The protests that erupted across Colombia in April 2021 were detonated by a tax reform bill presented by President Iván Duque. Duque claimed his proposal would raise 23.4 trillion pesos (6.4 billion dollars), which would help reduce Colombia’s fiscal deficit (set to reach 8.6 percent of GDP in 2021, from 7.6 percent in 2020), and lift 2.8 billion people out of poverty, enabling the creation of a fund to tackle the effects of climate change.
But Duque’s tax reform was not progressive; it would have expanded the scope of value-added tax (VAT); taxed people that had previously been considered to be earning too little to pay; and abolished many exemptions for middle class households, already hard hit by the COVID-19 crisis. Colombia’s biggest trade union, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), called for a national strike on April 28, which was supported by a broad coalition of social movements.
Even centrist political factions — the Partido de la U (PU) of former president Juan Manuel Santos (2010–18), and the Partido Liberal (PL) — agreed that the bill would affect Colombians worst hit by the pandemic. Some international critics exposed the bill as “a regressive tax reform designed to finance the repayment of Colombia’s foreign debt obligations and maintain its credit rating.” Significantly, Standard & Poor’s announced on May 19 that it was downgrading Colombia’s long-term foreign currency sovereign credit rating from BBB- to BB+.
The strike soon morphed into large protests fueled by years of pent-up grievances. In April, a report from Colombia’s national statistical unit (DANE) showed that 42.5 percent of Colombians were living below the poverty line, with 15.1 percent in extreme poverty.
Under unprecedented pressure, President Duque finally withdrew the bill in a May 2 televised presidential address. This was followed by the resignation of his finance minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, a day later. But significantly, neither gesture succeeded in quelling a new wave of nationwide protests against Duque’s government, following previous social unrest in September 2020 and between November 2019 and February 2020. The tax bill had merely detonated simmering unrest.
This third wave of protests was also met by a combative police force that unleashed a lethal wave of repression. Popular discontent was soon directed against police brutality and state-sponsored violence, which added to the general upheaval.
Pedro Piedrahita, a political scientist at the University of Medellín, said, “Colombia’s public security [organizations] are still operating under the anachronistic doctrines of anti-communism, of an internal enemy, and as such protestors aren’t seen as citizens but as legitimate military targets.” Social media networks circulated images of the anti-riot squad Esmad (Escuadrón Móvil Anti Disturbios) violently attacking demonstrators. By May 12, Colombia’s highly reputed Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Indepaz) recorded 39 killings by police, 1,055 people arbitrarily detained, and 16 cases of police engaging in sexual violence. By June 15, Indepaz claimed that the protests and its repression, not all resulting from police brutality, had claimed a total of 70 fatal victims.
These violations provoked a flurry of international condemnations, including the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights spokesperson on May 4, who was “deeply alarmed” by events. By contrast, a US State Department deputy spokesperson referred to “violence and vandalism” as an abuse of the right to peaceful protest, but urged the “utmost restraint by the public forces to prevent additional loss of life.” At the 51st annual Washington Conference on the Americas on May 4, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and even Haiti as problem countries for democracy or human rights, but made no mention of Colombia. A few weeks later, when Congressman Joaquín Castro asked Blinken whether he would “consider using the security assistance to Colombia as leverage to stop these human rights violations,” the secretary of state failed to mention any concrete measure to exert such pressure.
President Joe Biden made it clear from the start that his administration would continue to regard Colombia as a “keystone of US policy in Latin America and the Caribbean.” During his presidential campaign, he had curried favor with Latino voters in Florida, including Colombian Americans, by declaring his support for the continuation of a hawkish, conservative, security-driven policy in Colombia. In the Fort Lauderdale-based newspaper Sun Sentinel, he wrote: “I championed Plan Colombia from the very beginning and secured bipartisan support for its passage through Congress. (…) All told, it is one of the most successful — and bipartisan — foreign policy undertakings of the last half century.”
As it turns out, this was no exaggeration. Plan Colombia was inaugurated under the Clinton administration in 1999, expanded under President George W. Bush, and continued under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The 22-year-old Plan Colombia, which was rechristened “Plan Paz” in 2016, is therefore one of Washington’s strongest and longest enduring, bipartisan security-based bilateral relationships. For decades, Colombia has been a major recipient of US military aid and one of the largest buyers of US military equipment in the world. Plan Colombia’s greatest success is the expansion of a powerful military alliance between the Colombian and US militaries, which includes joint military operations; the presence of US military ‘advisors’ and contractors in Colombia; US-made GPS guidance kits installed on Colombian munitions (turning them into smart bombs that allow guerrilla leaders to be targeted); and National Security Agency (NSA) signal intercepts to feed intelligence to Colombian troops on the ground. Colombia is still NATO’s only partner in the region.
Over two decades of intimate bipartisan security relations between the United States and Colombia, Joe Biden frequently exalted the virtues of Plan Colombia and often highlighted his role in cementing them. He has been less outspoken on some of the consequences of those relations and the consolidation of a security apparatus that has been detrimental to both democracy and human rights in Colombia.
Now that he is president, Biden’s declared intention to break with Trump-era policies and his pledge to bring back democracy and human rights as driving forces of US foreign policy suddenly appear incompatible with the current status quo in Colombia. This includes Biden’s explicit support for the Colombian government’s 2016 peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a pledge that also clashes with Duque’s incessant attempts to sabotage the deal.
Iván Duque, a protégé of former president Álvaro Uribe (2002–10), was opposed to the peace accords long before he became president. He campaigned aggressively against the deal in the weeks preceding the 2016 referendum on the Peace Accords, and after he was elected in 2018, Duque was able to make the most of Donald Trump’s total disinterest in Colombia’s peace. This gave the new Colombian president carte blanche, especially as he could soon capitalize on his contribution to several US attempts to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, a top priority for the Trump administration.
