Colombia, Strained by Pandemic and Economic Hardship, Explodes in Protest

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — A teen shot to death after kicking a police officer. A younger man bleeding out on the road as protesters shout for assist. Police firing on unarmed demonstrators. Helicopters swarming overhead, tanks rolling by way of neighborhoods, explosions echoing in the streets. A mom crying for her son.

“We are destroyed,” mentioned Milena Meneses, 39, whose solely son Santiago, 19, was killed in a protest over the weekend.

Colombians demonstrating over the previous week in opposition to the poverty and inequality which have worsened the lives of tens of millions because the Covid-19 pandemic started have been met with a robust crackdown by their authorities, which has responded to the protests with the identical militarized police pressure it usually makes use of in opposition to insurgent fighters and organized crime.

This explosion of frustration in Colombia, consultants say, might presage unrest throughout Latin America, the place a number of nations face the identical flamable mixture of an unrelenting pandemic, rising hardship and plummeting authorities income.

“We are all connected,” mentioned León Valencia, a political analyst, noting that previous protests in Latin America have been contagious, leaping from nation to nation. “This could spread across the region.”

On Wednesday, after seven days of marches and clashes that turned elements of Colombian cities into battlefields, demonstrators breached protecting obstacles across the nation’s Congress, attacking the constructing earlier than being repelled by police.

Several individuals in the political celebration of President Iván Duque are asking him to declare a state of siege, which might grant him broad new powers.

The clashes have left no less than 24 individuals useless, most of them demonstrators, and no less than 87 lacking, and they’ve exacerbated the anger with officers in the capital, Bogotá, who many protesters say are more and more out of contact with individuals’s on a regular basis lives.

On Wednesday, Helena Osorio, 24, a nurse, stood on the fringe of a rally in Bogotá.

“I am in pain for Colombia, I am in pain for my country,” she mentioned. “All that we can do to make ourselves heard is to protest,” she went on, “and for that they are killing us.”

The marches started final week after Mr. Duque proposed a tax overhaul meant to shut a pandemic-related financial shortfall. By Sunday, amid demonstrations throughout the nation, he rescinded the plan.

But the unrest has not abated. Instead, fueled by outrage on the authorities’s response, the crowds have solely grown.

Demonstrators now embody academics, medical doctors, college students, members of main unions, longtime activists and Colombians who’ve by no means earlier than taken to the streets.

Truckers are blocking main highways. And on Tuesday, demonstrators in the capital burned buses and lit over a dozen police stations on hearth, singing the nationwide anthem, yelling “assassins!” and sending officers operating for his or her lives.

“This is not just about the tax reform,” mentioned Mayra Lemus, 28, a schoolteacher standing not removed from the nurse on Wednesday. “This is about corruption, inequality and poverty. And all of us young people are tired of it.”

The demonstrations are, in half, a continuation of a motion that swept South America in late 2019, as individuals took to the streets in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua and elsewhere.

May 5, 2021, 6:26 p.m. ET

Each nation’s protest was completely different. But in all of them, individuals voiced their grievances over restricted alternative, widespread corruption and officers who seemed to be working in opposition to them.

Then got here the pandemic. Latin America was one of many areas hardest hit by the virus in 2020, with cemeteries filling previous capability, the sick dying whereas ready for care in hospital hallways, and relations spending the night time in traces to purchase medical oxygen in an try to preserve family members alive.

The area’s economies shrank by a mean of seven %. In many locations, unemployment, significantly among the many younger, spiked.

Then, in Colombia, Mr. Duque introduced his tax reform, one of many first makes an attempt in the area to attempt to take care of the financial shortfall exacerbated by the pandemic. While the measure would have saved in place a important pandemic-era money subsidy, it might have additionally raised costs on many on a regular basis items and companies.

Soon, long-brewing resentment spilled over into the streets.

On Tuesday, Mr. Duque mentioned he would open a nationwide dialogue to search out resolution to fiscal issues and different challenges.

“It is vital to have all the institutions, parties, the private sector, governors, mayors and leaders of civil society” in dialog he mentioned. “The results of this space will be translated into initiatives we can act upon quickly.”

But the decision for nationwide dialogue was just like one he made in 2019, and many civil society teams have mentioned that dialogue produced few outcomes.

Mr. Duque, a conservative, has lost significant popularity because the starting of the pandemic, in line with polling from the agency Invamer. And analysts say he’s at his weakest level since he got here to office in 2018.

The police and army response has made a nationwide dialog constructed round compromise extraordinarily troublesome, mentioned Sandra Borda, a political analyst and columnist for the newspaper El Tiempo.

“He has no political capital,” she mentioned. “People cannot sit down to dialogue with a government that by night kills people who protest and by day extends a hand in conversation.”

“I think there will be a lot of upheaval,” she went on. “And I think this next year and a half will be terrible for the government, terrible for Colombian society and with very few long-term solutions.”

Colombia will maintain presidential elections in 2022. For many years, the nation has elected conservative leaders. But Gustavo Petro, a left-wing former mayor of Bogotá and former member of a demobilized guerrilla group, now leads in the polls. Mr. Duque, restricted by regulation to 1 time period, can’t run for re-election.

The authorities’s response to the latest protests might be a major issue in subsequent year’s vote.

On Saturday night time, Santiago Murillo, 19, a pupil in his ultimate year of highschool, was headed again to the house he shares along with his mother and father in the midsize metropolis of Ibagué, and crossed by way of a crowded protest.

Two blocks from house, in line with his mom, photographs rang out and he fell to the bottom. In a video, a witness will be heard shouting.

“Is he OK?” the witness says. “Can he breathe? Breathe! Breathe! Breathe!”

A passing deliveryman loaded Mr. Murillo onto his motorcycle and rushed him to a clinic. There, his mom’s anguished cries had been captured on tape. “Son, take me with you! Son, I want to be with you!”

Doctors couldn’t revive him, and resident of Ibagué held a protest vigil in his identify the following day.

“I asked them to protest civilly,” mentioned his mom, “in peace.”

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