Waves of unrest in Colombia reach Florida, home to one-third of America’s diaspora
TAMPA – Tax protests turned into large-scale protests and harsh government crackdowns in Colombia, frustrating immigrants to Tampa Bay who saw signs of hope for improvement in their struggling country.
Many have turned their anger towards the government of President Ivan Duque over the deaths of dozens of protesters, the injuries of thousands more, the disappearance of countless Colombians and reports of sexual assaults against women in jail.
“As a Colombian, I feel powerless in the face of so much injustice in so many cities,” said Laura Bohorquez, 32, of Town ‘N Country, a mother of two from Tolima state who fled the country. drug-related violence in Colombia. “The least we can do from here is offer a show of union to make our voices heard.”
Colombia appeared to move beyond decades of drug trade devastation and rebel uprisings, even agreeing last month to grant legal status to 1 million refugees fleeing their own social disintegration in neighboring Venezuela.
But then Duque’s government decided to raise taxes to close a $ 6.3 billion gap caused in part by the coronavirus. This sparked protests in late April that developed into broader claims centered on the plight of the most vulnerable Colombians – including indigenous and Afro-Latino peoples.
Protesters also see a connection to the November 2019 protests on a host of issues: previous tax increases, the killing of social leaders, official corruption and a peace deal that led to the 2016 demobilization of the Armed Forces. Revolutionaries from Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC.
The government estimates the death toll in the new round of protests at 42 with more than 2,000 injured. Activists say the losses are much higher.
Colombia’s unrest resonates throughout Florida, home to about a third of the estimated 1 million Hispanics of Colombian descent living in the United States, according to the 2010 Census Bureau U.S. Community Survey.
“I hope that a way out can be found without the need for more deaths,” said Bohorquez.
No progress can be made towards the protest’s broader goals without an end to clashes between young protesters and the national riot team known as ESMAD, said Fernando Falquez, 80, from Barranquilla, who lives in Oldsmar and is president of the nonprofit organization. Colombian Ladies Volunteers from Tampa Bay.
“Mistakes have been made at the government level for a long time,” said Falquez, whose organization supports charities in Colombia. “All of this is perhaps the consequence of problems that we have dragged into the past.”
Michelle McIlrath, 36, of Brooksville, finds it particularly frustrating that a country as rich in natural resources as Colombia is faced with such conflicts. Colombia has the third or fourth largest economy in Latin America. The same incongruity faces oil-rich Venezuela.
Duque wastes those resources on reforms that help rich interests at home and internationally, said McIlrath, from Cauca state in southwestern Colombia. Meanwhile, the poor face a new wave of oppression.
“The human rights violations perpetrated by ESMAD and the police cause me great pain,” said McIlrath. “Many of us have had to flee in fear due to constant threats. We have to end this at the root. “
More than 42% of Colombians live below the poverty line, up from 36% just two years ago, according to the country’s National Administrative Statistics Department.
Colombia is a victim of widespread corruption and mismanagement of public funds, said Juan José Posada, 40, a Colombian journalist who has lived in Tampa since 2016. The country must withdraw, he said, socialist tendencies inspired by former leaders Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
“Young people are the ones who will surely shape the destiny of Colombia,” said Posada, who was press advisor to former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe.
“They are the ones who will decide to continue to strengthen the ‘Castro-Chavism’ discourse, or to unite all parties to advance on the path of democracy.”