Duque found numerous ways to undermine the agreements contained in the 2016 Peace Accords. One of the most effective was his decision to underfund its most fundamental components, including the institutions responsible for transitional justice, truth, and reconciliation: the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), and the Truth Commission. Duque’s supporters in the Colombian Congress have consistently attempted to abolish the JEP or limit its mandate. Duque’s mentor, former president Uribe, even proposed a 14-question referendum seeking to abolish or significantly reform the JEP. But the JEP enjoys significant legislative backing in Colombia and diplomatic support abroad. The International Criminal Court has also been very vocal, with its deputy prosecutor James Stewart calling the JEP a “pioneering system, which can be a model for the world.” Despite Uribe’s onslaught, the JEP has endured.
As for Biden’s concern for human rights, Colombia is an emblematic case: over the last year alone, Indepaz calculated a total of 91 massacres, which claimed 384 lives. In March 2021, the UN Verification Mission in Colombia reported that 262 former FARC combatants, signatories to the peace deal, had been killed after signing the 2016 accords, despite the fact that one of the deal’s key government commitments is the duty to provide security protection to former combatants.The JEP has reiterated its serious concern that “the efforts of the Government and other state entities to avoid new assassinations of ex combatants of the FARC-EP are insufficient.”
In addition, and in order to appear tough on drugs for domestic audiences, Trump pressured Colombia to step up its efforts to eradicate coca growing by whatever means. “You’re going to have to spray,” he said, referring to the resumption of aerial spraying of glyphosate (considered potentially carcinogenic by the World Health Organization in 2015). Duque would have been more than happy to oblige, but was constrained by Colombia’s constitutional court, which refused to reverse the partial ban on glyphosate until certain conditions had been met. Many political and social actors are opposed to aerial spraying, which would also violate a key part of the 2016 peace accord. On April 12 , despite protests by dozens of organizations, Duque finally issued a decree allowing spraying to resume, while promising to keep it within the limits set by the constitutional court.
Duque’s strategy has been to try and convince the US government that the recent increase in drug production in Colombia is a result of the permissiveness of the peace deal. But if criminal organizations, including Mexican drug cartels, have made important inroads into Colombia, it is largely due to the Colombian government’s own failure to fill the vacuum left by the guerrillas. Duque’s insistence on forced coca eradication, which encourages producers to seek protection from criminal organizations, and the government’s neglect of the crop substitution program agreed to in the peace deal have also been major factors in the failure to reduce illicit coca production.
Duque also pushed for an end to negotiations with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), for a peace deal with the guerrillas that his predecessor had not yet managed to seal. Duque had first refused to send emissaries to attend talks in Havana. Then, in January 2019, the ELN carried out the biggest attack in Bogota since 2003, when it bombed a police academy, causing 23 deaths. The resulting national outrage offered Duque the motive he was waiting for to put an end to the talks. He demanded that Cuba, the host country for the negotiations, hand over members of the ELN delegation so that they could be tried for terrorism in Colombia. Cuba refused on the grounds that this would violate the negotiation protocol signed by all parties. But Cuba’s refusal, which was backed by Norway, a guarantor of the peace talks, prompted Trump to put the island back on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism (Obama had removed Cuba from the list in 2015). Duque’s extradition request thus played into Trump’s hands for his presidential campaign in Florida, where many voters still endorse harsh measures against the Cuban government.
The Duque-Trump relationship ran deep. Duque’s Centro Democrático party overtly supported Trump’s reelection bid. Former president Uribe participated in campaign events, drilling the message of the threat of spreading “Castro-Chavismo.” while Florida Republicans warned that the US could fall prey to “socialism.” This prompted the US ambassador in Bogotá, Philip Goldberg, to Tweet: “The success of US-Colombia relations over many years has been based on bipartisan support … I urge all Colombian politicians to refrain from involvement in US elections.” (Fresh from its success in Florida, the Colombian far right would later intervene in the 2021 Ecuadorian presidential elections to prevent leftwing contender Andrés Arauz from securing a victory.)
Some of Biden’s natural allies, such as mainstream human rights organizations and think tanks critical of Duque’s erosion of peace and his brutal response to the recent social protests, will push him to change course in Colombia. Various Democrats in the US Congress are also increasingly active. In July 2020, 94 Democratic members of the House of Representatives signed an open letter to then secretary of state Mike Pompeo expressing their great concern for the state of Colombia’s peace process. Some of them have publicly denounced the repression of the recent protests, including Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), who refused to treat the anti-protest violence as a new and isolated phenomenon, denouncing instead an ongoing and “disturbing pattern of excessive use of force, killings and human rights violations against protestors in Nov 2019, Sept 2020 & April-May 2021.”
Joe Biden may find that he has spelled out irreconcilable policies. If democracy and human rights are indeed the pillars of his administration’s new relationship with Latin America, then it is clear that the current US relationship with Colombia cannot remain intact.
Duque’s government, meanwhile, will continue to portray protests as part of an international conspiracy. Colombia’s foreign minister Claudia Blum, who has since resigned, released an English language video in which she claimed “Senator [Gustavo] Petro [a likely presidential candidate in 2022] with the help of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and narco-terrorist groups have taken advantage of this situation and have organized these premeditated urban terrorist attacks, paying people to go to the streets to terrorize and vandalize the cities.”
Duque will want to convince Biden that he is the US’s most committed and dependable asset where it matters: overthrowing Maduro and fighting “narco-guerrillas.” He will also fiercely resist any negotiated outcome to the Venezuelan crisis.