Protesters in Colombia on Monday called for a new mass rally after 19 people died and more than 800 were wounded in clashes during five days of demonstrations against a proposed government tax reform.
The office of Colombia’s human rights ombudsman said that 18 civilians and a police officer died in violence during the protests that began throughout the nation on Wednesday last week, while 846 people, including 306 civilians, were injured.
Authorities have detained 431 people and the government deployed the military in the worst-affected cities.
Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have accused the police of firing at civilians.
Faced with the unrest, the government of Colombian President Ivan Duque on Sunday ordered the tax reform proposal be withdrawn from Congress, where it was being debated.
On Monday, Colombian Minister of Finance and Public Credit Alberto Carrasquilla resigned, saying in a statement that his continued presence “would make it difficult to build the necessary consensus quickly and efficiently” for a new reform proposal.
He was quickly replaced by Colombian Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism Jose Manuel Restrepo, an economist.
Despite the withdrawal of the bill, which protesters said would make Colombia poorer in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, an umbrella group known as the National Strike Committee called for new demonstrations to be held today.
“The people in the streets are demanding much more than the withdrawal of the tax reform,” it said in a statement.
Duque, whose approval rating has plummeted to 33 percent, has hit out at protesters’ “vandalism” while the nation is battling a lethal second wave of COVID-19 infections.
Despite that, dozens of people were out on the streets again on Monday, protesting in the capital Bogota, the northwestern city of Medellin, Cali in the southwest and Barranquilla in the north.
Most of the demonstrations began peacefully before descending into clashes between demonstrators and the police.
The tax reform had been heavily criticized for punishing the middle classes at a time of economic crisis. The government introduced the bill on April 15 as a means of financing public spending.
The aim was to generate US$6.3 billion between next year and 2031 to reignite the fourth-largest economy in Latin America.
Hit by COVID-19 restrictions, Colombia’s economy shrank by 6.8 percent last year, its worst performance in half a century.
Unemployment reached 16.8 percent in March, while 42.5 percent of the population of 50 million now live in poverty.
Duque on Sunday said that he would draft a new bill without the most contentious points: a rise in VAT on goods and services, and an expansion of the taxpayer base.
Meanwhile, the Temblores NGO said that it had recorded 940 cases of police violence against civilians during the unrest and was investigating the deaths of eight protesters allegedly attacked by police officers.
Human Rights Watch Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco said that one person was killed by police in Cali, one of the cities worst-affected by street violence.
The deployment of the military to the streets has caused alarm in Colombia.
Sixty years of conflict with rebels in the countryside has left authorities ill-equipped to deal with urban military action, such as that undertaken during the protests, and the public has not received the mobilization kindly, Externado University public policy professor Eduardo Bechara said.
People have seen the military deployment as a “repression,” he said.
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