June 23, 2021

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Colombia’s Duque seeks to calm protest as grievances fester

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Colombian President Ivan Duque has met with political opponents and expressed more optimism than his critics about progress made towards calming more than a week of widespread and sometimes deadly street protests.

“We had a productive meeting with the coalition of hope, a great opportunity for dialogue, overcoming differences and without political point-scoring,” Duque wrote on social media on Friday, referring to the group of politicians.

But opposition attendees said Duque needed to do a lot of work to address demands for action on poverty, unemployment and ending police violence.

The group “entered talks with President Ivan Duque as opposition and we left as opposition”, said Jorge Robledo, a senator for Colombia’s Dignity party.

“We laid out our points of view and he laid out his.”

They urged Duque to meet with civil society protest organisers.

Peaceful marches took place in Bogota and Medellin, while roadblocks across the country slowed food deliveries, causing some prices to rise.

Impeding supplies of food and other items, such as oxygen, is never justified, Duque said.

“Yes to conversation … but no to roadblocks,” he told journalists. “They’re not peaceful because they affect the rights of others.”

‘Two-faced government’

The government is set to meet on Monday with the national strike committee – made up of unions and other groups – but has said it is willing to hold the meeting sooner.

Demonstrations began last week in the Andean country fuelled by outrage at a plan to raise sales taxes. That proposal was cancelled but protesters’ demands now include a basic income and the withdrawal of a long-debated health reform that opponents have said is too vague to fix inequalities.

The human rights ombudsman has reported 26 people killed since protests began, but said seven were unrelated to the marches themselves. Advocacy group Human Rights Watch has reports of 36 deaths and called police violence “alarming”.

The armed forces justice system said late Thursday a major has been arrested for alleged homicide relating to a protester death last weekend.

Demonstrators take part in a protest demanding government action to tackle poverty, police violence and inequalities in the health and education systems, in Bogota on Thursday [Nathalia Angarita/Reuters]

Protest groups are sceptical of dialogue with Duque, saying similar talks accomplished little after the 2019 demonstrations.

The government must curb police violence, Green Party congresswoman Katherine Miranda said.

“The government is two-faced. By day, it offers dialogue and conciliation, but by night, it shows only repression,” she told Reuters.

One of the protesters’ chief demands is the disbanding of feared riot police squad ESMAD, which Duque has ruled out.

“Protests will continue for as long as there is no result from dialogue,” Francisco Maltes, president of the Central Union of Workers (CUT), said in a video this week.

Some Colombians called for an end to demonstrations.

“The moment the government decided to withdraw [the tax reform], popular victory should have been declared,” Gustavo Petro, a left-wing senator and likely 2022 presidential hopeful, told Blu Radio on Friday.

“At the moment, there are no clear objectives,” he said.

Poverty and unemployment rose during coronavirus lockdowns, deepening entrenched social inequalities. Nearly half of Colombia’s 50 million inhabitants were living in poverty at the end of 2020, according to government statistics.

Talks offer a way forward, said Edward Rodriguez, a congressman from Duque’s Democratic Center party.

“The success of the dialogue depends on listening to everyone,” Rodriguez said. “And that it leads to public policies.”

Voters are likely to carry discontent to the ballot box in 2022, the Green Party’s Miranda added, predicting, “There will be a change in the country’s model [of government].”

Duque cannot run next year, but continuing demonstrations could hurt the chances of candidates from his party.

What is happening at protests “is not favourable for the government, nor for its party, nor for its electoral fate in 2022,” said analyst Sergio Guzman, of Colombia Risk Analysis.

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