Protesters in Colombia decry government pandemic response

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An Indigenous woman marches during a national strike in Bogota, Colombia, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. Workers’ unions, university students, human rights defenders, and Indigenous communities have gathered for a day of protest in conjunction with a national strike across Colombia. The protest is against the assassinations of social leaders, in defense of the right to protest and to demand advances in health, income and employment. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Protesters filled a historic square in Colombia’s capital Wednesday to demonstrate against the government’s handling of a wide range of issues including the economic fallout of the pandemic and implementation of the peace accord.

Indigenous leaders, students and union members gathered at the Plaza Bolivar waving flags and banners decrying the government nearly one year after massive protests rocked the country only to fizzle with little to show by way of reform.

The COVID-19 pandemic had largely put a halt to demonstrations this year, but organizers were hoping to renew momentum after the government lifted six months of strict quarantine measures aimed at containing the virus.

“There are lot of people going to sleep hungry and waking up hungry,” union organizer Julio Roberto Gómez told Colombia’s BLU Radio.

Colombia is on track to reach 1 million confirmed virus cases this week and is one of the hardest hit nations in Latin America. Millions of jobs have been lost and unemployment reached nearly 17% in August. Though President Iván Duque’s approval rating has improved during the pandemic, the country remains divided on a host of issues.

“It’s very difficult for President Duque to carve a path forward without further dividing society,” said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis.

The protest Wednesday follows a demonstration earlier in the week by thousands of Indigenous people who journeyed to the capital in brightly colored buses and pickup trucks demanding to meet with Duque on issues like mining concessions and escalating violence amid setbacks in the implementation of the 2016 peace accord.

The agreement with the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to end Latin America’s longest running conflict remains a source of contention in the nation. Duque and his allies are critical of the agreement, which they contend offers too many concessions to ex-guerrillas, who are largely able to avoid any jail time.

Critics contend his government has stymied the deal’s progress, resulting in a renewal of violence in areas still ripe with drug trafficking.

Indigenous protesters participated in the gathering Wednesday, joining a chorus of complaints and requests that Duque set up negotiations. Thus far, he has refused to meet, angering organizers, though he has sent intermediaries.

Gómez said Duque needed to step down from “a pedestal of arrogance.” He added that protesters want better solutions for those who have lost jobs and discuss proposals like a universal basic income to help the vulnerable.

Though thousands of people had gathered at the Plaza Bolivar by early afternoon, the protests did not appear to be as large as last year, when massive numbers filled city blocks. Though Chile has seen recent protests, other Latin American nations that saw unrest last year have not, suggesting the pandemic has hampered demonstrations.

“This protest comes at a time of less protests around Latin America,” Guzman said. “I think Colombia is alone in the room.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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