Colombia Protests Turn Deadly Amid Covid-19 Hardships

Colombia Protests Turn Deadly Amid Covid-19 Hardships

Eight days of protests have left 25 people dead, a major city cut off from food supplies and Colombia’s conservative government scrambling to assert control as it fights the country’s worst Covid-19 surge.

The nationwide unrest was triggered by a proposed tax-collection overhaul and stringent pandemic lockdowns that have been blamed for causing mass unemployment and throwing some four million people into poverty. Colombia is experiencing its third coronavirus surge, with nearly 500 deaths a day on average over the past week, a higher per-capita rate than India’s.

How many people haven’t lost jobs, how many haven’t lost everything,” said Ivan Felipe Gonzalez, 35 years old, whose shoe shop has been closed and who has been protesting in Cali, a city of 2.2 million that is the country’s third largest. “The working class tries to open their doors to get some kind of business,” he said. “But what happens? The law comes in and forces them to close down.”

Though most protesters have marched peacefully over the past week, Colombian authorities say looters and members of drug gangs and urban units of rebel groups have infiltrated the demonstrations. One policeman was knifed to death in the middle of a protest and nearly 600 officers have been injured, the police said. Some demonstrators have also set fire to buses, mass transit stations and banks. Looters have targeted more than 200 stores, banks and automated teller machines, according to police.

“With their violence, they’ve tried to cut off cities, leaving thousands without work,” President Ivan Duque said in a speech, referring to protesters who have engaged in violence. “Nothing justifies that armed people…go out and shoot at defenseless citizens and cruelly attack our police.”

The state, though, has been accused of employing disproportionate force that has resulted in an unknown number of deaths and injuries. The United Nations; the New York-based group Human Rights Watch; and U.S. members of Congress, including Rep. Gregory Meeks (D., N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, have raised concerns about police violence. The attorney general’s office here said it is investigating several of the deaths that took place during the protests.

Video broadcasts on Colombian television have shown police officers firing their handguns at demonstrators with live fire and beating them, further inflaming protesters and activists who have long called for wide-scale police reforms. In one video sequence, a policeman appears to shoot Marcelo Agredo, 17, from behind after the teenager kicks him and runs. The government confirmed the boy’s death from his injuries.

What sparked the wave of violence was a new tax plan that was meant to pay for an experimental basic income and cash transfers for struggling Colombians, while shoring up public finances battered by the pandemic. At the root, though, is widespread anger over poverty and growing unemployment that has now boiled over.

By increasing taxes on the wealthy and closing loopholes used to evade taxes, the proposal would have weighed heavily on Colombia’s rich, said Jorge Restrepo, an economist at the Javeriana University. But the overhaul also introduced taxes on staples and utilities, while expanding the pool of taxpayers, a hard sell during the pandemic.

“It was a good reform on paper, in theory,” Mr. Restrepo said. “But it affected everyone. It didn’t exempt the poor.”

Facing growing street protests, Mr. Duque on Sunday withdrew the tax overhaul. The finance minister resigned. His replacement, Jose Manuel Restrepo, is now working on a less ambitious tax overhaul and has expressed the need to consult with a wider range of people from Colombian society.

“We’re organizing and will have those conversations,” Mr. Restrepo, the new minister, said Wednesday. “We should open space for different political players, regardless of whether they are in the government party, independents or from the opposition.”

But the unrest has only appeared to grow worse, and Cali, in the country’s southwest, has been the hardest-hit. Demonstrators this week have torched a hotel, battled with police and closed off highways. The daily number of vaccinations in the city has fallen precipitously since protests began.

“We don’t have medicines in various hospitals in Valle del Cauca,” the province of which Cali is the capital, said Gov. Clara Luz Roldan. “Ambulances are being vandalized.”

In one affluent area in the south of the city, scores of families had joined the demonstrations. But many of them became disillusioned with the protests as violence intensified and road barricades set up by demonstrators closed off food supplies. Hundreds of residents took to the streets to plead with protesters to open the roads.

“We have no gasoline, no vegetables, we can’t leave, we can’t feed ourselves,” said one community leader in that district. “We are in a moment of hysteria. This has to be resolved through dialogue. There’s no other way to do it.”

Colombia’s 6.8% economic contraction last year resulted in poverty rising from 36% to 43%. In a country of 50 million, 1.7 million more households are eating fewer than three meals a day, according to a government household survey. On top of that, more than 75,000 Colombians have died of Covid-19, the third-highest toll in Latin America.

Among demonstrators, Lisa Trujillo, a 22-year-old in Bogotá, said she feels that there is a long list of social problems the government has yet to address. Jose David Montaño, 20, who normally washes cars in Cali, said he has virtually no work these days. Brayan Riasco, 28, said that family members in the Cali home he shares with five relatives, including two children, have taken to rationing food.

Rice and bread are staples, he said. A young robotics specialist who once traveled to the U.S. for a competition in Kentucky, Mr. Riasco said he understood the need for the tax reform.

But we didn’t need the one they were offering—we need one that’s more democratic. They need to listen to the people,” he said.

A leader of one of the protesters’ checkpoints in Cali, Fausto Prieto, said that many citizens feel that while the government has failed in delivering services and jobs, the well-off and many members of congress have done well during the pandemic.

“It’s a mix of everything,” said Mr. Prieto, who comes from a poor neighborhood and has long worked with wayward young people, referring to the anger behind the protests. “It’s not having enough food. It’s being locked inside. It’s that politicians get all kinds of perks. For them, there’s no law, while the people struggle.”

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