Colombia has entered its eighth day of nationwide anti-government protests, with police firing tear gas at crowds in the capital, Bogotá, after attacking a police station.
To date, 24 deaths have been confirmed, about half of which were linked to police violence; some independent groups say the death toll stands at 37. Colombia’s Defensoría del Pueblo, its public ombudsperson, said 89 people were missing as a result of the protests. International organizations, such as the European Union and the United Nations Human Rights Office, have warned against the use of excessive force.
The protests were sparked by a tax reform plan that has since been canceled. But the protests continued, turning into calls for the government to tackle growing poverty, inequality and police violence.
The tax increase that President Iván Duque insisted on repairing the country’s economy has been dropped, and Duque said he would seek a new one. The Andean country’s economy fell nearly 7% last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Lockdowns linked to the pandemic have deepened inequalities in Colombia, with 42.5% of the country’s population now living in poverty.
Duque said his government would create “spaces” for civil society groups, political parties and the private sector to meet with government officials. Some groups say he failed to keep similar promises during the 2019 protests.
In a video on Wednesday, Duque repeated claims by other government officials that criminal organizations were hiding among the protesters. “The extreme vandalism and urban terrorism that we are seeing is funded and articulated by drug trafficking mafias,” he said.
Colombia is a close ally of the United States, which makes the situation a delicate balancing act for the Biden administration.
Juan S. Gonzalez, who heads the National Security Council’s Western Hemisphere Affairs office, struck a diplomatic tone in a tweet on Wednesday.
Gonzalez, who was born in Colombia, said that “the right to demonstrate peacefully is a fundamental freedom,” adding, “Unnecessary destruction is not. Violence that puts lives at risk is not. And adherence to the use of force standards is NOT negotiable. ”
Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Has glanced at Colombian leftists, echoing the Colombian government’s claims, as the affinity between the Colombian right and some members of the American Republican Party appears to be growing stronger.
In a tweet Thursday, retweeted by former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and Colombian conservative Senator María Fernanda Cabal, Rubio wrote: “Behind much of the violence happening in #Colombia this week, there is an orchestrated effort to destabilize a government democratically elected by the leftist narco. guerrilla movements and their international Marxist allies.
The country is intensely polarized in the run-up to its presidential elections next May. Socialist candidate Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla, leads in recent polls.
On Tuesday, the US State Department said in a statement on the situation in Colombia that “all over the world, citizens of democratic countries have the unquestioned right to demonstrate peacefully.”
“Violence and vandalism are an abuse of this right,” he said.
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