By Sinikka Tarvainen, dpa
HAVANA TIMES – Colombians across the country on Thursday took to the streets to demonstrate against liberal economic policies and armed conflict amid fears from the government that the country could join the violent protest wave sweeping other Latin American countries.
Thousands of protesters were streaming into Bogota’s central Bolivar Square, while the surrounding streets were filled to the brim. Demonstrators carried placards reading: “The people are greater than their leaders” and “President, resign.”
The protests proceeded largely peacefully. Clashes with police were reported in Suba near Bogota and in the city of Cali, where seven police officers were injured, according to police chief Oscar Atehortua.
Road blocks and acts of vandalism were reported in several places. Atehortua put the number of demonstrators nationwide at more than 130,000.
The marches and a general strike had been called by trade unions and groups representing students, farmers, women, indigenous people and people of African descent.
President Ivan Duque’s conservative government feared that Colombia could see violence similar to that in Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador, where dozens of people were killed in recent protests.
Duque on Wednesday evening addressed the nation to appeal for peace. The government imposed heavy security measures, including the closure of Colombia’s borders and granting permission to governors and mayors to declare curfews in their areas.
Large numbers of soldiers have been deployed in Bogota.
The demonstrations opposed alleged government plans to raise the pension age and to lower young people’s minimum wage, though Duque has denied having such intentions.
Protesters were also demanding more funding for education, the full implementation of the 2016 peace deal with the guerrilla group FARC and stronger action to protect its former fighters and leaders, hundreds of whom have been killed by armed groups in recent years.
“The government has turned its back on the peace process,” musician Miguel Guerra, 31 told dpa before joining the protests in Bogota. “I also don’t agree with the economic system, with only the big companies getting support from the government.”
“This country is breaking into pieces,” said Clara Ines Guerrero, 68, who was also about to join.
The historian saw the demonstrations in Colombia as being related to those in other Latin American countries in that “the neoliberal system is beginning to show cracks.”
The system based on the defense of “big capital” has eroded people’s rights and is facing “a crisis that is now coming to a head in many places,” Guerrero added.
Some people were afraid to attend the protests in case of violence. “I don’t like this government, which does not defend the poor, but I don’t dare go to the rally,” said Jessica, a 21-year-old student.
Duque has accused leftist Venezuela of planning to send agitators to the protests. Influential Senator Alvaro Uribe, regarded as the president’s mentor, said the Foro de Sao Paulo group of leftist parties and organizations was instigating such rallies to “destabilize democracies” in Latin America.
The security measures have prompted accusations that the government is trying to intimidate people into not joining the protests by creating an atmosphere of fear.
Duque’s critics say his apparent reluctance to implement key aspects of the 2016 peace deal, such as reintegrating former FARC fighters into society and developing rural areas, has led to some of the ex-rebels taking up arms again.
Dissidents of the group are already active in the countryside, where they vie for influence with the other rebel organization National Liberation Army (ELN) as well as paramilitary and criminal groups.
Opinion polls show that Duque’s approval ratings have plunged to less than 30 per cent since he took office in August 2018.