Colombia mass demonstrations ‘reflect a deep national crisis’

Protesters take to the streets for fourth week demanding government action on poverty, police violence, and other issues.

Demonstrators take part in a protest demanding government action to tackle poverty and several other issues, in Bogota [Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

Anti-government protests have stretched into their fourth week in Colombia, as student groups, unions and others took to the streets again on Wednesday to demand social change amid continuing talks between the government and strike leaders.

About 8,000 people attended protests in the capital, Bogota, the mayor’s office said.

“We’re accompanying our young people, our children, our grandchildren, who still lack opportunities despite our fighting for so long,” lawyer Roberto Hermida, 68, told the Reuters news agency.

Hermida said he wanted to provide more educational opportunities and better healthcare.

The protests began last month after right-wing Colombian President Ivan Duque’s government introduced a tax reform that critics said would disproportionately harm the working and middle classes, already hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Duque withdrew the proposal, but the demonstrations have continued as protesters expanded their list of demands to include the withdrawal of a proposed health reform, an end to widespread violence in the country, and steps to address economic inequality.

Demonstrators take part in a protest demanding government action to tackle poverty, police violence and inequalities in healthcare and education systems, in Bogota on May 19 [Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

The protests have been marked by violence, but the exact death toll remains unclear. The attorney general’s office has confirmed 15 deaths connected to the protests, while one human rights group says the tally is at more than 40.

Duque has blamed armed groups for most of the violence, but the United Nations and several rights groups have condemned Colombian police for “opening fire” on protesters.

On Wednesday, former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos urged Duque to assume responsibility for abuses committed by the police.

“We need more gestures, we need more empathy and more humility, and for the state to recognise: ‘Look, we committed abuses’,” Santos told W Radio.

The national strike committee, made up of major unions, student groups and others, has held several discussions with government representatives about the protesters’ demands, but the two sides are not yet holding formal talks.

They are expected to meet again with the government on Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Dickinson, senior Colombia analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the rallies demonstrated “deep social and economic inequality, frustration with police brutality, widespread distrust of government”.

Protesters’ demands fall into two categories, Dickinson said on Twitter: social justice and security – and while both issues have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, they are historical grievances.

The pandemic, which has killed more than 82,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University data, has also worsened longstanding economic inequalities.

“Protests are everywhere. The demonstrations reflect a deep national crisis that transcends geography. Although grievances vary by region, the sense of exasperation and frustration is shared,” Dickinson wrote.

“The crisis is critical, deep and requires gravitas that we have not yet seen,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies