Bogota, Colombia – Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched through the dense city streets of Bogota and other cities across Colombia on Thursday as the country joined a wave of others in South America experiencing anti-government demonstrations.
Protesters sent out a unified cry against the right-wing administration of President Ivan Duque, whose approval ratings have plummeted amid an uptick in violence, a flailing peace process and general unrest country-wide.
What began as a peaceful demonstration, and one of the biggest in recent years, had descended into chaos by the end of the day. Police clashed with protesters throwing rocks and bottles and a cloud of tear gas hovered over the city centre.
“They’re throwing tear gas and dispersing, abusing the people,” protester Milena Riano shouted over loud crashes and the roar of the crowd running from police in riot gear. “I’m so scared because I have kids.”
Civil society groups opposing economic reforms by Duque’s right-wing government announced the strike last month. But after weeks of protests in Chile prompted by continuing economic inequality, unrest in Bolivia and riots in Ecuador, Haiti, Venezuela and Brazil, the day morphed into something more potent; an accumulation of growing woes against the Colombian government.
“In my community, in my department of Cauca, they’re killing our social leaders in our indigenous lands … they’re killing us selectively,” said Almayari Barano Yanakuna, a 48-year-old indigenous woman who stood among crowds of thousands.
Hoisting a rainbow indigenous flag over her shoulder, she said her home in western Colombia was once defined by bloodshed, and while there was a brief respite in 2016 when the government signed landmark peace accords, violence against her community was once again ticking up, and along with it, their fears.
She travelled to the capital, she said, to send a message to the Duque and the country.
“Today, I want to send the message that they respect our ancestral territories, that they respect life,” she said. “We don’t want any more killings.”
Duque’s slightly-more-than-a-year in office has been marred by deep political divides, tethered especially to the government’s failure to comply with the country’s peace process, corruption and the killings of social leaders.
Those tensions have only deepened in recent weeks with the killing of indigenous people by criminal groups in the Cauca and the resignation of Duque’s defence minister after a bombing aimed at dissidents of the demobilised Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group killed at least eight children.
While student and indigenous groups in the country have rallied in past months, the demonstrations brought with them violence, but little change. Thursday’s protests, dubbed #ParoNacional, or #NationalStrike, appeared to strike a different chord.
Collective support by student, indigenous, labour, political and social groups – each bringing with them their own tribulations – turned the day into what Andes Director of Washington Office on Latin America Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli called a “referendum on Duque”. While social leaders, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities denounced growing assassinations and threats against them, university students railed against corruption and the chronic underfunding of education.
“It’s not just a protest about ‘Can we change whoever is in the government’,” Sanchez said, “But it’s the fact that the whole political and economic system is failing the needs of the broader Latin Americans.”
Camila Romero, an 18-year-old university student had taken part in student demonstrations three times before that were marked by a violent crackdown by the Colombian security forces. She said Thursday’s protest was not just about the students any more, and because of that, she hoped it would have a larger ripple effect.
“This is different than the others,” Romero said. “It’s a national event. It’s not just a small part of the population, of the citizens that have come to protest. No, it’s everyone.”
In the lead up to the protests, Duque’s administration called for extra security forces and permitted local government extra powers to avoid violence.
In a video, the president called for peace, but said the government would “guarantee order and defend you with all the tools the constitution grants us”.
Thursday’s protest remained peaceful for the vast majority of the day, but when protesters began throwing rocks and bottles and chanting: “Get out Duque”, police in swat gear who had lined the streets in Bogota’s city centre, Plaza Bolivar, pushed back.
With intense clashes with police stretching into the night how Duque chooses to respond could be a turning point for the South American country, Sanchez said.
“It can be an opportunity for positive constructive change,” she added. “It depends a lot on how the government takes this. Do they take this as a warning sign that they need to shift their approach … or do they buckle down and make this about something else?”