After a month of protests in which 46 people have suffered eye injuries from police teargas rounds and rubber bullets, a Colombian politician has prompted outrage by saying that supporters of the anti-poverty demonstrations should “stop crying over one eye”.
“Don’t fool Colombians and don’t fool the international community and stop crying over one eye,” said Paola Holguín, a senator from the ruling Centro Democrático party, to opposition politicians during a virtual floor speech on Wednesday afternoon.
Since protests erupted in April, the police response has been brutal. At least 43 protesters have been killed by officers, according to local human rights monitor, Temblores, with mounting reports of arbitrary detention, torture and sexual abuse of protesters at the hands of police.
Forty-six people have suffered eye injuries, prompting speculation that police were intentionally seeking to blind protesters. A similar tactic was used by police in Chile during a wave of unrest that began there in late 2019.
“We worry that Holguín’s speech legitimizes the violent actions of state forces,” said Alejandro Lanz, the director of Temblores. “These expressions of violence, coming from representatives of governing parties, are generating material impacts on the streets.”
President Iván Duque and his allies have attempted to blame the protests on opposition politicians and holdout leftist rebel groups that did not go along with a 2016 peace process which formally ended the country’s 52-year civil war.
Holguín’s impassioned speech, given ahead of a senate vote on whether to censure the Colombian defense minister over the police response to the violence, also referred to damage to property caused by protesters.
On Tuesday night, a courthouse in the south-western city of Tuluá was burned to the ground amid scenes of chaos and vandalism. Roadblocks set up by protesters have also impeded the flow of food, petrol and medical supplies in certain areas of the country.
“You think that human rights aren’t for everyone, but only for those you care about,” Holguín said in her speech to lawmakers, and went on to accuse rights groups of inflating the statistics on police brutality. The senator later claimed her comments had been taken out of context and manipulated on social media.
The backlash was swift, with one prominent activist, Catherine Javinao, calling on Holguín’s ruling party to allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to enter the country and observe the conduct of police and protesters, which the government has resisted.
Another Twitter user asked succinctly: “How many Colombians with only one eye can see more than Paola Holguín?”