© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A laser pointer is used as demonstrators attend a protest demanding government action to tackle poverty, police violence and inequalities in healthcare and education systems, in Bogota, Colombia, May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
By Oliver Griffin and Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA/CALI (Reuters) – Union members, students, pensioners and workers took to the streets of Colombia to march in anti-government protests on Wednesday, as demonstrations entered their third week amid so-far fruitless talks.
The demonstrations, which have sometimes turned violent, were initially fueled in late April by outrage at a now-canceled tax plan. But protesters’ demands have expanded to include an end to police violence, economic support as the COVID-19 pandemic batters incomes, and the withdrawal of a health reform.
President Ivan Duque has offered dialogue, but many protesters have voiced skepticism that government promises will lead to change. Smaller demonstrations and road blockades have continued daily around the country.
As many as 40 civilian deaths reportedly connected to the protests are being investigated by the human rights ombudsmen. Local and international rights groups allege the toll may be higher and have blamed the police.
The national police has begun dozens of disciplinary investigations and so far three officers face murder charges.
In the western city of Cali, a hub of protest violence, about 200 people gathered on Wednesday morning at a local university.
“We are tired, the people have been protesting for more than two years,” said student Diana Barbosa, 33, referring to anti-government protests in 2019. “There has been so much police abuse, there are no resources for education, nor for health.”
“We will stay on strike until there is a positive answer from the government that isn’t bullets,” she said. “Because they’ve attacked us, they’ve practically declared war.”
Many Latin American countries – already deeply unequal and politically volatile – have been hit hard by the pandemic, which has rolled back recent anti-poverty strides.
Unemployment in Colombia reached nearly 17% in urban areas in April and the country looks set to lose its investment-grade credit rating amid falls in the value of its public debt, stock market, and peso currency.
“There’s no work in Cali or in Colombia,” said 50-year-old construction worker Daniel, who declined to give his last name. “We have been silent for too long.”
In Bogota, while Duque held a meeting with students, thousands gathered to march to central Bolivar Square (NYSE:).
John Jaime Jimenez, 47, who works for the Green Party, said he wanted an end to violence the government often blames on drug traffickers.
“We demand the massacres stop,” he said.
Francisco Maltes, president of the Central Union of Workers (CUT) said in a video posted on Facebook (NASDAQ:) that the protests had been successful in putting pressure on the government but said unions wanted clear rules before entering talks.
In Colombia, the protests go beyond the anger at inequality and the impact of COVID-19 seen elsewhere in the region, said Gimena Sanchez, Director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Colombia has struggled with decades of bloody civil strife and drug violence that a 2016 peace agreement has diminished but not ended.
“The Colombia protests are not just about COVID, they are about anger towards Duque for police repression from 2019 onwards, not advancing the 2016 peace accord, rising massacres and killings of social leaders and the perception by middle and working class Colombians that the government is only interested in advancing the economic and political elites’ agendas,” she said.