Colombia protests marred by violence and 490 COVID-19 deaths

Courtesy: MIO

The national strike day summoned by trade unions, civic organizations and left-wing parties to protest against a tax reform bill making its way through Congress began in Bogotá like a sequel to every other Paro Nacional. As percussion ensembles accompanied the labor leaders gathered at Parque Nacional, thousands of peaceful demonstrators made their way towards Plaza de Bolivar to voice their discontent over the economic policies of President Iván Duque.

Even though the Ministry of Health and district administration of Mayor Claudia López had urged the strike committee to postpone the protest until the Colombian capital had passed the third wave of coronavirus infection, demonstrators thronged the historic square in heavy rainfall, some under umbrellas, others crammed in doorways of local shops.

Then, a repeat of the first Paro Nacional summoned on November 21, 2019, as a horde of vandals began to rip the drapes of scaffolding, tear down protective barricades in front of the Palace of Justice and hurl stones at riot police. The National Police’s ESMAD squad responded to the vandals by teargassing their advance, and within minutes, the largely peaceful demonstration dissipated into the colonial side streets of La Candelaria. As the weather worsened many protestors heeded the call of Mayor López to make their way home by 5 pm when the city’s mass transportation system TransMilenio would suspend operations given the risk of vandalism to stations and buses.

While rolling confrontations between protestors and the police continued during the afternoon before the mandated city-wide 8 pm health curfew, Mayor López urged for calm and released the assessment of damage to local infrastructure. “There is no sense of alarm or security risk to neighborhoods,” stated López, after a day in which 36 TM stations and 163 buses were targeted by vandals. According to the district’s Government Secretariat Luis Ernesto Gómez, confrontations between security forces and rioters also resulted in 31 persons injured, including members of the police. Gómez highlighted that 15 persons were arrested during the disturbances.

As peaceful protestors joined workers in long walks under the cover of night to reach their homes, the Ministry of Health issued the day’s coronavirus bulletin confirming an additional 19, 745 cases and 490 deaths. Numbers that set a tragic record for the country during 14 months of the pandemic. From the 490 fatalities, 70 were registered in Bogotá.

For many Bogotanos the Paro Nacional of 28A represented another day of businesses forced to close early, road blockages with sit-ins and marches that end in a cacophony of pot banging from balconies – a popular form of protest known as “cacerolazo.”

The Paro Nacional, however, unfolded very differently in Cali, 460-km southwest of Bogotá, where from 3 pm all residents were placed under strict curfew after violence engulfed Colombia’s third-largest city. The day’s events in the agricultural heartland of Valle del Cauca began with rioters setting fire to tires along the main road that connects the industrial city Yumbo with the departmental capital. Then, the attempted toppling of one of the city’s most famous landmarks and monument to Cali’s founder Sebastián de Belalcázar (1480-1551).

Perpetrated by members of the Misak indigenous peoples, while the conquistador was being bent out of shape, police proceeded to dispersed the iconoclasts given a rapidly deteriorating security situation in the downtown area. Extensive looting to shops, including one Exito outlet in the neighbourhood of Simón Bolívar where honorable citizens organized themselves to return stolen electronics – chanting “The Good are More!” – was overshadowed by widespread destruction to the articulated bus system MIO.

The terrorizing of office workers by armed vandals who proceeded to smash the windows of banks, the national tax office DIAN and Mayoralty, forced Mayor Jorge Iván Ospina to order the military to take back the streets from criminal gangs. Colombia’s Minister of Defense Diego Molano authorized 450 troops to join the Cali police force in establishing public order as fires burned under the palms of Plaza Caycedo. The riots in Cali left 80 persons injured during a week in which health workers are overwhelmed with coronavirus patients.

Public outrage over the extensive destruction witnessed in Cali has marred the objective of the Paro Nacional to revoke a tax reform bill that looks to levy US$7 billion in additional revenue to pay for the deficit worsened by the pandemic. While the two million residents of Colombia’s salsa capital remain in lockdown until Sunday morning, former right-wing President Álvaro Uribe Vélez has called for the Army to militarize the streets “to receive the support of citizens knowing that they are here to act and prevent vandalism.” The President’s Tweet came hours after the National Strike Committee announced that they will continue mass demonstrations on Thursday irrespective of the coronavirus health emergency that has catapulting Bogotá’s ICU capacity to breaking point.