The Colombian government's responses to the National Strike

Many have criticized the attitude of President Iván Duque before the requests in the National strike, because they believe that the government has been 'deaf' to the needs of the country.

President of Colombia, Iván Duque.

President of Colombia, Iván Duque. / Photo: David Romo - Presidency

LatinAmerican Post | Juliana Suárez

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Leer en español: Las respuestas del gobierno colombiano ante el Paro Nacional

Since November 21, Colombians have not left the streets and have protested against the government, asking it to respond to multiple requests that meet the needs of different sectors of the country. In the days that have followed that first mobilization there have been two other strikes officially convened by the National Committee of the Strike, but in the other days, people have continued marching and singing harangues of all kinds in the streets.

Despite the fact that the government has repeatedly asked for the cessation of activities that paralyze the main cities of the country and have a direct and strong impact on the economy, citizens do not get tired yet and say they will continue until they receive concrete responses from Iván Duque and his cabinet. The problem lies in the fact that, according to citizens who take to the streets, the president has not attended to their needs and has tried to dissuade tensions with failed attempts.

Colombia has a history of constant mobilizations where social protest has been the scene to complain about the government. In the plebiscite of 2016, when 'No' won , thousands of citizens camped in the central square of Bogotá; at one of the FARC's peak, thousands mobilized against them; students have marched repeatedly during 2018 and 2019 to ask for greater guarantees and budget for public education.

However, for decades the Colombian people had not manifested themselves in the way they are doing today and banners such as: "They took us away so much that they took away our fear" are the premise of the protests. The country had not seen such size of demonstrations since 1977, during the presidential term of Alfonso López Michelsen. In that strike, the largest in the history of Colombia, the workers' centrals called for a better quality of work, but, as in today's mobilizations, thousands of citizens who had nothing to do with these requests also left streets.

The magnitude of these protests, a historical milestone in the country's recent history, are the main impulse that has not allowed protest activities to cease, despite the derogatory qualifications about them that the government has had. For example, the controversial tweets of the Minister of the Interior, Nancy Patricia Gutierrez, with the hashtag #NoPudieron (They coudln't), which was criticized and cataloged as "incendiary." On the contrary, citizens have been taking to the streets for almost 20 days and music has been the central axis.



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While the original petitions - 13 specific points of the National Stop Committee, plus other petitions from groups such as the environmentalist - remain firm, protests have also been based on the lack of government action and the attempted repression through the use of the Public Force in peaceful marches.

Government criticism

From day one of the protests, 21N, President Duque was criticized for not responding specifically to any of the requests. In the first days of demonstrations, the presidential address ended up infuriating its critics even more. On these occasions, the president did not refer to the requests of the National Committee of the Strike, which were the central axis of the protest. On the contrary, he focused on rejecting "vandalism" acts and determining that actions against them would be blunt.

Although he acknowledged and "congratulated" the peaceful citizens, this ended up generating even more discontent, as it was said he was not understanding that those dealers were criticizing him and his government.

Read also: Friendly fire in the Colombian government

In the days following the beginning, he continued his speech against the "vandals", without recognizing that these were a minority and that the protests have been full of music, posters and peaceful exhibitions. On the contrary, both the government and the members of the president's party, Democratic Center, have alluded to the economic losses of unemployment. Many, in addition to questioning the veracity of the amounts that ensure they are losing daily, allude to the fact that corruption has taken more money than what can be lost in strikes.

In reaction to the demonstrations, the president created the 'Great National Conversation', a mechanism that would bring the government together with all sectors of the country; from unions to Congress. The talks began during the first week of the strike and will go until March 2020. The fact was also highly criticized by the organizers of the strike, who say government does not meet the needs or urgency of the petitions.

During the conversation sessions a lack of clear purposes has been seen, as the guests come without knowing what to talk about. As an example of this, the representative to the Chamber Juan Carlos Lozada, invited to one of the meetings formed by environmental leaders, said in a video on Instagram that the president does not seem to be hearing the requests. Instead, he said the meetings seem like a debate in which the government counteracts what the attendees comment on.



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Finally, the government's repression reaction by using Public Force mechanisms such as the Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron (ESMAD, in Spanish) continue to stir up the mood in demonstrations. After an 18-year-old died at the cost of an agent shot, the Colombians united against the use of violence as an attempt to perform peaceful marches. Although President Duque lamented the death of the young man, he continued his speech against the vandals and celebrated the performance of the Public Force. This was considered by citizens as an act against citizenship.



Also read: How far does the power of the Public Force can go?

Concrete government responses

As the days go by, and after failed National talks, the government has taken actions that go, in the opinion of the protesters, totally against the demands of the strike.

One of the most controversial announcements was when the president said that the government had decided that there would be 3 days without VAT (Value Added Tax, IVA in Spanish) per year. This was considered a minor response, since it does not solve any of the demands of the Colombian people.

Similarly, the government enacted a law (2111 of 2019) that allows the creation of a Financial Holding. This will group some state-owned companies “whose objective is to compete and improve the administration of state-owned companies, optimize their services and conditions for users”, says Red Más.



Although, according to the Ministry of Finance, Alberto Carrasquilla, the holding will allow a better use of the State's assets, the creation of a financial holding was one of the Committee's requests, since this leads to a privatization of public companies.

Among the measures called Duque's 'bundle', one of the strongest reasons for the demonstrations, were the measures in economic reforms, including this financial holding company. But another point, perhaps the most controversial, was a tax reform. Although the government in previous days delegitimized the Committee of the Strike assuring that they were based on falsehoods, last December 4, the Tax Reform in Congress was approved in the first debate.



According to the economic magazine Dinero, “the approved text contemplates the return of VAT to 20% of the Colombian population that is in poverty, the gradual reduction in health contributions to pensioners and tax benefits for those companies that hire young people”. This, the government has said, is an opportunity to benefit people with lower resources in the country.

However, several experts from the sector sent a letter to Congress saying "that there is an unjustified pressure to quickly approve this bill, which also gives $9 billion pesos in tax benefits to large companies," according to RCN Radio. The letter also states that the reform leaves a gap in fiscal matters and that it is necessary to speak of a reform that really meets the needs of inclusive economic growth.



This also increased the tension and the call is to continue manifesting in the streets. Meanwhile, last Thursday, December 5, the government finally met with the Committee, which had once decided to leave the dialogue table and not talk to the government because they felt that it was not being heard. After a day of dialogue, no agreement was reached.

The National Strike Committee said it proposed a government negotiating committee to be created that includes representatives that can solve all 13 points, but have not yet received a response.

Meanwhile, according to the latest Invamer survey, President Duque's disapproval reaches 70 percent.