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Deadly Protests Against Economic Inequality And Police Brutality Continue In Colombia

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There are deadly protests ongoing in Colombia. Dozens of people have died, mostly protesters, as Colombians demonstrate against economic inequality and police brutality. Sergio Guzman is the director of Colombia Risk Analysis - that's a political risk consulting firm - and he joins us now from Cali, Colombia. Welcome to the program.

SERGIO GUZMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask you what it's like on the ground in Cali, where we know security forces are out in force. The U.N. even said it was deeply alarmed by events there this week. What are you seeing?

GUZMAN: Well, I think the Colombian society has been in commotion because of the protests, the long-lasting economic grievances that the lockdowns from COVID have had. You see a lot of distress, anxiety and desperation, in a way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, these protests started because of a tax reform plan, which was scrapped. The protests, though, continued. Talk to me a little bit about why people are so upset.

GUZMAN: There were a number of things before the tax reform on how the government communicated. But when they presented tax reform, people took to the streets. And then when the police, you know, used excessive force against protesters, that really sparked, you know, something akin to a George Floyd moment in Colombia.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where they were protesting sort of the heavy-handed use of police force. There is a framework here, which is that this is a country that has come out of a brutal civil war. There was a peace agreement under a previous government. Ivan Duque, who is a right-wing president, is now the leader. And there is a lot of political polarization, with some blaming leftist guerrillas, the FARC, and their sympathizers for this violence and others saying that this problem has its roots in the persistent inequality and the fact that the president, Ivan Duque, hasn't really implemented the peace agreement, especially when addressing economic inequality.

GUZMAN: I think that, for the most part, COVID has made those concerns you're raising worse because before COVID, Colombia was already one of the most unequal societies in Latin America. A year after unemployment, peaked at 21% and is now at 14.2%. Inequality remains high as ever. And the tax reform really was the detonant (ph) that provoked uproar.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So looking ahead, you know, this political instability is not unique to Colombia at this particular moment. We're seeing people all over Latin America fed up with the political class, fed up with inequality. I mean, I'm looking at Peru and other places. So what do you see for Colombia, you know, in the weeks and months to come in terms of how the government will grapple with this and what else could inflame the situation?

GUZMAN: I think you're right to say that this generates quite a bit of instability and uncertainty about the future of our political system. And what's true is that after Colombia's peace agreement, our society has been more polarized than ever. And President Duque has not worked to unite society. I've been in Cali since the 24 of April. President Duque has not visited the city. President Duque has not come - to met with people who've lost relatives while he's holed up in Palacio de Narino in Bogota. It's very difficult for Colombians to connect with a president who is living in a different country, so to speak.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Sergio Guzman of Colombia Risk Analysis. Thank you very much.

GUZMAN: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here with you today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.