Union members, students, pensioners and workers have marched in anti-government protests around Colombia in a new national strike, as President Ivan Duque urged citizens to reject violence and stereotypes about demonstrators and police alike.
The sometimes deadly demonstrations were initially fuelled in late April by outrage at a now-cancelled tax plan. But protesters’ demands have expanded to include an end to police violence, economic support as the COVID-19 pandemic batters incomes, and the withdrawal of a health reform.
Duque has offered dialogue, but many protesters have voiced scepticism government promises will lead to change and talks with union and student leaders have so far proved fruitless.
Smaller demonstrations and road blockades have continued daily around the country, leading to shortages of goods and stymieing exports.
“It is unjust to paint everyone who expresses themselves peacefully in the streets as a vandal or as a terrorist or as a criminal,” Duque said during a meeting with dozens of youth leaders in Bogota.
“It is also unjust to generalise the behaviour of all the members of the security forces.”
The comments were more conciliatory than Duque’s discourse earlier in the protests, when he decried incidents of looting and attacks on police.
The human rights ombudsman has received reports of more than 40 civilian deaths amid the protests, though it has said at least seven are unrelated to the marches themselves. One police officer was also killed.
Local and international rights groups allege the death toll may be higher and have blamed the police. So far three officers face murder charges.
In the capital Bogota thousands marched to central Bolivar Square and the mayor urged people to return home early as demonstrators blocked mass transit routes.
Many Latin American countries – already deeply unequal and politically volatile – have been hit hard by the pandemic, which has rolled back recent anti-poverty strides.
Protests have been successful at putting pressure on the government but unions want clear rules before entering talks, Francisco Maltes, president of the Central Union of Workers said in a video posted on Facebook.