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Protesters March In Colombia Against Plan To Raise Taxes In Pandemic-Wracked Economy

Protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks carry empty coffins during a national strike to protest a government-proposed tax reform, in Bogotá, Colombia, on Wednesday.
Protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks carry empty coffins during a national strike to protest a government-proposed tax reform, in Bogotá, Colombia, on Wednesday.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — While marching in nationwide demonstrations this week, Pablo Mora wore a face mask to protect himself from the coronavirus. But every so often, the retired security guard took it off and blew a whistle to voice his disgust with Colombia's government.

COVID-19 deaths are spiking, the vaccine rollout has been slow, and even though Colombia is still climbing out of its deepest economic downturn, President Iván Duque is trying to raise taxes. All this prompted massive protests in Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and other cities by shopkeepers, union leaders, teachers, university students and retirees.

As he took a breather from blowing his whistle, Mora, who is 72 but has yet to be vaccinated, said: "We feel totally abandoned by the government."

Colombian officials have tried to discourage the marches — which began Wednesday and have yet to die down — saying they could become coronavirus superspreader events at a critical moment. Across Colombia, hospital intensive care units are nearly full, and on Thursday, the health authorities reported 505 deaths in a single day from COVID-19, a new record. Meanwhile, just a tiny fraction of Colombians have been vaccinated.

A Bogotá judge had declared the marches illegal because of the health risks, while the capital city's mayor, Claudia López, urged organizers to postpone the demonstrations, saying: "This is a life-and-death situation."

But facing a new round of curfews and other pandemic restrictions as well as the prospect of tax hikes on food, utilities and other essentials, many Colombians ignored these warnings. Though the marches were mostly peaceful, anti-riot police used tear gas to disperse protesters, some of whom burned buses, vandalized buildings and looted.

Demonstrators take part in the second day of protests against a tax reform bill launched by Colombian President Iván Duque, in Medellín, Colombia, on Thursday. Workers' unions, teachers, civil organizations, indigenous people and other groups reject the tax reform proposal.
Joaquin Sarmiento / AFP via Getty Images
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Demonstrators take part in the second day of protests in Medellín, Colombia, on Thursday. Unions, teachers, civil organizations, indigenous people and other groups reject the tax proposal.

Outrage had been building even before the pandemic. Protests erupted in the country in 2019 over the government's economic policies, its perceived lack of support for a peace treaty that ended a long guerrilla war and its failure to stop the killing of hundreds of social leaders.

"The pandemic and the lockdowns put a stop to those protests, but the social discontent did not stop," said Katherin Galindo of the Bogotá consultancy Colombia Risk Analysis. "In fact, it's rising. The tax bill was the last straw that sent people back into the streets."

She added: "When people go to protest, it's because they feel the government is not [listening] to them and they feel that the government is even worse than the virus."

President Duque is pushing for about $6 billion in tax increases to balance the budget and, in part, to pay for emergency food handouts and other social programs put in place since the start of the pandemic. To do so, he wants to expand the base of contributors, eliminate exemptions and extend the value-added tax to utilities and to some basic foods, like eggs.

But Colombia's economy is still recovering from a record 6.8% contraction last year, and it continues to struggle with formal sector unemployment above 14%. As a result, the proposed tax increases combined with a recent round of coronavirus-related lockdowns that have thrown even more people out of work have many Colombians feeling desperate.

Rosalva Peña holds a sign saying "No to the tax reform" during a protest in Bogotá. She says, with the country's high unemployment, "this isn't the time to raise taxes."
John Otis / NPR
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Rosalva Peña holds a sign saying "No to the tax reform" during a protest in Bogotá. She says that with the country's high unemployment, "this isn't the time to raise taxes."

"People have fallen into poverty. There's massive unemployment," said Rosalva Peña, 61, who was forced to close her dressmaking shop during the pandemic. As she helped other protesters block a main street in Bogotá with trash dumpsters and other barriers, she said: "This isn't the time to raise taxes."

Adding to their frustrations are snafus in the vaccination program.

Initially, the government failed to purchase enough doses while there has been confusion over setting up appointments for shots, said Galindo of Colombia Risk Analysis. Little more than 3% of Colombians are fully vaccinated, according to the Our World In Data project at the University of Oxford. That's slightly higher than the rate in neighboring Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador but ranks far below Uruguay and Chile.

In a speech Wednesday night, President Duque, whose job approval rate stood at 33% in an April poll, told Colombians that he understood their frustrations but called for patience.

"I know that you are worried, frustrated and even angry," he said. "But as your president, my message to everyone is that we must come together to look for solutions."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.