May 27, 2021 - World

Colombia's protests rumble on into their second month

Protests in Medellin on May 19. Photo: Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP via Getty

Colombia has been wracked by protests for a month, with critical supplies cut off due to roadblocks, another nationwide strike expected on Friday and accusations of police brutality growing louder.

Why it matters: "Things are worsening every single day," says Marta Lucía Ramírez, Colombia's vice president and foreign minister. She says the roadblocks are preventing food and critical medical supplies like oxygen from being transported between Cali — the epicenter of the protests — and the capital, Bogotá.

Speaking to a small group of reporters Thursday at the Colombian ambassador's residence in Washington, Ramírez said the roadblocks and the destruction of public transport systems were "destroying the conditions for normal life."

  • She described Colombia's crisis as a worrying test for the country's democracy, in part because of the intense political polarization on display.

The big picture: The protests began on April 28 over tax reforms proposed by conservative President Iván Duque. The reforms were withdrawn, but the protests grew into a major social movement focused on poverty and inequality that has drawn tens of thousands into the streets.

  • The protests have attracted international attention mainly due to allegations of police brutality and the rising death toll, which the government puts at 17 but human rights groups say is at least 50. Four police officers have been charged with homicide.
  • At least 55 Congressional Democrats have called for the Biden administration to cut off assistance to the Colombian National Police over the alleged abuses.
  • Ramírez met on Thursday with members of Congress as well as USAID director Samantha Power and Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere. She'll meet with Secretary of State Tony Blinken on Friday.
  • She asked the Biden administration for donations or loans of coronavirus vaccines and other help in fighting the pandemic, which she says is driving the social unrest.

What she's saying: "We agree that there are so many reasons to be concerned about the future, to have some fears for the future. So many people have lost their jobs [and] loved ones," she said. Poverty has spiked to such an extent that "in a year we lost so many years of efforts."

  • At least some of the frustrations pre-date the pandemic, as the unpopular Duque also faced large protests in 2019.
  • As for the anger around police brutality, Ramírez said it resembled the aftermath of George Floyd's killing in the U.S.

What's next: Ramírez said the strike leaders were making demands like a basic income for 30 million Colombians that would be "impossible" to deliver due to budget constraints and that they're "not in a hurry" to make a deal despite entering into negotiations with the government.

  • Thus, she fears the crisis could drag on for some time.

Worth noting: As the meeting ended, Ramírez mentioned that one reason for the divisions in Colombian society was that men were in charge — a possible signal of her own ambitions ahead of the presidential elections next year.

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