By Nelson Bocanegra
BOGOTA (Reuters) – Thousands of protesters responded to calls by Colombia’s largest unions to take to the streets of the country to demonstrate against a controversial government tax reform on Wednesday.
The unions insisted the strike would continue despite a court order postponing protests over concerns over a third coronavirus spike that is stretching the healthcare system to breaking point. The Andean country has reported more than 2.8 million cases of the coronavirus, of which 106,482 are active. More than 72,000 people have died.
The proposed tax reform was originally intended to raise around $ 6 billion, or the equivalent of 2% of gross domestic product (GDP).
However, earlier on Wednesday, the chief financial officer, Juan Alberto Londono, said the government could reduce the target amount to between 18,000 and 20 trillion pesos (4.8 to 5.4 billion dollars) while it seeks consensus among legislators.
The government is proposing a series of new or expanded taxes for individuals and businesses, as well as the reduction or elimination of many tax exemptions, including on product sales.
“This protest is legitimate because it represents a national rejection of the economic and social policies of this government,” said Francisco Maltes, president of the Central Union of Workers (CUT).
He said on Facebook that the reform would “plunder the pockets of (ordinary) Colombians, without touching even a hair of the super-rich”.
The reform is crucial for Colombia to maintain its investment grade debt rating, according to the government.
The city of Cali implemented a 1 p.m. curfew and deployed the military after several buses were set on fire.
Security forces “will act where incidents of vandalism or violence occur,” Defense Minister Diego Molano said.
Wednesday’s protests are the most recent in a series of marches that began in late 2019 against the social and economic policies of President Ivan Duque, who is stepping down next year.
Strike leaders will meet on Wednesday afternoon to make a decision on another protest scheduled for Saturday, Maltes said.
(Reporting by Nelson Bocanegra; writing by Oliver Griffin; editing by Rosalba O’Brien)