(CN) — As popular protests engulf several South American countries, Colombia’s turn arrived Thursday. The broadest expression of political discontent in its modern history saw peaceful demonstrations in nearly 100 towns and cities.
Public transportation was shut down in the capital Bogotá and the nation’s third-largest city, Calí, where the protesters issued calls to resist violence.
The list of demands is extensive, as nearly every social and political organization in the country is expected to participate. University students demand increased funding for education and reduced tuition. Workers want higher wages, retirees better pensions. Indigenous protesters are outraged at the murders of their leaders. The left wants the government to make good on its promises of land reform.
Even the middle class is fed up with domination by the superwealthy and political class, according to the newsweekly Semana, and people and groups across the board have learned the power of instant connection via social media.
The national strike was announced by labor unions on Oct. 4, but drew little attention or media coverage at the time. The origin of the conflict was the announcement in 2018 of tax cuts for large companies and tax increases for the middle class.
Before his election in June 2018, President Ivan Duque had promised tax cuts but did not say the cuts would be for corporations only and that individuals would face tax increases. By the time the tax increases for the middle class were withdrawn, the president’s popularity rating had plunged to 29%, and his disapproval rating to nearly 70%, according to Semana and other Colombian news outlets. Duque had promised that corporate tax cuts would create jobs, but unemployment increased.
Student protests in late September this year were violently repressed by police. This led to solidarity protests that also were met with police violence, according to Colombia Reports, an English-language news website based in Medellín. Student organizations began weekly marches through the capital, Bogotá, and student leaders announced they would join the labor unions in the Nov. 21 national strike.
Meanwhile, television and internet sites brought news of widespread protests in Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia, and farther afield, uprisings in Hong Kong and Lebanon, and the first anniversary of the Yellow Vest protests in France.
Colombian human rights defenders, artists, LGBT groups, teachers, health workers, air traffic controllers and others joined the call for a national day of peaceful protest.
Colombian media reported this week that President Duque is afraid Thursday’s national strike is an attempted coup. He has ordered troops to the streets of Bogotá and closed all of the country’s land borders. Airports will be shut down due to the air controllers’ decision to join the strike.
Duque’s reputation took a severe hit this month when his controversial defense minister Guillermo Botero resigned as scandals were about to force him from office.
In one, photos his ministry released allegedly showing Venezuelan support for Colombian rebels were found to have been taken in Colombia. In another, his forces were implicated in the murder of two former rebels who had been demobilized and were unarmed. Then there was the bombing of a remote jungle hideout of an alleged drug gang in which eight children were killed. The public was outraged when the minister lied about the dead children and claimed they were combatants, according to Reuters.
Then came the dramatic defeat his party, the far-right Democratic Center, suffered in local elections in late October. At the same time his friend President Sebastián Piñera of Chile asked all of his ministers to resign amid an insurrection that has not subsided despite wage and pension raises and an agreement to rewrite the nation’s Pinochet-era constitution.
Duque, by contrast, has refused to make any concessions and has declared a state of emergency, giving expansive powers to local officials to arrest, use force and enforce curfews.
The unrest will not be limited to Bogotá. Most major cities and the impoverished countryside are expected to express solidarity with the general strike and call for the ouster of Duque.
Colombia is more than twice as large as all of Central America and has about the same population, roughly 50 million. The United States provides more military aid to only two countries, Israel and Egypt.
The U.S. has an undisclosed number of military personnel in Colombia, ostensibly to eradicate drugs and to help fight leftist guerrillas. The Pentagon has access to seven Colombian military bases — a sensitive point for decades throughout Latin America.
Chilean hero Pablo Neruda, later a Nobel Laureate and ambassador to France, had to go into hiding, with a price on his head, after he published a full-page ad in South American newspapers denouncing the presence of the U.S. military.
(Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.)