ORLANDO, Fla. – Since April 28, the crisis currently affecting Colombia made its way to international headlines. The president of Colombia, Iván Duque, was looking to increase taxes as high as 19%.
The Colombian government said the proposal was intended to alleviate the financial strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic but instead the president’s proposal caused thousands of Colombians to floods the streets and protest with several clashing with police. The crisis has so far left 46 people dead and hundreds injured.
Since the start of the uprising, protestors have set up roadblocks -- halting transportation of essential goods across the country.
“My mother is working double in order to provide for my family,” said Anthony Moscol, a University of Central Florida student.
His grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins live in the city of Pereira, located in a coffee-producing region.
“They’ve been able to ration much better because of, unfortunately, what has happened with COVID but the lack of resources is making it much more difficult for them,” Moscol said.
In response to the violence, the Colombian military and special units were deployed across major cities. Alejandro Sánchez Lopera, who has a doctorate degree in Latin American studies from the University of Pittsburgh, said the government response to the crisis is a clear suspension of the rule of law.
“With the government allowing the police and the riot squads to arrest, disappear and use deadly violence against rightful protestors, this is a systematic violation of human rights across the whole country and the available data shows (that),” Sánchez Lopera who is a Colombian national said referring to data from organizations like Human Rights Watch and a local nonprofit in Colombia called Temblores. “The rising of poverty, which is almost near 42% of the population, inequality and unemployment, all of them exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.”
Sánchez Lopera said the tax reform bill was a tipping point for the people already struggling with the impacts of the pandemic and who now demand broad social changes.
“Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world and instead of addressing this critical with let’s say a universal basic income, the government of Ivan Duque tried to tax basic goods such as rice, potatoes, salt and sugar,” Sánchez Lopera.
He claims the poor decisions by the government have left a financial gap and the president expected to fix it with a tax reform that would have affected middle and lower-class families.
“Two years ago they passed a bill cutting taxes on the big companies so the state’s finances are practically empty and now they were trying to pass this current bill so the crisis was created by the government,” Sánchez Lopera said.
Because of the protests, some Colombian nationals like Myriam Sánchez, who is visiting family in Orlando, had to delay her return to Colombia amid the crisis. She said the road is blocked from the airport to her home in Cali, the third-largest city in Colombia where the most violent protests have taken place.
“Quiero mucho mi país y quiero que Colombia y que todo mundo se ponga la mano en el corazón y piense que tiene que sacar adelante su patria,” in her native Spanish she said she loves her country very much and wants everyone to place their hands on their heart and think that they have to move their country forward.
For Beto Quintero, who owns an insurance agency in Central Florida, the situation also has an economic impact on Floridians who do business with the South American country.
“It concerns me a lot, I mean it just happens to be that we’re also in negotiations to do some business in Colombia as we speak and unfortunately everything has been halted because of the situation,” Quintero said.
Florida Sen. Annette Taddeo, a native of Colombia, has asked the Biden administration to pay close attention to the situation.
“Colombia is the United States’ biggest ally and we need to be careful in these types of situations,” the senator said, adding the crisis could lead to a more concerning one with socialist-run countries looking to take advantage of the situation.
“I think that countries such as Venezuela, Cuba, others, are just looking for an opportunity, an opening for them to turn Colombia into a next Venezuela so we need to be very, very careful and this is why I say that it is wrong for the government to have such a strong arm against these rightfully so peaceful protestors,” Taddeo said.
Four days after the protests began, Duque canceled his tax reform plan but the protests have continued. Demonstrators’ demands have expanded to include a basic income, an end to police violence and the withdrawal of a long-debated health reform.
Duque and leaders of the protests have met to discuss and negotiate the demands but as of this article, no concrete solution has been established and protests continue.
News 6 spoke with the general consul of Colombia in Orlando who said Colombians in Florida can stay up to date to developments on the protest on their website.
“We want to let everyone know that Colombia is a democratic state that respects and protects the constitutional right to peaceful social protest,” Claudia Bustamante, general consul of Colombia in Orlando, said. “The national government has already established a negotiation table with strikes committee to advance on the agenda to be agreed with the mediation of the United Nations. We hope that agreement will be reached and that will give peace of mind to all citizens.”