‘You might die because you desire peace’: Colombians split on protests

Guardian readers in Colombia comment on scenes of violence while some say they can finally speak their minds as others believe the unrest has gone too far

Nearly two weeks after mass anti-government protests kicked off in Colombia at the end of April, President Iván Duque has promised a national dialogue over issues raised by young demonstrators, including free university tuition.

“We know we must take urgent steps to generate hope and a future for our youth,” Duque said during a brief visit to Cali, a city of over 2 million that has beeen the setting for violent clashes.

But the government has dismissed out of hand some of the protesters’ demands, such as a basic income, 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 organisations have blamed police for the killings. Dozens of disciplinary investigations have been launched, and three officers have been charged with murder.

But the protests – mostly peaceful, some riotous and destructive – have divided the Colombian population. “Unfortunately, in my city this has not been a peaceful protest,” Juan, 40, a hospital doctor in Cali, said.

“We are in the middle of the third Covid peak in Cali. For the last three to four weeks, we’ve had 85-95% occupancy in ICUs. My work at the hospital has been hugely affected by the blockades erected across and around the city.

“My hospital was forced to cancel ambulatory consultations and surgeries, until further notice. We are only seeing emergencies and are operating at perhaps 10% capacity.”

Nurses from a hospital wave during demonstrations in Bogotá, Colombia, on 3 May.
Nurses from a hospital wave during demonstrations in Bogotá on 3 May. Photograph: Sebastian Barros/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

Juan is one of hundreds of people who responded to a reader callout asking about the situation in Colombia.

Carolina, 26, a paediatrician in Bogotá, where demonstrators and police have also clashed, is still on the side of the protesters. As the main breadwinner in her family, she feels it’s too risky to participate in marches herself, but tries to do her bit by sharing information on social media to counter what she considers an avalanche of fake news in favour of the government.

“It’s hard for me to go to the streets. My parents are worried I’m not going to come back, but it frustrates me so much to see so many videos of my people facing the police and being hurt,” she says. “Our president ignores the complaints of the people and sends the military and police to kill us.”

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

She concedes that some protesters have damaged property and erected blockades, but blames a small minority. “Most protesters are peaceful,” she says. “We listen to the helicopters at night, and the tanks driving through our neighborhoods. No matter what you do, you are a criminal in the eyes of the authorities, and you might die just because you desire peace, a better country and a non-corrupt government. We need international help.”

Riot police officers fire teargas at demonstrators in Cali on 10 May.
Riot police officers fire teargas at demonstrators in Cali on 10 May. Photograph: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Carolina says Covid infections and deaths increased in Bogotá since the protests began. “This is the third peak in our country, and maybe the worst one so far. But believe me when I say people think the government is more dangerous than Covid. As a paediatrician, I’m tired of seeing children sick with hunger.”

Carolina’s views mirror those of scores of university students and young people from Cali, Bogotá, Medellín, Manizales, Barranquilla and elsewhere in the country who wrote in via the callout to express their support for the protests, and their despair over police crackdowns.

Decrying poor living conditions, censorship, social media blockades by the government and police brutality, various teenagers, 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 police are trying to set up demonstrators. “The police constantly provoke clashes with protesters, but we also suspect that plain-clothed police are engaging in criminal activities to discredit the protests and justify the violence against people,” he said.

But this narrative is not persuading everyone, with many people believing the social unrest has gone too far. Various Colombians who contacted the Guardian appeared shaken by reports of a pregnant woman lost her baby while stuck in an ambulance at a blockade.

Others cited reports of an incident in which protesters set fire to a police station in Bogotá with 10 officers trapped inside.

Maria, 40, a human rights attorney from Cali, believes the destruction the protests have brought is inexcusable. “The situation in Colombia is worsening by the second. Many protesters have an absolute lack of respect for human rights,” she said.

Fernando, 60, a web and graphic designer from Bogotá, initially sympathized with the demonstrations, but strongly disapproves of the disorder that is now gripping his city. “Colombia’s democracy is under attack. What started as peaceful protests from labour unions and other citizens has ended in a bloody mess,” he said.

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

However Raúl*, 37, a self-proclaimed far-left activist from Palmira, a city about 17 miles from Cali, is elated.

“People like myself had to keep a really low profile under this regime. Over the past 20 years we, the real far-left activists [were conflated with] the so-called ‘leftist’ guerrillas that operate in some regions of this country.

“These guerrillas used to be far-left political organisations inspired by the Cuban revolution, but now they are just armed organisations that profit from drug traffic and are at full war against the regime.

“We had a really hard time fighting for workers in the unions, for people’s rights, selling our publishings and expressing our political beliefs because every kind of demonstration of the oppressed or workers was instantly perceived as a Marxist activity, and as guerrilla-related.

“I am so happy right now. It’s like coming out of a really long dark night. Now, I can openly participate in political activities. I can, at last, speak my mind.”

*Name has been changed

Contributors

Jedidajah Otte and Guardian readers

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