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Colombia’s government has been called hypocritical after calling for solidarity with protesters in Cuba as it cracks down harshly on mass demonstrations against economic inequity and human rights abuses.
Colombia sees another round of anti-poverty demonstrations, with large marches planned for Tuesday 20 July, Colombia’s independence day, despite a month-long hiatus during a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Colombia’s right-wing government, led by President Iván Duque, alleges the marches are the result of “terrorist” agitators and are supported by illegally operating armed groups.
Yet, the Colombian government’s tone towards dissent at home differs from its support for protests in Cuba. Colombia’s foreign ministry calls on the Cuban government to “guarantee the freedom of expression” and “respect the right” to peaceful protest.
Protests in Colombia began in late April over unpopular and since-removed tax reform, quickly spreading across the country, morphing into a broader movement of outrage against deepening economic disparity and human rights abuses.
Police kiosks and bus stations were vandalized, and protesters erected roadblocks around the country.
The police response was brutal, as officers regularly using teargas and billy clubs to quell disturbances. In many cases, authorities fired on demonstrators with live rounds. According to local organizations, at least 44 protesters have been killed by police, and dozens are still missing.
A recent human rights commission to Colombia made up of delegates from 13 countries found that authorities used counter-insurgency tactics against protesters.
“The Duque government has zero credibility commenting on the Cuban protests,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andes director at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. “Its unwillingness to address the systemic abuses that took place in the context of the protests shows that it only considers human rights when it benefits its political agenda.”
Colombia -2.5 months of national strike -50 massacres -77 protesters killed -1468 assaulted
Duque announced Monday minor reforms to the national police, including new uniforms and increased training for anti-riot officers, yet critics say the changes are cosmetic rather than substantive.
Ahead of Tuesday’s planned demonstrations, police cracked down on protesters, arresting 12 members of the so-called “frontline,” a group of mostly young protesters who have skirmished with police at marches in cities nationwide.
Celebrating the arrests as though they were a vast drug seizure, Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, tweeted images of the suspected agitators and their seized equipment, including hard hats, respirators, and what appeared to be homemade grenades, photographed next to a bandana emblazoned with the words “SOS Colombia, they are killing us."
Nearly 3,000 soldiers have been dispatched to Bogotá, where they will monitor bus stations and protest hotspots on the city's edges. In Cali, a major city in Colombia’s southwest and the center of unrest in April, a curfew and ban on liquor sales was announced, while the surrounding Valle del Cauca province is on lockdown. Police said they’ll confiscate any “shields, helmets, goggles, and respirators” from protesters.
Those sympathetic to protesters claim the government is fearmongering as part of their coordinated campaign of repression against protesters.
“They’re trying to whip up fear; they’re detaining people arbitrarily. The police don’t come out to control crowds; they come out with rifles raised – they’re preparing for large-scale repression,” said Laura Guerrero, whose son Nicolás Guerrero was killed at a protest in Cali. “The right to protest exists, but the police don’t respect it.”