Colombian President Ivan Duque has met with political opponents and expressed more optimism than his critics about the progress made in calming more than a week of widespread and sometimes deadly street protests.
“We had a productive meeting with the coalition of hope, a great opportunity for dialogue, overcoming differences and without political scoring,” Duque wrote on social media on Friday, referring to the group of politicians.
But opposition attendees said Duke needed to do a lot of work to address demands for action against poverty, unemployment and end police violence.
The group “started talks with President Ivan Duque as an opposition and we came out as an opposition,” said Jorge Robledo, a senator from Colombia’s Dignity party.
“We set out our views and he set out his.”
They urged Duke to meet with civil society protest organizers.
Peaceful marches were held in Bogotá and Medellín, while traffic neighborhoods across the country slowed food deliveries, leading to rising prices.
Preventing the supply of food and other items, such as oxygen, is never justified, Duque said.
“Yes to the conversation … but not to roadblocks,” he told reporters. “They are not peaceful because they affect the rights of others.”
The government will meet with the national strike committee on Monday – made up of unions and other groups – but has said it is ready to hold the meeting sooner.
Demonstrations began last week in the Andean country fueled by outrage over a plan to raise sales taxes. This proposal was canceled, but the protesters’ demands now include a basic income and the withdrawal of a long-term health care reform that opponents have long said is too vague to address inequalities.
The human rights defender has reported 26 deaths since the protests began, but said seven were unrelated to the marches themselves. Defense group Human Rights Watch has reported 36 deaths and called police violence “alarming.”
The armed justice system said Thursday afternoon that a major man has been arrested for alleged homicide related to the death of a protester last weekend.
Protest groups are skeptical about the dialogue with Duque, saying similar talks have taken place shortly after the 2019 demonstrations.
The government must curb police violence, Green Party congresswoman Katherine Miranda said.
“The government has two sides. During the day, he offers dialogue and conciliation, but at night he only shows repression, ”he told Reuters.
One of the main demands of the protesters is the dissolution of the dreaded ESMAD riot police squad, which Duque has ruled out.
“Protests will continue until there is no outcome of the dialogue,” Francisco Maltes, president of the Central Workers’ Union (CUT), said in a video this week.
Some Colombians called for an end to the demonstrations.
“It simply came to our notice then [the tax reform]“Popular victory should have been declared,” Gustavo Petro, a left-wing senator and likely hopeful of the 2022 presidency, told Blu Radio on Friday.
“At the moment, there are no clear goals,” he said.
Poverty and unemployment increased during coronavirus closures, deepening entrenched social inequalities. Nearly half of Colombia’s 50 million people lived in poverty by the end of 2020, according to government statistics.
The talks offer a way forward, said Edward Rodriguez, a congressman for the Duke Democratic Center party.
“The success of the dialogue depends on listening to everyone,” Rodriguez said. “And that leads to public policy.”
Voters are likely to bring discontent to the polls in 2022, added Green Party Miranda, who predicted: “There will be a change in the country’s model. [of government]”.
Duke may not run next year, but continued demonstrations could hurt the chances of his party’s candidates.
What is happening in the protests “is not favorable for the government, nor for its party, nor for its electoral destiny in 2022,” said analyst Sergio Guzman of Colombia Risk Analysis.