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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Colombians again protest amid new tax plan

Bogota, Colombia: Thousands of people once again took to the streets in Colombia on Tuesday in anti-government demonstrations. Widespread demonstrations came as the government unveiled a new version of an unpopular tax reform plan that sparked initial protests in April, but observers say they quell the long-standing political turmoil in the South American country. point to.

At least 34 people were killed in the violence surrounding the attacks earlier this year, and many went missing in the conflicts.

This time, it is not clear how many people have been injured in clashes between protesters and the police.

A demonstrator clenches a crowd during anti-government demonstrations on July 20, 2021 in Bogota, Colombia. (Megan Zanetsky/VOA)

The “Paro Nacional” or national strike, which began in late April, was an outcry against an unpopular tax reform bill and the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic. It soon exploded, however, largely as a violent state reaction to peaceful protests.

Those tensions once again surfaced on Tuesday on the streets of the capital Bogota and other cities across the country, including Cali and Medellin.

Yellow, blue and red Colombian flags dispersed crowds in Bogota to celebrate the country’s independence day, July 20, as groups of marchers chanted “Donde estón los desparecidos?” or “Where are you missing?”

Among them was 19-year-old Michele Calderón, who wore a bicycle helmet to protect his head, and whose face was covered by a Colombian flag bandana reading “resistancia,” “resistance” in Spanish.

“They say they have no money,” Calderone said. “But they have money to wage war. There is no money for health services – for education, for unemployment, but there is always money for tanks, for guns, for bullets.”

Protesters Michel Calderón and Diego Parra take part in anti-government demonstrations in Bogota, Colombia on July 20, 2021. (Megan Janetsky/VOA)

This new round of marches also ended in violent clashes between police and protesters, although there were fewer incidents than at the beginning of this year.

Still, by the end of the day on Tuesday, clouds of tear gas hovered over the spot where Calderone had stood hours earlier, and clashes between police and protesters echoed in the streets of the nation’s capital.

In April and May, the government of right-wing President Ivan Duque made several concessions to protesters, including withdrawing tax reform proposals and promising small reforms to the national police, including human rights training for riot police.

As Colombians revived their street protests, Duque’s government presented Congress a new version of the controversial tax reform law, which cut out many unpopular aspects, such as taxing basic food staples and high taxes on companies. tax burden.

deep problems

But critics dismiss those concessions as modest and say they fail to address Colombia’s deeper problems.

Ariel Avila, deputy director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation research group, said the protests continued because the underlying problems fueling dissent in Colombia remain.

“They have achieved important things, but the structural problems have not gone away,” Avila said. “But people are protesting because there is no food, people are marching because there are no jobs. It hasn’t changed.”

Thousands take to the streets in anti-government demonstrations in Bogota, Colombia, on July 20, 2021. (Megan Zanetsky/VOA)

The South American country has been locked in political and social tensions for years. Much of the anger has come from the Duke administration’s failures to implement historic peace agreements signed in 2016 by the previous government, a political adversary.

As a result, violence by rural armed groups returned in Colombia, fueling the first “Paro Nacional” in 2019, one of the largest mass demonstrations the country has seen in years.

That discontent only escalated into the pandemic as poverty, unemployment, rural violence and political polarization mounted across the board, leading to this year’s protests.

Protester Xoman Montiel takes part in anti-government demonstrations in Bogota, Colombia on July 20, 2021. (Megan Zanetsky/VOA)

“We’re all the same tired,” said 31-year-old Jhoman Montiel, leaning on his bike amid a crowd of thousands. “We are tired of coming out to demand to live better, because there are only a few people who live well.”

action

The response of security forces to the demonstrations has been criticized by international rights groups. In early July, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights accused the Duke government of “excessive and disproportionate use of force” against civilians.

In the face of criticism, the Duke government considers violence a product of what his administration labels as “terrorist” protesters and armed groups trying to spread chaos.

The authorities had started action even before the protest started on Tuesday. They arrested several young protesters who had previously clashed with the police and announced that they would seize protective gear such as shields, helmets, goggles and respirators from the protesters.

Colombia’s Defense Minister Diego Molano Aponte tweeted a photo of the arrested protesters: “We will not allow violent people to rob the Colombian peace once again.”

Nevertheless, teenage guard Calderon was still among many who carried a helmet with him, explaining that she was afraid of what might happen if she didn’t protect herself.

“You are afraid that they banish you and that no one will ever find you, that they will kill you or, in my case, that they will rape you,” she explained, reporting sexual violence by riot police. Referring to.

As the protests intensified in the afternoon, largely peaceful demonstrations were met with tear gas by packs of police on motorcycles and heavily armed riot police. In Bogota, tanks rolled into streets full of people and fireballs were fired at protesters, while videos in Cali and other major Colombian cities show similarly violent scenes.

slow churn crisis

Nevertheless, Colombian analyst Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group quickly noted that Colombian security forces had clearly learned a lesson from the sharp criticism of their previous demonstrations.

A demonstrator stands on a painted outline of bodies representing Colombians who disappeared during previous protests in Bogota on July 20, 2021. (Megan Janetsky/VOA)

Dickinson told the VOA he expects the crisis to last until the upcoming elections in May 2022, largely because of a lack of “significant or substantive response” by the Duke administration to the demonstrative demands.

They worry that continued protests could provide opportunities for armed groups to close security vacancies and fuel more violence in the country.

“I think what we’re going to see in the next months is a gradual crisis, which is dangerous,” she said.

Meanwhile, Calderone and several other protesters said they planned to continue the protest.

“Young generation, we are the change,” Calderone said. “And if we don’t do anything, we’ll continue to do so. If we don’t come out to march, who will defend us?”

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