Colombia, Strained by Pandemic and Financial Hardship, Explodes in Protest

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — A young person shot to loss of life after kicking a police officer. A younger man bleeding out on the road as protesters shout for assist. Police firing on unarmed demonstrators. Helicopters swarming overhead, tanks rolling by neighborhoods, explosions echoing within the streets. A mom crying for her son.

“We’re destroyed,” stated Milena Meneses, 39, whose solely son Santiago, 19, was killed in a protest over the weekend.

Colombians demonstrating over the previous week in opposition to the poverty and inequality which have worsened the lives of thousands and thousands for the reason that Covid-19 pandemic started have been met with a robust crackdown by their authorities, which has responded to the protests with the identical militarized police pressure it usually makes use of in opposition to insurgent fighters and arranged crime.

This explosion of frustration in Colombia, specialists say, might presage unrest throughout Latin America, the place a number of international locations face the identical flamable mixture of an unrelenting pandemic, rising hardship and plummeting authorities income.

“We’re all linked,” stated León Valencia, a political analyst, noting that previous protests in Latin America have been contagious, leaping from nation to nation. “This might unfold throughout the area.”

On Wednesday, after seven days of marches and clashes that turned elements of Colombian cities into battlefields, demonstrators breached protecting limitations across the nation’s Congress, attacking the constructing earlier than being repelled by police.

A number of folks within the political celebration of President Iván Duque are asking him to declare a state of siege, which might grant him broad new powers.

The clashes have left no less than 24 folks useless, most of them demonstrators, and no less than 87 lacking, they usually have exacerbated the anger with officers within the capital, Bogotá, who many protesters say are more and more out of contact with folks’s on a regular basis lives.

On Wednesday, Helena Osorio, 24, a nurse, stood on the fringe of a rally in Bogotá.

“I’m in ache for Colombia, I’m in ache for my nation,” she stated. “All that we will do to make ourselves heard is to protest,” she went on, “and for that they’re killing us.”

The marches started final week after Mr. Duque proposed a tax overhaul meant to shut a pandemic-related financial shortfall. By Sunday, amid demonstrations throughout the nation, he rescinded the plan.

However the unrest has not abated. As an alternative, fueled by outrage on the authorities’s response, the crowds have solely grown.

Demonstrators now embody lecturers, medical doctors, college students, members of main unions, longtime activists and Colombians who’ve by no means earlier than taken to the streets.

Truckers are blocking main highways. And on Tuesday, demonstrators within the capital burned buses and lit over a dozen police stations on hearth, singing the nationwide anthem, yelling “assassins!” and sending officers operating for his or her lives.

“This isn’t simply in regards to the tax reform,” stated Mayra Lemus, 28, a schoolteacher standing not removed from the nurse on Wednesday. “That is about corruption, inequality and poverty. And all of us younger individuals are uninterested in it.”

The demonstrations are, partly, a continuation of a motion that swept South America in late 2019, as folks took to the streets in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua and elsewhere.

Every nation’s protest was totally different. However in all of them, folks voiced their grievances over restricted alternative, widespread corruption and officers who seemed to be working in opposition to them.

Then got here the pandemic. Latin America was one of many areas hardest hit by the virus in 2020, with cemeteries filling previous capability, the sick dying whereas ready for care in hospital hallways, and members of the family spending the night time in strains to purchase medical oxygen in an try and preserve family members alive.

The area’s economies shrank by a mean of seven p.c. In lots of locations, unemployment, notably among the many younger, spiked.

Then, in Colombia, Mr. Duque introduced his tax reform, one of many first makes an attempt within the area to attempt to take care of the financial shortfall exacerbated by the pandemic. Whereas the measure would have stored in place a crucial pandemic-era money subsidy, it could have additionally raised costs on many on a regular basis items and companies.

Quickly, long-brewing resentment spilled over into the streets.

On Tuesday, Mr. Duque stated he would open a nationwide dialogue to seek out resolution to fiscal issues and different challenges.

“It is important to have all of the establishments, events, the personal sector, governors, mayors and leaders of civil society” in dialog he stated. “The outcomes of this house will probably be translated into initiatives we will act upon shortly.”

However the name for nationwide dialogue was just like one he made in 2019, and plenty of civil society teams have stated that dialogue produced few outcomes.

Mr. Duque, a conservative, has misplaced vital reputation for the reason that starting of the pandemic, in keeping with polling from the agency Invamer. And analysts say he’s at his weakest level since he got here to workplace in 2018.

The police and navy response has made a nationwide dialog constructed round compromise extraordinarily troublesome, stated Sandra Borda, a political analyst and columnist for the newspaper El Tiempo.

“He has no political capital,” she stated. “Individuals can’t sit all the way down to dialogue with a authorities that by night time kills individuals who protest and by day extends a hand in dialog.”

“I feel there will probably be quite a lot of upheaval,” she went on. “And I feel this subsequent yr and a half will probably be horrible for the federal government, horrible for Colombian society and with only a few long-term options.”

Colombia will maintain presidential elections in 2022. For many years, the nation has elected conservative leaders. However Gustavo Petro, a left-wing former mayor of Bogotá and former member of a demobilized guerrilla group, now leads within the polls. Mr. Duque, restricted by legislation to 1 time period, can’t run for re-election.

The federal government’s response to the latest protests may very well be a major think about subsequent yr’s vote.

On Saturday night time, Santiago Murillo, 19, a pupil in his closing yr of highschool, was headed again to the house he shares together with his dad and mom within the midsize metropolis of Ibagué, and crossed by a crowded protest.

Two blocks from house, in keeping with his mom, pictures rang out and he fell to the bottom. In a video, a witness could be heard shouting.

“Is he OK?” the witness says. “Can he breathe? Breathe! Breathe! Breathe!”

A passing deliveryman loaded Mr. Murillo onto his motorcycle and rushed him to a clinic. There, his mom’s anguished cries have been captured on tape. “Son, take me with you! Son, I need to be with you!”

Medical doctors couldn’t revive him, and resident of Ibagué held a protest vigil in his identify the subsequent day.

“I requested them to protest civilly,” stated his mom, “in peace.”

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