After five days of furious protests across 23 cities in Colombia against Ivan Duque’s tax bill (an austerity package meant to make the workers pay for the results of the pandemic), the government has withdrawn the bill. This is an overwhelming victory for the working class. For five days, more than 50,000 protestors took to the streets of Bogotá (these are official numbers and are probably an underestimation), with the rest of the nation following suit, in protest against a law that would worsen the conditions of daily life.
The energy and sacrifice of the masses cannot be underestimated. In the middle of a third wave of the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of workers risked their lives to bring this austerity package down. Not only this, but they were confronted with the brutality of ESMAD (The Colombian National Riot Police). According to the NGO Temblores, there were more than 900 cases of police brutality reported and 21 people killed by the police.
Videos on Twitter showed ESMAD officers celebrating after each shot fired from their tanks against the protesting masses. On 30 April, when the scale of the repression in Cali emerged, images circulated on social media of a man shot in the head and bleeding on the streets. This is what the working class were up against and what they have resoundingly defeated. This victory was won with the sacrifice and the energy of the working class.
That Colombian debt in circulation is considered junk due to the huge fiscal deficit – amounting to 9% of GDP – certainly helped bring down the bill. The mass unrest made it possible that the bill might fail to get the necessary votes in Congress. Failure to pass the bill could have ended in Colombian debt being downgraded. This was a factor in pushing Duque to drop the bill so that a new one might be drafted based on a ‘consensus’ in Congress.
This places the government in a clear crossroads: Who pays for the crisis? They tried to ensure the working class paid for the crisis through taxes and austerity, but they were unable to do so. However, they will have to keep trying as they have no other alternative.
We’re now beginning to see splits open up in the ruling class regarding this question, with one side arguing for temporary tax increases for the rich. But as was pointed out by Luis Carlos Reyes, the director of the Fiscal Observatory of the Xavieran University, “the President announced that the consensus between the parties and the entrepreneurial lobbies includes temporary taxes on patrimonies, earnings, and businesses. We must postpone (but not renounce) the transfer onto the workers and consumers those taxes which were cut for businesses in 2018.” (Our emphasis)
The Duque government’s attempt to militarize the cities that saw uprisings was also regarded as a provocation by the cities’ mayors. In Bogotá, Claudia López refused to accept the presence of the army, while cheering on the capacity of the police in “maintaining peace”. In Cali, the mayor Jorge Iván Ospina asked Duque to withdraw the tax bill, while at the same time using heavy repression against protesters and denying that any had been killed.
It’s clear that the ruling class can no longer rule in the way they have ruled for years: with the tactics of repression and exploitation for the sake of imperialist profits. The Duque government had to clearly concede that it could not implement this tax bill. Even the international bourgeoisie couldn’t see a road forward for the Colombian ruling class as long as they insisted upon it. To continue on this course, with the working class quickly learning how to fight and win, would have been pure folly. In these circumstances, it was imperative for the government to offer a concession to remove the masses from the streets.
Significantly, however, the main slogan of today’s protests has been #ElParoNoPara (The Strike Doesn’t Stop). This is a correct slogan, which reveals the mood of the masses. A victory like this should serve to strengthen the resolve of the movement to continue advancing with further demands.
Iván Duque’s government has shown its true face for the last two years. This is the government of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, with all the cruelty that defines the former president, known as El Matarife (The Butcher). Duque’s handling of the pandemic, with its so–called ‘smart reopening’ and this recent tax bill, are policies of an elite used to having its way by means of their rifles and our blood. Today they were answered with a thunderous, “no!”
We have to take “The Strike Doesn’t Stop” to its natural conclusion: Duque Out. It’s clear that this government has no other option beyond implementing austerity measures to satisfy the international bourgeoisie. The next move for the government will probably be the implementation of Law 010, for instance. This is an attempt to reduce the number of health insurance companies to ten, effectively monopolising the healthcare sector, which will lead to the worst forms of barbarism in the name of “reducing inefficiencies”. It is clear that until this government has been brought down, it will forever seek new ways to attack the working class.
Throughout all of this the shortsightedness of the trade union leaders has been noteworthy. The unions that called for the strike (CUT, United Workers Central, and FECODE, teachers’ union), after the first day of protests on 28 April called on everyone to go return home, using the pandemic as an excuse. On May Day they called for an online protest. But the masses remained on the streets. For the last four days, the men and women on the streets have not been the trade union leaders, who were pushed into calling the national strike by pressure from the rank and file.
The protestors on the streets were the workers, unwilling to bend the knee in the face of injustice, and the youth who have been radicalised through the years of repressive governments. It’s also worth mentioning that reformists like Gustavo Petro were silent from 28 April until the day the bill was withdrawn. Mayor of Bogotá, Claudia López, on the other hand, commended her policemen for protecting the streets of the city.
Colombian history has few moments like these, in which the masses have openly challenged a government and have won. The masses are learning exactly how powerful they are. This is a victory for all those who came out onto the street and those who supported them but were unable to be on the streets because of the risks of the pandemic.
This period has seen the organisation of neighbourhood committees of struggle along the lines of those seen during the general strike of November 2019. We must develop upon this in order to continue the strike and the struggle: we must demand an end to Duque’s government and put forward the need for an independent workers’ party that can link the different struggles with the overarching goal of overthrowing the class behind this repression and these attacks.
From Colombia Marxista, we celebrate this victory as a rejection of the common myth about the masses of our country: that they are an embodiment of passivity and will never rebel. The potential of our working class has been demonstrated. Our task is clear: we must bring the ideas of Marxism to a movement that clearly has the energy to put them in effect while contributing our own energy to the cause so that a coup de grace might be dealt to this murderous government.
We must also ask ourselves: what comes next? We must not allow Duque’s overthrow to mean his replacement by another representative of the oligarchy. A socialist government is necessary, in which the working class runs society and takes the reins of its own destiny. We do not struggle for governments to work but for workers to govern.
OUT WITH THE DUQUE–URIBE GOVERNMENT AND THE CLASS IT REPRESENTS!
THE STRIKE DOESN’T STOP!
NO TO AUSTERITY!
FOR A WORKERS’ PARTY!