national strike that had been called days ago exploded the street. Despite the fact that most of the marchers did so peacefully, in cities like Cali and Bogotá there was enough destruction, detonations and ominous rumors to scare a citizenry already cloistered for pandemic reasons.
For those who were in the streets, on the other hand, this was an appointment postponed from November 2019. That month began a cycle of protests that ended in a “Great National Conversation” devised by the Government of President Iván Duque and that little satisfied protesters. Then came the pandemic, which put everything on hiatus. But nonconformity continued to incubate, mainly among young people. A spark was missing so that, like a forest that has accumulated too many branches and dry leaves, the conflagration would take place.
The spark was put by a tax reform project “by means of which an infrastructure of fiscally sustainable equity is consolidated”, and so on. A document that together with its “Statement of Motives” amounted to more than 300 pages. The reform was needed to cover the fiscal gap resulting from the pandemic, but among its articles there were two that would enrage the middle class: an extension of the VAT to products of the basic basket that until now were exempt and an expansion of the base of taxpayers who wanted at least one million people who currently do not file income tax to do so.
The government rightly argued that the reform had important social components. The main one was to make permanent Ingreso Solidario, an emergency program created for the pandemic that provides a basic income to three million homes and was invaluable in preventing thousands of people from falling into misery. Even economists critical of the government agreed (if they recognized it only privately) that the reform benefited the poorest sectors of the population.
Why then did everything go so wrong? It has been said that it was inappropriate to present such an ambitious project when the finances of millions of families are in tatters. That the reform disproportionately affected the urban middle class, more prone to mobilization and protest. That the Executive is unpopular, especially among young people, and has no connection with ordinary people. There is some truth in all that, there is another culprit in this case who has been crouching so far.
A country elects a president to carry out a government program. And those who want a different program must wait to be chosen. Those are, more or less, the rules of the game. But between one government and another there are still differences in society, ideological aspects that must have a space in which to process them. That space exists: it is called Congress. And it was there where the tax bill had to have been studied and, as the Executive did not have the votes to approve it, it was probably defeated. However, the leaders of the main opposition parties subjected the president to blackmail: “If you do not want people on the street catching COVID, withdraw the reform.” The incredible thing was that those who had in their hands the power to modify it or even sink it said it, if they wished.
Thus, the 300 pages of figures and technicalities were expelled from the natural setting where they had to be debated and were put up for the consideration of the street. And the street decided that what they served was fire. If there are Berraca people in the streets, as they say in Colombia, it is because this was, yes, a failure of the Executive. But it was also a resounding failure, an abandonment of duties, by the Legislative.
The result is the outbreak of the last days. Legitimate demonstrations, but also destruction, looting, burning. Roadblocks that cut off the supply of food to markets and oxygen to hospitals. Fifteen police stations burned in Bogotá, one of them with ten agents inside. When they escaped, they were beaten up.
The most tragic balance, however, is that of at least 24 deaths, almost all civilians, whose circumstances the State must clarify as soon as possible. Multiple videos on social networks show an excessive use of violence by members of the Public Force, a situation that crumbles the internal and international support for the Government and demands that it be harshly repudiated and punished.
When the street put Sebastián Piñera on the ropes in 2019, the Chilean president had one fuse to burn: agree to reform the Constitution, as the protesters demanded. Iván Duque does not have that option. The 1991 Colombian Constitution enjoys broad legitimacy, especially among those who today protest. The only way out is to address the nonconformity of the people, although with extremely narrow negotiation margins.
The president has already taken a first step: on Monday he accepted the resignation of the finance minister, after withdrawing the tax reform on Sunday, as demanded by the opposition leaders. The protests, however, escalated, leading us to wonder how much those leaders actually represent the protesters. One of the difficulties of this negotiation is that it is not entirely clear with whom to negotiate.
Thierry Ways He is a Colombian businessman and engineer.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.