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Thousands March In Colombia To Protest Plans To Raise Taxes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two factors have led to protests in Colombia. The U.S. ally at the top of South America faces spiking COVID deaths amid very little vaccine. And the government is planning to raise taxes. John Otis reports on the public response.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Throngs of Colombians are marching in Bogota, Medellin and other cities in what they're calling a national strike. At times, the mood is upbeat, with drum lines and dance troupes. But mostly, there's outrage.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Resistencia. Resistencia.

OTIS: Many protesters are struggling to survive amid a third wave of COVID that has led to curfews, lockdowns and more unemployment. They also complain about Colombia's lack of vaccine. Just 4% of Colombians have been vaccinated.

PABLO MORA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "We feel totally abandoned by the government," says Pablo Mora. He's a 72-year-old retired security guard who wears a facemask when he's not blowing his whistle to protest.

MORA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He adds, "The vaccine is available, but we haven't received our shots."

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

OTIS: Protesters are also incensed that the government is trying to raise taxes on food, utilities and gasoline in the middle of the pandemic.

ROSALBA PENA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "This isn't the time to raise taxes," says Rosalba Pena, who was forced to close her dressmaking business. "People have fallen into poverty. There's massive unemployment."

Colombian officials admit that people have the right to protest. Still, they've tried to discourage the marches, which they fear will become super-spreader events at a critical moment. Hospital ICUs are nearly full. And on Wednesday, Colombia registered 490 COVID deaths, a new record.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLAUDIA LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "At this time, protests and large gatherings are an attack on life itself," said Bogota Mayor Claudia Lopez. "This is a life-and-death situation."

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Still, pressure has been building since before the pandemic. Protests erupted here in 2019 over the government's economic policies and its lack of support for a peace process that ended a long guerrilla war. Colombian President Ivan Duque remains deeply unpopular. And now he's made even more enemies with his proposal to raise taxes, says Katherin Galindo of the consultancy Colombia Risk Analysis.

KATHERIN GALINDO: When people go to protest, it's because they feel that the government is not hearing them and because they feel that the government is even worse than the virus.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: During last week's protests, anti-riot police used tear gas to disperse marchers, some of whom burned buses and vandalized buildings. In a speech, President Duque told Colombians that he understands their frustrations.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT IVAN DUQUE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He asked them to calm down and to work with his government to seek solutions. However, protest organizers say that the marches will continue. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENO AND TRISTAN DE LIEGE'S "REVERRING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.