BOGOTA – President Ivan Duque met for two hours with a protest steering committee Tuesday, but neither side was able to agree on a clear path forward and demonstrators vowed to hold a new national strike instead.
Diogenes Medina, a union organizer on the National Strike Committee, said protesters want a separate dialogue with Duque rather than inclusion in the “national conversation” that the president has begun with various societal sectors.
“We’re willing to keep talking,” Medina said. But, he added, “We’ve told the government we want an independent initiative and are waiting for their response.”
The talks appeared to be the most promising avenue out of nearly a week of daily demonstrations bringing students, workers and other Colombians upset with Duque’s conservative government to the streets. Absent a quick resolution, the organizers said they would intensify their street protests in the days ahead.
“The government has not given a response to the points presented,” student leader José Cárdenas said. “The reasons for the strike continue.”
The strike being called for Wednesday comes nearly a week after 250,000 Colombians marched in one of the nation’s largest protests in recent history. In the days since, there have been smaller demonstrations, leading to the deaths of three people in looting incidents and an 18-year-old student who was fatally injured during a protest.
Protesters are demonstrating about issues that include inequality, corruption and continued violence in rural areas, where more than 100 social leaders have been assassinated since Duque took office last year.
“We’re in a terrible state,” said Blanca Rocha, a housewife who supports the protests. “The country is taking a step backwards every day.”
Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez described the meeting between Duque and protest leaders as “constructive” and said the government shares many of their concerns, including improving education and work opportunities.
Duque launched what he calls a “national conversation” with diverse sectors of society on Sunday aimed at including citizens in drafting solutions. He prefers a conversation in which not just the National Strike Committee is at the table.
“The president is opening a much broader space,” Ramírez said. “In any event, the president has invited them, when they want to return, to sit at the table.”
Following Tuesday’s meeting with the strike committee, Duque announced a new economic proposal that includes measures like refunds on the nation’s value added tax for the poorest 20% of Colombians. The reforms, which Duque said have been discussed with several parties, also aim to reduce health insurance payments for elderly people with small pensions and give tax breaks to companies that hire young adults.
“This proves that we can work as a team,” Duque said in a speech surrounded by politicians who worked on the bill. “Together we can implement social reforms that make a difference in the life of this country.”
Protest leaders are demanding bolder measures. On Tuesday, the strike committee presented the government with a list of 13 demands that include the dissolution of riot police, which have been accused of using excessive force against protesters. The strike committee is also seeking the suspension of a tax bill that has been presented to congress and wants the government to promise it will not privatize state run companies.
Activists also oppose rumored pension and labor reforms that the government insists do not exist, but which have nonetheless been discussed by think tanks and Cabinet ministers.
Meanwhile, Duque received messages from members of his own party urging him not to cave in to protesters’ demands.
“President Duque, don’t let your political agenda be changed by a group whose goal is to topple you, to destabilize the country and impose communism,” Maria del Rosario Guerra, a prominent senator from Duque’s Democratic Center party, wrote on Twitter.
Alex Reina, a professor of government at ESAP University in Medellin, said the large variety of demands presented by the protest committee was inevitable.
“This government has long failed to engage in dialogue with social movements,” Reina said. “So now the strike committee has come up with a list of petitions with which they are trying to prove that they represent a broad swath of society and that their movement has substance.”
Reina said Duque is in a difficult spot, as social movements that are mobilizing thousands of people pressure him to make big policy changes, while members of his own party demand that he hold to the conservative platform on which he was elected.
“He is stuck in the crossfire,” the professor said. “Nobody is happy with what he's doing.”
Associated Press writer César García contributed to this report.