“You could die because you want peace”: Colombians split up over protests

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“You could die because you want peace”: Colombians split up over protests


NAt the start of two weeks after the mass anti-government protests began in Colombia at the end of April, President Iván Duque pledged a national dialogue on the issues raised by the young protesters, including free university classes.

“We know we need to take urgent action to generate hope and a future for our young people,” said Duque during a brief visit to Cali, a city of more than 2 million people that has been the scene of violent clashes.

But the government dismissed some of the protesters’ demands, such as a basic income, out of hand, and ignored broad calls for police reform. At least 47 people have died, according to local watchdogs Temblores and Indepaz, and local and international human rights organizations have accused police of the killings. Dozens of disciplinary investigations have been opened and three police officers have been charged with murder.

But the protests – mostly peaceful, some riots and destructive – have divided the Colombian population. “Unfortunately, in my town it was not a peaceful protest,” said Juan, 40, a doctor at Cali hospital.

“We are in the middle of the third Covid summit in Cali. In the last three to four weeks we have had 85-95% occupancy in the ICUs. My work at the hospital has been greatly affected by the blockades erected throughout and around the city.

“My hospital has been forced to cancel outpatient consultations and surgeries until further notice. We only see emergencies and are operating at maybe 10% of our capacity. “

Nurses at a hospital are making waves during protests in Bogotá on May 3. Photographie: Sebastian Barros / NurPhoto / REX / Shutterstock

Juan was among hundreds of people who responded to a call from a reader who asked him questions about the situation in Colombia.

Carolina, 26, a pediatrician in Bogotá, where protesters and police also clashed, is still on the side of the protesters. As the main breadwinner in her family, she finds it too risky to participate in walks herself, but tries to do her part by sharing information on social media to counter what she sees as an avalanche of false news in favor of the government.

“It’s difficult for me to go to the streets. My parents are afraid that I will not come back, but it frustrates me so much to see so many videos of my people facing the police and getting hurt, ”she said. “Our president ignores the complaints of the people and sends the army and the police to kill us.”

Carolina also feels abandoned by wealthier citizens who oppose the uprising and others in the ruling political class. “It’s pretty depressing to be afraid of dying and knowing that you can’t call the police because they are the ones who shoot.”

She admits some protesters damaged property and erected roadblocks, but blames a small minority. “Most of the protesters are peaceful,” she said. “We listen to the helicopters at night and the tanks passing through our neighborhoods. Whatever you do, you are a criminal in the eyes of the authorities and you could die simply because you desire peace, a better country and an uncorrupted government. We need international help. “

Riot police fired tear gas at protesters in Cali on May 10. Photograph: Luis Robayo / AFP / Getty Images

Carolina says Covid infections and deaths have increased in Bogotá since the protests began. “This is our country’s third summit, and possibly the worst to date. But believe me when I say people think government is more dangerous than Covid. As a pediatrician, I’m sick of starving children.

Carolina’s views mirror those of dozens of college students and young people in Cali, Bogotá, Medellín, Manizales, Barranquilla and elsewhere in the country who wrote via the appeal to express their support for the protests and their despair in the face of police crackdowns. .

Describing the poor living conditions, censorship, government blockades of social networks and police brutality, various adolescents, students and young professionals commented on the scenes of violence and disorder from their homes, too scared to leave.

Fabian, 25, a chemical engineer from Bogotá, fears the police will try to install protesters. “The police constantly provoke clashes with protesters, but we also suspect that plainclothes police are engaging in criminal activity to discredit protests and justify violence against people,” he said.

But this account does not convince everyone, with many believing that the social unrest has gone too far. Various Colombians who contacted the Guardian appeared to be shaken by reports that a pregnant woman lost her baby while stuck in an ambulance during a blockade.

Others cited reports on an incident in which protesters torched a police station in Bogotá with 10 policemen imprisoned inside.

Maria, 40, a human rights lawyer from Cali, says the destruction caused by the protests is inexcusable. “The situation in Colombia is getting worse by the second. Many demonstrators have an absolute lack of respect for human rights, ”she said.

Fernando, 60, web and graphic designer from Bogotá, initially sympathized with the protests but strongly disapproves of the disorder that is now plaguing his city. “Colombian democracy is under attack. What started as peaceful protests by unions and other citizens has turned into a bloody mess, ”he said.

Protesters are seen at a barricade as fires burn in Cali on May 11.
Protesters are seen at a barricade as fires burn in Cali on May 11. Photograph: Luis Robayo / AFP / Getty Images

However, Raúl *, 37, a self-proclaimed far-left activist from Palmira, a town about 27 km from Cali, is delighted.

“People like me had to keep a very low profile under this regime. Over the past 20 years, we, the true left-wing activists [were conflated with] the so-called “left” guerrillas who operate in certain regions of this country.

“These guerrillas were once far left political organizations inspired by the Cuban revolution, but now they are just armed organizations that profit from the drug trade and are at war with the regime.

“We had a hard time fighting for workers in unions, for human rights, by selling our publications and expressing our political beliefs because every type of protest by the oppressed or the workers was instantly seen as an activity. Marxist, and as if linked to the guerrillas.

“I’m so happy right now. It’s like coming out of a very long dark night. Now I can openly participate in political activities. I can finally say what I think.

*The name has been changed

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