A month on, Colombia continues to grapple with protest violence

Protesters plan a national strike on Friday as their demands grow and negotiations with the government lag.

Miguel Angel Chavez, 22, in Bogotá, Colombia's main square Plaza Bolivar, wants President Ivan Duque to step down [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

Bogotá, Colombia — Friday marks a month since the beginning of protests that have roiled Colombia, causing fuel and food supply shortages, unemployment, infrastructure damage, forcing businesses to close and hurting local economies.

Negotiations between the government and demonstrators have made little progress and protester demands are growing.

Although turnout numbers seem to be dwindling, protests and unrest are still a daily occurrence and another major national strike is expected Friday.

Disruptions have been most evident in Colombia’s third-biggest city, Cali, where roadblocks have halted supplies of food, fuel and other goods, forcing some businesses to close while thousands are out of work.

Vandals have attacked bus stations and street lights during protests, most prominently in Bogotá and Cali, disrupting public transportation.

Demonstrators take part in a protest demanding government action to tackle poverty, police violence and inequalities in the healthcare and education systems, in Bogotá, Colombia [Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

“I’ve been subjected to many hours of travel just to get to work and many times, I’ve had to walk home because of the demonstrations,” Felipe Suárez, a 26-year-old electrician in Bogotá told Al Jazeera. “But I still support the national strike … we shouldn’t complain so much about the protests.”

The protests were sparked by a tax reform proposal in mid-April opposed by many working- and middle-class Colombians. Tens of thousands of Colombians took to the streets across the country on April 28 in demonstrations that in some cases turned violent.

Right-wing President Ivan Duque withdrew the reforms on May 2 and the minister responsible for drawing them up resigned.

But the sometimes-deadly demonstrations – exacerbated by a heavy-handed police clampdown – have since continued and protesters have added a myriad of new government demands. For many, those demands include Duque’s resignation.

The death toll remains a disputed issue. Government figures have said 17 civilians and two police officers in direct connection to marches have been killed, while local human rights groups claim civilian deaths at the hands of the police are much higher, at more than 40.

Economic fallout

Many local businesses have also been damaged or burned down in the weeks of protests.

Both material damage and blockades have affected the everyday lives of Colombians in a number of ways, said Arlene Tickner, a political science professor at Bogotá’s Rosario University.

“Mass transportation in cities such as Bogotá has been severely impacted, making it difficult, in particular, for working-class people to travel often long distances from their homes to work,” she said.

“Road and port blockages have reduced supplies of gas, food and medicine. And small businesses, in particular, have been hard hit by the double impact of COVID-19 and the national strikes.”

Tickner said that although talks with the government continue, there is little indication that a meaningful resolution is on the horizon.

“Until now, President Duque has shown little willingness to listen to the myriad social, economic and political grievances being expressed by distinct sectors of Colombian society and his lack of credibility and governability erode his actual capacity to make amends,” she said. “The fact that his government ends next year also makes him a lame duck in the eyes of many.”

Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst for International Crisis Group in Colombia said national-level discussions set the tone for what is happening across the country, but do not address local grievances of protesters.

“I think that we’ve seen nascent progress, in terms of setting basic conditions about how to approach the negotiations, but we’re still very far from any serious solution to the problem,” Dickinson said.

Tackling police abuse

Protesters have said they want more opportunities for young people, a basic universal income for all Colombians, better equality in education and healthcare, the dissolution of the riot police, known as ESMAD, and overall police reform.

“It all started with the tax reform, but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back … there have been many problems accumulating for over 20 years,” 68-year-old protester Jaime Valencia, a retired school teacher, told Al Jazeera from Bogotá’s main public square on Wednesday.

He said that for the protests to end, “not one more person can be killed”, the police need to stop “extreme force” against young people and, he said, serious negotiations – with international intervention – need to begin.

International rights organisations have condemned Colombia’s police – who report to the Ministry of National Defence – for opening fire on protesters.

Punishing abusive officers and taking serious actions to prevent police abuses should be a top priority for the government, José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.

“While President Duque has said that his government has a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards police abuses, officers who committed serious human rights violations against protesters in 2019 and 2020 have yet to be held to account,” Vivanco said.

“There’s no meaningful way out of this crisis without a serious discussion on accountability and police reform.”

Demonstrators take part in a protest demanding government action to tackle poverty, police violence and inequalities in the healthcare and education systems, in Bogotá, Colombia [Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

Protester Miguel Ángel Chávez, part of the Guardia Cimarrona, an Afro-Colombian organisation created to protect their ancestral lands, has taken part in the demonstrations since they began.

“We want the stigmatisation to stop against young people by the security forces, like ESMAD”, said Chávez, who wants Duque to resign.

“We are not going to put up with these human rights violations any more, nor forgive you for all you have done in almost three years of government, ” he said of the president.

“I think the protests are going to continue. People are starting to realise their rights are being violated, so more people are going to join in and demonstrate.”

A cycle of protests

Ariel Avila, a political analyst and deputy director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Pares), predicted that there will be peaceful protests every three to four weeks, with a following week of harsh protests – a pattern that will repeat itself for some time.

“I think this is how it is going to go until this government ends,” Avila told Al Jazeera.

“No one is really interested in negotiating, and no one really has the ability to negotiate,” he said.

A tell-tale sign, he said, is that the government’s head of negotiations, Miguel Ceballos, quit his job on Saturday.

Ceballos, who was in charge of negotiations with the opposition National Strike Committee (CNP), made up of major unions and student groups, said on Saturday that he had submitted his resignation to Duque for “reasons of a personal nature”.

The government and the CNP reached “pre-agreements”, such as guarantees protests will be able to continue without violence, on Monday, which the government said it hopes will lead to talks to end the protests.

“At present, perhaps the best Colombians can hope for until the 2022 elections, is a firmer commitment on the part of the government to protect the democratic right to social protest, to end its stigmatisation and to reign in police brutality, and on the part of the protesters, to lift blockades and commit to non-violence,” Tickner said.

More pigeons than protesters were present in Bogotá’s main public square on Wednesday afternoon when Al Jazeera spoke to demonstrators, but those there expected a big turnout on Friday.

Source: Al Jazeera