Pandemic Fails To Stop Colombia Protests

Indigenous people ride at the top of a 'chiva' (bus) while being part of a caravan to participate in a general strike against social and economic policies of Ivan Duque's government on October 21, 2020 in Bogota, Colombia. (Photo by Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images)

By Nelson Bocanegra

BOGOTA, Colombia, Thurs. Oct 22, 2020 (Reuters) – Thousands of union members, teachers, students and indigenous people again participated in a national strike in Colombia on Wednesday to protest the social and economic policies of President Ivan Duque, the killing of human rights activists and police violence.

The marches are the latest in a sporadic series of protests which began late last year, including September demonstrations against police brutality that led to 13 deaths.

The government has warned protesters that their gatherings increase the risk of novel coronavirus infections. Colombia, which was under lockdown for more than five months, is set to top one million confirmed infections later this week.

Protesters are demanding a variety of government concessions, including a guaranteed income for those who lost their jobs in the pandemic, more funding for health and education and steps to stop gender-based violence.

“We’re asking for no more massacres against our indigenous leaders,” said Harold Arias, 32, who is among thousands of indigenous people visiting Bogota to protest in Bolivar Plaza.

“We’re not scared of coronavirus. We’re scared of going back to our territories without getting a dialogue with the president.”

Protest leaders, including indigenous representatives, have demanded a meeting with Duque to discuss the murders of activists, whose deaths the government attributes to criminal gangs and leftist rebels.

“We march jointly today for the negotiation of an emergency petition, which will include health, life, farmer production, the rights of women, of vulnerable populations,” union leader Diogenes Orjuela said on Tuesday.

Some 10,000 indigenous people have arrived in Bogota this week, principally from southwestern Colombia.

“Not even the pandemic will stop our movement,” said Hermes Pete, head of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC).

The crowds of marchers could be “tomorrow’s outbreaks,” Duque said on his nightly television broadcast on Tuesday.

Business leaders have called for protests to be suspended on fears they could damage a nascent economic recovery. The government estimates the economy will contract 5.5% this year.

(Reporting by Nelson Bocanegra Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Grant McCool)