Colombia’s president withdrawing tax reforms after mass protests

Right-wing President Ivan Duque’s proposed tax reforms drew widespread public anger and protests across Colombia.

Demonstrators take part in a protest against the tax reform of President Ivan Duque's government in Bogota, Colombia, May 1, 2021 [Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

Colombian President Ivan Duque has said he is withdrawing a contentious tax reform proposal after thousands of protesters took to the streets across the South American nation for several days to denounce the measures.

In a video on Sunday, Duque said he would ask Congress “to withdraw the law proposed by the finance ministry and urgently process a new law that is the fruit of consensus, in order to avoid financial uncertainty”.

The proposed reforms, which the right-wing government had insisted were vital to stabilising Colombia’s finances, maintaining its credit rating and funding social programmes, has drawn widespread public anger and protests.

The plan included new or expanded taxes on citizens and business owners, as well as the levelling of sales tax on utilities and some food.

Colombia’s President Ivan Duque announces the withdrawal of the tax reform bill, in Bogota, Colombia on May 2 [Colombia Presidency/Handout via Reuters]

But many working-class Colombians, already struggling under a coronavirus-related economic downturn, said the reforms would hit them too hard.

“We’re here to say ‘no’ to the tax reforms,” Sol Martinez, a teacher, told Al Jazeera during a protest in the capital, Bogota, on Wednesday. “They’re robbing us poor people, while they give everything to the rich.”

Human Rights Watch said it had confirmed six deaths related to the protests. “I reiterate my urgent call for the protest to be peaceful and for the security forces to respect human rights,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of HRW’s Americas division, tweeted.

Duque had said on Friday that the contentious reform would be revised, but that it could not be withdrawn in its entirety.

The right-wing president’s announcement on Sunday “is a major win for the protesters” that also “shows just how weak the government of Ivan Duque is at this point”, Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti reported from Bogota.

Rampietti said Duque had run out of room to manoeuver and had grown politically isolated.

“There was widespread opposition to this reform from lawmakers and parties that make up his government coalition, and also within his own party. so really I don’t think he had a lot of other possibilities except withdrawing finally this reform,” he said.

Demonstrators take part in a protest against the tax reform in Bogota, Colombia, on May 1 [Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

Lawmakers, unions and other groups hailed the announcement as a victory. Celebratory cacerolazos, a traditional protest where people beat pots and pans, could be heard in some neighbourhoods.

“It is the youth, social organisations and mobilised citizens who have seen deaths and defeated the government,” left-wing Senator Ivan Cepeda said on Twitter. “May the government not present the same reform with make-up. The citizens won’t accept tricks.”

Nevertheless, Duque on Sunday said tax reform remains necessary.

He said political parties, local officials, business leaders and civil society groups have contributed valuable ideas over the last several days.

There is consensus on the need for temporary taxes on businesses and dividends, an increase in income tax for the wealthiest and deepened state austerity measures, Duque said.

“It is a moment for all of us to work together without malice,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies