Colombia witnessed its eighth consecutive day of protests on Wednesday against the government of President Iván Duque (5) – who in a speech to the nation pledged to listen to protesters and accused criminal groups of being behind the violence in the streets.
At least 24 people have died in the protests, more than 800 have been injured and 89 are missing, according to the Office of the Public Defender.
On Wednesday, thousands of people participated in the events in Medellín and Cali. In the capital, Bogotá, demonstrators gathered in Plaza de Bolívar in front of the presidential headquarters and a group attempted to enter Congress, but were dispersed by police. In addition, roads have been blocked across the country and unions have called a general strike.
The government says 550 people were arrested for participating in looting and vandalism. At dawn on Wednesday, some protesters even torched a police station in which ten officers were present – all of whom managed to escape.
“There will be no respite for those who committed these crimes. The whole of society will bring them to justice, ”said Duque, who again said groups linked to drug trafficking are responsible for the violence.
Despite the harsh speech, in which he promised rewards to those who spoke out against the acts of vandalism, Duque also confirmed that he would open a channel for dialogue with civil society to seek a consensus that will end the crisis.
The first meeting took place on Wednesday, but without the presence of the president – who had so far hesitated to negotiate with representatives of the demonstrators.
Unions and activists say that in 2019 Duke also vowed to listen to the streets after a series of protests, but the government failed to implement any of the measures proposed at the time.
The acts against the government began on April 28 as a peaceful protest in opposition to tax reform proposed by Duke.
Protesters are against tax increases and demand more social protection measures for workers affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Since 2019, the center-right Duque government has been trying to implement tax reform in the country – at that time there were intense conflicts.
In view of the strength of the protests, the Colombian leader took a step back and asked Congress to remove the draft from the agenda, promising to send in the future a new version of the text without the points that displease population. Despite this, the protests did not subside and also began to include other topics, such as improving health, education and security conditions, in addition to ending police abuses against protesters.
According to the president, the reformulated project will exclude both the increase in the tax on goods and services and the broadening of the taxpayer base, the most controversial points of the law. The reform is necessary to “give fiscal stability to the country, protect the social programs of the most vulnerable and generate the conditions for growth after the effects caused by the pandemic”, defended the president, who has a low popularity, around 33% .
The president also sacked Monday (3) the Minister of Finance, Alberto Carrasquilla, who had drafted the tax reform project, and who will be replaced by the economist José Manuel Restrepo, current holder of the Commerce portfolio. The president, however, sees demand for more layoffs gathering momentum on the streets. The demonstrators also want the departure of Defense Minister Diego Molano and Generals Luis Fernando Navarro, commander of the armed forces, and Jorge Luis Vargas, director of police.
The tension in Colombia also sparked protests from the UN, the European Union, the United States and human rights NGOs, who on Tuesday denounced the disproportionate use force by the police to control the demonstrations.