Colombian protesters march on capitals demanding economic aid, social change

People display signs during a protest demanding government action to tackle poverty, police violence and inequalities in healthcare and education systems, in Bogota, Colombia May 26, 2021. The signs read: "Teachers of the first line".

Protesters were marching in provincial capitals around Colombia on Wednesday to demand government concessions on economic support for the poor and other issues, following almost a month of widespread protests.

Demonstrations, which began in late April, have pressured the government and lawmakers into shelving tax and health reforms and prompted the exit of the former finance minister.

Protester demands have expanded to include a basic income, opportunities for young people and an end to police violence, including calls to scrap the riot police squad ESMAD.

The national strike committee – made up of unions, student groups and others – is demanding advances on what it refers to as emergency petitions.

The wide-ranging petitions include strengthening women’s rights, a moratorium on mortgage and utilities payments for four months and repealing emergency measures protest leaders say have worsened working conditions during the pandemic.

Bank employee Eduard Barragan, 29, watched a small group of protesters march in downtown Bogota. Although not demonstrating on Wednesday, he said he supported protests and had attended three.

“Protests affect us, but it’s preferable to go on strike for one, two, three months than to spend one’s whole life with so much corruption, without help from the state.”

Majority state-owned Ecopetrol (ECO.CN) has said it does not expect blockades connected to protests, which have caused shortages around the country, to affect its investment plan for the year, but could not predict how long protests will go on.

On Wednesday it decried blockades it said were preventing worker access to its Barrancabermeja refinery. The company said the blockades were backed by the main oil workers union, which supports marches, and put fuel supplies at risk.

Violence has marked demonstrations over the last four weeks. The government says 17 civilian deaths are directly connected with marches, while human rights groups claim dozens more. Two police officers have also died.

The attorney general’s office says it is seeking 129 people reported missing, while 290 have been found. Rights groups say the number of missing is much higher.

More than a week of talks between the government and protest leaders resulted in pre-agreements late on Monday, which are now under review by the strike committee’s assembly and government representatives.

In the face of international condemnation over the alleged use of excessive force by police, the government of President Ivan Duque has stressed its respect for peaceful protest, but repeatedly insisted road blocks are not legitimate protests and must be lifted.

There are 73 active road blocks, the defense ministry says.

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