Myriad frustrations draw Colombians back onto streets
Bogota, Colombia – Colombians unhappy with President Iván Duque’s response to nearly a week of boisterous protests over everything from job losses to shark hunting took to the streets again Wednesday in a continuing tide of unrest.
The daily protests jolting the South American country proclaim a wide array of complaints but echo one refrain: an opposition to a government that many believe only looks after the most privileged citizens.
“We feel defenseless to everything,” Lucy Rosales, a pensioner in Bogota. “We don’t feel like we have a voice that represents us. It’s many things that they allowed to accumulate.”
Several thousand people blew whistles and waved the national flag as they marched through the streets of the capital, while indigenous activists blocked part of a major highway in southwestern Colombia.
The new demonstration came a day after Duque’s attempt to quell the discontent by holding talks with a protest steering group hit a snag: Members of the National Strike Committee refused to join broader talks the president has called with all social sectors, fearing their demands would be diluted.
“The government has not been able to learn from the Chilean and Ecuadorian experiences,” said Jorge Restrepo, an economics professor, referring to recent mass demonstrations in both of those countries. “It has made very many mistakes.”
The steering committee presented a 13-point list of demands Tuesday that asks Duque to withdraw or refrain from tax, labor and pension law changes that are either before the legislature or rumored to be in development. The labor and student leaders also want Duque to review free-trade agreements, eliminate a police unit accused in the death of an 18-year-old student protester and fully implement the nation’s historic peace accord with leftist rebels.
Organizers dismissed Duque’s calls to join his “National Conversation” that would run through March – an initiative that appears to take a page from French President Emmanuel Macron, who opened a “Great National Debate” to involve citizens in drafting reforms after months of angry protests in that country.
“It’s a monologue between the government and its allies,” said Diógenes Orjuela, president of the Central Workers Union, one of the main forces behind the National Strike Committee.
It remains unclear to what extent the committee represents protesters in what has become a largely citizen-driven outpouring of discontent. An invitation to gather in a park or bang pots and pans quickly goes viral on WhatsApp and soon hundreds fill neighborhoods with the angry sound of clanging metal and chants like “Get out Duque!”
“We’re tired,” said Ana Maria Moya, a student. “We’re saying, ‘No more.’”
Though the National Strike Committee drew an estimated 250,000 people to the streets last Thursday, far fewer protesters heeded their call for a new strike Wednesday. Protesters filled Bogota’s storied Plaza Bolivar, marched on highways and listened to an orchestra of protesting musicians, but many in the capital chose to stay home or go to work.
Various leaders have tried to capitalize on the momentum, but none yet has emerged as the unequivocal voice of the protesters.
“There is a contest over the ownership of the protesters,” Restrepo said. “I see students get out in the streets because they need more social mobility, higher levels of income, more opportunities at least in employment. But then the ones that claim they represent those students in the streets are the unions.”
Colombia is widely considered in need of labor and pension reform. Few retirees currently have access to pensions, with the lowest-income earners the least likely to get one. Labor laws make it difficult to hire new employees. Even as the nation’s economy grows at a healthy 3.3%, unemployment has risen to nearly 11%.
“I would characterize the demands of the National Strike Committee as highly conservative, regressive and counter-reformist demands,” Restrepo said.
Orjuela, a former schoolteacher who participated in Colombia’s last major strike, in 1977, said protest organizers would be willing to support a pension reform as long as it involves a state and not a private-run system.
Even as they parse out the details, the committee’s general message decrying Duque has resonated widely, tapping into the myriad frustrations of Colombians.
For some it is big-picture issues like not fully implementing peace accords, endemic corruption and persistent economic inequality. For others it is small indignities, like relatively pricey public transportation that is also slow and overcrowded.
“The country is broken,” said Maria Cristina Cabra, an economist who hasn’t been able to find a well-paying job in her field. “Corruption has robbed us of everything.”
One unexpected sight in the protests has been that of giant plastic sharks hoisted by at least one protester at any given march denouncing a government decision allowing a certain amount of shark fishing.
“It’s like all the groups are feeding off each other,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, a human rights advocate with the Washington Office on Latin America.
Few expected that such a mixed bag of motivations could generate a prolonged protest and it remains to be seen how long it might drag on. Thus far, four people have died, hundreds have been injured and tens of millions of dollars have been lost from businesses shuttering during demonstrations.
The patience of some Colombians is beginning to wear thin.
Julio Contreras, a deliveryman who was tear gassed while trying to get 20 kilos (44 pounds) of chicken to restaurants, said he is ready for the protests to be done.
“They’re not letting us work,” he said. “The students should be in the universities and not affecting us.”
Associated Press writers Cesar Garcia and Manuel Rueda contributed to this report.