BOGOTA, Colombia — “To distribute wealth, first you must create it.” Protestors in Bogota display banners of dissent against ‘La Reforma Tributaria,’ a tax reform proposed by Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first-ever leftist president, sworn in on August 7, 2022. A former mayor of Bogota, congressman and member of the infamous guerrilla group M-19, Petro is a massively divisive figure. Much of his election campaign revolved around tackling the profound socioeconomic inequality in Colombia, where more than 19 million individuals survived on less than $89.50 per month in 2020.
Protests in Bogota
On September 26, 2022, several thousand protestors marched through the streets of Bogota, filling the air with a cacophony of shrill whistles and the unified chants of “Fuera Petro,” meaning “Petro Out!” in Spanish.
Just after midday, the crowd arrived at the Plaza de Bolivar, home to the Colombian parliament and governmental office of the newly elected Petro. The protestors’ animosity targeted Petro’s latest tax reform: La Reforma Tributaria.
According to Petro, the bill will target tax evasion within Colombia’s overly complex tax system, impose heavy duties on crude oil and coal and increase taxes on Colombia’s highest earners. This will bring the treasury an additional 20 trillion Colombian pesos (US$3.99 billion) annually, with which Petro promises to fund anti-poverty social programs.
There are, however, several key challenges to the successful implementation of a tax-the-rich economic model.
During the anti-Petro protests in Bogota, the overarching sentiment was fear of governmental money seizure — “Petro no te robes mi pensión!” or “Petro don’t rob my pension!” in Spanish. An atmosphere of brooding conflict culminated in eight or nine members of the crowd beating a pro-Petro counter-protestor, enraged by his defiant hand gestures and verbal insults.
Events like this represent Colombia’s wider political volatility. The election of the country’s first-ever socialist leader and first black female vice-president, Francia Márquez, has been a symbolic victory for progressivism, but an unwelcome change to ‘tradition’ among Colombia’s right-wing.
Some middle-class and upper-class Colombians view the reform as a threat to their nation’s liberty and personal livelihoods. Alejandra Lopez, a business administrator participating in the protest, told The Borgen Project, “[Petro] wants to drag the country to the ground. We’re against socialism, or rather what will be an authoritarian government. We’ll be denied the right to vote. We don’t agree with the tax reform because it’s going to drag us all into poverty, into total misery.”
When asked about the need to help those already in poverty, Lopez replied, “But [Petro] isn’t going to help people. That is what he says, but it’s a ploy. We don’t want the same as what’s happening in other Latin American countries. Like Venezuela, like Cuba, like Chile.”
Unrest developing into insurgency is never implausible in Colombia due to the military. Petro has pledged that service members accused of human rights violations will stand trial in regular courts rather than the military courts that have traditionally doled out lighter sentences.
Along with the promise of a complete restructuring of the police force, including dismantling the infamous riot squad, real concerns of a military coup arose at the start of Petro’s presidency.
Should Petro’s administration be ousted from power, a promising, bold step toward improved economic equality will be invalidated. The 2.5 million people living under the international poverty line of less than $1.90 a day in Colombia, according to 2019 data from the World Bank, desperately need this tax reform.
A Country Embroiled in Conflict
Since the 1960s, the armed conflict in Colombia has been a thorn in the side of any efforts to tackle food deficiency, job insecurity and social deprivation in Colombia.
Funded and fuelled by the drug trade, paramilitaries, guerrilla groups and the government engaged in a six-decade-long conflict that resulted in widespread internal displacement. For those forced to abandon their homes and land, it is extremely difficult to find stable employment and housing, increasing the likelihood of falling into poverty.
Since the 2000s, peacemaking efforts have soothed the conflict, above all a 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the most active guerrilla group. There are also ongoing peace talks with the ELN (National Liberation Army) as of November 2022.
Regardless, World Bank estimates from 2021 highlight that more than 5 million people faced internal displacement in Colombia. Whether or not Petro’s plan to alleviate poverty will succeed is inextricably linked with the success of these peace deals, which can contribute to the construction of a more stable nation better equipped to help neglected citizens.
At the start of November 2022, the Colombian senate and its two levels of congress approved La Reforma Tributaria. Once promulgated by President Petro, it is set to bring in trillions of pesos. But, for the reform to profoundly improve the lives of Colombia’s poverty-stricken, this revenue must be spent on health care, education, social services and housing for the internally displaced.
Tangible action must proceed with political sentiments of taxing the rich. If not, Petro’s promising plans will ring hollow with the millions living in extreme poverty across Colombia, far removed from the gleaming government buildings of the capital.
But, several organizations are already taking significant steps to alleviate poverty, such as Children Change Colombia (CCC). Through partnerships with local charitable groups, CCC helps vulnerable Colombians in deprived areas to build resilience against risks, specifically “sexual and gender-based violence, recruitment of children into armed gangs and educational exclusion.”
CCC has partnered with Centro Para el Reintegro y Atencion del Nino (CRAN) to provide “foster homes and psychosocial support to 50 children formerly associated with illegal armed groups.” Colombia’s political elite can learn much from these organizations. CCC may not have to contend with the same bureaucratic red tape, but the organization combines nationwide reach with local-level impact.
If grassroots movements of this sort can instigate effective anti-poverty campaigns nationwide, the funding, reach and influence of a united socialist government should have the potential to make altogether more significant strides in reducing poverty and inequality in Colombia.
– Alex Blair
Photo: Courtesy of Alex Blair