Colombia protesters: We’re not scared anymore

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By Manuel Rueda
Bogotá, Colombia

Art teacher Ramiro Velasco at a protest in Bogotá on 12 May 2021

Anti-government protests in Colombia entered their third week on Wednesday. The demonstrations were sparked by a government proposal to increase taxes as millions of people have seen their incomes shrink due to Covid. But they have continued for days even after the government withdrew its proposed tax plan.

Protest leaders say their demands now go much further and include calls for a basic income scheme, free tuition at public universities and a reform of the police. Forty-two people have been killed during the protests, according to Colombia’s human rights ombudsman.

Protesters spoke to the BBC about their reasons for keeping up the demonstrations, which are the largest to sweep through Colombia in decades.

Yacila, political scientist

Yacila at a protest in Bogotá on 12 May 2021

There is a lot of discontent at the national level and it goes further than the issue of taxes. It’s caused by all the injustices that have been taking place during the [Iván] Duque government and during previous governments.

Hundreds of community leaders have been killed since the peace deal with the Farc (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) was signed in 2016, including indigenous and black leaders.

We have a poster here with the names of almost 300 former Farc fighters who were killed after laying down their weapons. On top of that what we are seeing is that when people come out to protest there is repression, so that just makes us want to continue to mobilise.

I think that these protests should continue until people have satisfied their need to express their frustration with what is happening.

Ramiro Velasco, art teacher

Ramiro Velasco dressed in a costume at a protest in Bogota on 12 May 2021

I’m wearing a costume that represents death: it represents the massacres that have been occurring in Colombia under this government, the killings of community leaders in the countryside, deforestation, the growth of poverty and everything else related to death.

At this moment there is a very strong lack of government in this country. The government has no clear plans on how to improve healthcare, it has let the peace deal with the Farc wither. For all those reasons, I’m here. We have to demand that the government do its job because at this moment they are making us an unviable country.

They told us not to go out because we were going to get sick and we were going to die. But these demonstrations are proof that people are not scared anymore. We have to come out and express ourselves.

Liliana Rodríguez, classical singer

Liliana Rodriguez at a protest in Bogotá on 12 May 2021

I’m showing my support for the protests by coming out here to sing opera. What you see people expressing here is general discontent. It’s not just about a tax reform, or reform to the health system, and all the other laws. It’s people showing the discontent that they have been feeling for a long time.

Young people are especially frustrated because we study a lot, but we don’t have a place to continue our careers afterwards. I used to sing for the choir at the Bogotá Philharmonic but that’s just a youth choir. Now there is no choir where I can sing full-time, because in Colombia there are no choirs that pay professionals to sing.

There’s no work and things like food are more expensive now, there’s government corruption, that’s what makes people frustrated. The tax reform was just a fuse. But what is really going on is that we are tired of this bad governance we have.

Ernesto Herrera, leader of the Santa Fé Football Club fan group

Ernesto Herrera (right) at a protest in Bogotá on 12 May 2021

We support these protests because we are victims of the state. We’ve had members killed by the police.

Our youth have lots of needs that are not being met. There are drug addiction problems, economic problems, problems just not being recognised. But we want to get ahead and change things and have a different kind of government.

We don’t feel represented by politicians. But we want to sit down with them and show them that from our experience as football fans, we know what young people are going through. We have youth that need basic incomes, access to education, and need access to a decent healthcare system.

Daniela Sánchez, hospital worker

Daniela Sánchez (right) and a friend at a protest in Bogotá on 12 May 2021

I am a clown, and I do laughing therapy for children in hospital as well as for older people with terminal illnesses.

We decided to participate in these protests because we are fed up with inequality in this country. There are people in the countryside, and in cities, too, who can no longer afford three meals a day, people who have no access to education or to proper healthcare, we have seen that during our work as hospital clowns.

The pandemic exposed the big differences between the rich and the poor in Colombia. It showed how many people have no access to the internet, for example, or how many people lack savings and need to work on the streets to eat.

So I think this has to continue until the government shows remorse for its actions and hopefully it will show people that it is important to vote. We need to make good choices in next year’s election.

Miguel Morales, member of the Misak indigenous group

Miguel Morales at a protest in Bogotá on 12 May

This protest is not just about taxes. We are from the Cauca region, but we have about 200 families that have been here in Bogotá for 10 years because of the violence in our territories.

We think that these protests must continue because the president must realise that his job is not to do what his party wants, or what [his mentor] former President Álvaro Uribe wants, but to carry out the will of the people.

While he doesn’t hold real conversations with the people the protests will continue.

We have pulled down statues [of Spanish conquistadors] during the protests. These are symbolic acts of justice. In order for a country to live in peace, the histories of all its inhabitants must be heard.

Wendy Monroy, student at a public university

Wendy Monroy at a protest in Bogotá

I was in the second semester of my teaching degree when the pandemic broke out. Classes got suspended for some weeks and then they adjusted things so that we would continue our studies online.

I kept on studying but many of my fellow students dropped out. They dropped out because they had to work to support their families, because their parents didn’t have money any more.

So I’m here to ask for things like better healthcare but also to ask for better conditions for students.

At my university, we haven’t been able to go back to face-to-face classes yet. At private universities they’re already having regular classes again, but that’s because they have funds to take bio-security measures, simple things, like providing hand sanitizers, but at my university that hasn’t been done.

I believe that there are solutions for this country and we have to fight for that. These are the biggest protests I can remember. It shows that young people are willing to take control of this country and maybe in some years time, things can change.

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