Colombians protest tax reform proposal amid pandemic

Bogota (AFP) –

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Thousands of people marched in Colombia Wednesday against a proposed government tax reform they say will leave them poorer as the country battles its deadliest phase yet of the coronavirus pandemic.

President Ivan Duque's government wants to tax the incomes of those earning more than $656 a month, lowering the threshold to include more people.

It also wants to impose a tax on basic services in upper-middle class areas and on funerals.

The measures are meant to raise some $6.3 billion through 2031 for the country, which saw GDP drop 6.8 percent in 2020 -- its worst performance in half a century.

Protesters took to the streets of several cities to denounce the reforms which they see as an unwarranted attack on the middle class in a time of dire economic straits.

Colombia, where almost one in five people are unemployed and the minimum wage is $248 per month, is battling a deadly new wave of Covid-19.

"The government does not want to listen to the citizens, it does not want to listen to the political parties, it does not want to listen to academics about this heartfelt request to withdraw the reform that will make millions more Colombians go hungry," Francisco Maltese, president of the CUT workers' union, told Blu Radio.

In Bogota, thousands marched to the rhythm of drums as taxis and trucks blocked some of the capital's main streets and public transport was brought to a halt.

"Middle-income people are being burdened with all the taxes," Laura Quevedo, a 24-year-old university student, told AFP in Bogota.

In the southeastern city of Cali, indigenous protesters pulled down a statue of Spanish conquistador Sebastian de Belalcazar.

Thousands more marched in Medellin, Barranquilla and other cities.

There had been calls for the demonstrations to be canceled given the pandemic risk, and a court on Tuesday ordered that they be postponed -- a ruling that went unheeded.

With 2.8 million cases, the country of 50 million inhabitants has the third-highest coronavirus infections in Latin America, behind Brazil and Argentina. It has registered some 72,200 deaths.

While Duque has sought to portray the tax reform as a tool to mitigate the economic crisis unleashed by the pandemic, the initiative faces many obstacles in a parliament where the ruling party has no outright majority.