Colombia's Duque meeting with opponents, hoping to calm deadly protests


Demonstrators take part in a protest demanding government action to tackle poverty, police violence and inequalities in healthcare and education systems, in Bogota, Colombia, May 7, 2021. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's President Ivan Duque has begun meetings with civil society groups and political opponents who want action taken on poverty and unemployment and an end to police violence, in an effort to calm protests after more than 20 deaths.

Demonstrations in the Andean country began last week in opposition to a now-canceled tax reform which would have raised sales taxes. They have expanded to include other demands, including for a basic income and withdrawal of an already long-debated health reform that opponents say is too vague to correct inequalities.

Duque will meet on Friday with political leaders - including potential candidates in the 2022 presidential contest - but lawmakers and analysts say he will struggle to push civil society and his political opponents toward consensus on pressing social issues.

The country's human rights ombudsman has reported 26 people killed since protests began last week, but says seven were unrelated to the marches themselves. Advocacy group Human Rights Watch has reports of 36 deaths and called police violence "alarming."

The armed forces justice system said late on Thursday a major has been arrested for the alleged homicide of protester Brayan Fernando Nino in Madrid municipality last weekend.

Duque has already seen a tax reform bill withdrawn and his finance minister resign amid the demonstrations, but protest groups - especially major unions - are skeptical of his calls for dialogue. They say similar talks, held after 2019 demonstrations, produced little.

The government must curb police violence before dialogue with protesters, Green Party congresswoman Katherine Miranda said.

"The government is two-faced. By day it offers dialogue and conciliation but by night it shows only repression," Miranda said. "Without clarity about what the government really wants or that its words match its actions, a dialogue with social groups and the opposition in Congress is going to be very difficult."

One of protesters' chief demands is the disbanding of feared riot police squad ESMAD.

Although Duque has said police abuses will not be tolerated, he long ago ruled out eliminating the ESMAD.

"There need to be talks about the demilitarization of social protests, of an end to massacres and killings against protesters," Francisco Maltes, president of the Central Union of Workers (CUT) said in a video this week.

"Protests will continue for as long as there is no result from dialogue," Maltes said.

Duque lacks a solid congressional majority and even some members of his own Democratic Center party opposed portions of the now-withdrawn tax proposal.

Poverty and unemployment rose during coronavirus lockdowns, deepening entrenched social inequalities.

Twenty-one million of Colombia's 50 million inhabitants were living in poverty at the end of 2020, according to government statistics.

Talks offer a way out of the crisis, said Democratic Center congressman Edward Rodriguez, who agreed with opposition lawmakers all sides must be heard.

"The success of the dialogue depends on listening to everyone, to the youth, teachers, unions, students, businesses, and farmers, and that it leads to public policies," Rodriguez said.

Voters are likely to carry discontent about poverty, unemployment and police violence to the ballot box in 2022.

"What is happening will have an impact on 2022 elections. The discontent with this government is absolute because of its disconnection with the people and with reality. There will be a change in the country's model (of government)," the Green Party's Miranda said.

Duque cannot run next year, but peoples' displeasure may damage his party.

What is happening at protests "is not favorable for the government, nor for its party, nor for its electoral fate in 2022," said analyst Sergio Guzman, of Colombia Risk Analysis.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta, additional reporting by Oliver Griffin and Julia Symmes Cobb; Writing by Oliver Griffin and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by David Gregorio)

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