Why Are Colombians Protesting?

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Protests have rocked Colombia for a month, and thousands of people continue to pour into the streets of its major cities, with demonstrators blocking major roads and the police responding at times with lethal force. At least 46 people, many of them protesters, have died.

On Friday, President Iván Duque said he would send a “maximum deployment” of military troops to Cali, a city that has been one of the focal points of the protests, “as a measure to protect citizen rights.”

“Islands of anarchy cannot exist in our country,” he said in a video address. “We must always maintain a spirit of understanding the clamor of citizens, of interpreting it and listening to it — but never because of violence.”

The decision drew immediate criticism from some human rights groups, who have denounced Colombian authorities’ use of force against protesters.

Interviews and video analysis by The New York Times show that police officers have fired bullets at peaceful protesters, beaten demonstrators in custody and fired tear gas canisters or other forms of “less-lethal” ammunition at people from close range.

On Saturday, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco, said the deployment order signed by Mr. Duque contained a “dangerous void.”

“The orders issued do not include any explicit reference to prioritizing dialogue, avoiding excessive force and respecting human rights,” he said on Twitter.

Mr. Duque’s announcement comes as the Colombian government is negotiating with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has requested a visit to the country to examine allegations of abuse.

In an interview, the commission’s president, Antonia Urrejola said that the government “had said yes,” to the visit, but that the two parties had yet to agree on a date.

“It’s very important to be able to come as soon as possible,” she said, describing the commission as “extremely concerned,” about the situation on the ground.

The fuse for the protests was a tax overhaul proposed in late April by Mr. Duque, a conservative, which many Colombians felt would have made it even harder to get by in an economy squeezed by the pandemic.

But the outpouring quickly morphed into a widespread expression of anger over poverty and inequality — which have risen as the virus has spread — and over the violence with which the police have confronted the movement.

Students, teachers, health workers, farmers, Indigenous communities and many others have come together in the streets.

“People are fed up,” said Sergio Romero, 23, at a recent protest in Bogotá.

Demonstrators’ demands began with a repeal of the tax proposal. But they have grown over time to include calls for the government to guarantee a minimum income, to prevent police violence and to withdraw a health care overhaul that critics say does not do enough to fix systemic problems.

So far, demonstrators have managed to topple both the tax proposal and the health plan. And Mr. Duque has rolled out several programs intended to help struggling families, including one that will partially subsidize salaries for employers who hire young people.

But this has done little to quell the anger. And as time has gone on, the protests have further divided an already polarized society — with supporters saying the marches are the only way to get an entrenched political class to listen, and opponents saying that protesters’ messages have been eclipsed by the violent acts of some demonstrators.

In late April, Mr. Duque became among the first leaders in Latin America to try to address an economic shortfall created in part by a pandemic that has ravaged populations and economies in the region.

His tax plan sought to keep in place new subsidies for poor people, while raising taxes on many everyday goods and services. Many economists said that some kind of fiscal restructuring was necessary, but many Colombians viewed the plan as an attack on their already difficult existences.

Even before the pandemic, many Colombians with full-time jobs struggled to make even the minimum wage of about $275 a month.

For example, Helena Osorio, 24, is a nurse who works nights and earns $13 per shift caring for Covid patients, barely enough for her and her younger brother to survive. This pushed her to attend recent protests. Then she quit her job — and started working on the front lines of the rallies, as part of a brigade of health workers caring for injured demonstrators.

The tax proposal was a catalyst that brought longstanding frustrations to a boil.

Colombia is among the most unequal countries in the world. A report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2018 said that it would take 11 generations for a poor Colombian to approach the mean income in his or her society — the highest number of 30 countries examined.

Despite reductions in poverty in the decades before the pandemic, many Colombians, particularly the young, feel the engines of upward mobility are beyond their reach.

Many Colombians are also frustrated by the government’s carrying out its side of the peace agreement with the country’s largest rebel group, the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

The deal, signed in 2016, was supposed to end generations of armed conflict. The rebels would lay down arms, and the government would bring economic opportunity to rural areas that had suffered during the war and would meet other commitments.

But Mr. Duque’s party strongly opposed the deal, saying it went too easy on the FARC. His critics say he has not been aggressive enough in setting up the programs that were supposed to help cement peace, including one that would help coca-growing families switch to other crops. And violence continues in many rural areas, fueling frustration.

As the protests have escalated, resulting in clashes between demonstrators and police, Mr. Duque’s government has frequently blamed the violence on armed groups it says have infiltrated the protests.

The country’s national police force, one of few in the Americas that sits under the defense ministry, has responded with force. This has exacerbated anger.

At least 46 people have died as of May 27, according to Colombia’s Defensoría del Pueblo, a government agency that tracks reports of human rights violations. But Human Rights Watch and other organizations say that the death toll is likely higher.

Hundreds of people have been reported missing amid the protests, and the national prosecutor’s office said on May 24 that authorities were searching for 129 of them.

In an interview, Mr. Duque recognized that some officers had been violent, but attributed the violence to a few bad actors, saying major change in the police force was not needed.

“There have been acts of abuse of force,” he said. But “just saying that there could be any possibility that the Colombian police will be seen as a systematic abuser of human rights — well, that will be not only unfair, unjust, but without any base, any ground.”

Protesters have also blocked major roads, preventing food and other essential goods from getting through. Officials say this has hampered efforts to fight the coronavirus at a time when new cases and virus deaths are at near record highs.

The defense department says that hundreds of officers have been hurt, that one officer has been killed and that people associated with the protests have vandalized police stations, setting one on fire with officers inside.

While tens of thousands have marched in the streets, not everyone supports the protests.

Jhon Henry Morales, 51, a taxi driver in Cali, said his city had been nearly paralyzed, with some protesters blocking the roads with tires.

He had not been able to work, he said, putting him behind on his bills. “Protest is legal,” he said, but, “I also have rights as a Colombian citizen.”

Reporting was contributed by Sofía Villamil and Steven Grattan in Bogotá.

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