Colombian Mass Protests Over Covid-19 Woes Paralyze Cali

CALI, Colombia—Days of rowdy, sometimes violent protests have choked off this city of 2.2 million, disrupting food supplies, paralyzing business and sending a warning to political leaders that the pain generated by the pandemic can sow chaos that is difficult to control.

Two weeks of antigovernment demonstrations and a national strike triggered by a proposed tax increase, and exacerbated by privation and unemployment made worse by the pandemic, have hit much of the South American country, with demonstrators blocking major highways and battling the police in 19 of Colombia’s 32 provinces.

Thirty-five people have died and hundreds have been injured in the unrest. With medical personnel unable to get to work, Covid-19 vaccinations have dropped by 30% in Cali, while the number of infections has nearly doubled in the last week. Nationwide, health authorities are struggling with an average of 450 daily deaths from the disease, three times per capita what hard-hit India has been recording in recent days.

Cristian Sandoval, left, and another protester at barricades that block some of the main access points to Cali.

Nowhere has the chaos generated by the protests been worse than in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, where

Cristian Sandoval,

31, and other demonstrators have for days manned a barricade of overturned utility poles, tree trunks and scrap metal blocking a crucial four-lane highway.

“We will stay here for as long as it takes,” said Mr. Sandoval, outfitted in a Guy Fawkes mask and Boston Celtics jersey, as a police helicopter hovered overhead. “The government will either have to negotiate with us or fight us.”

Colombia’s social explosion could foreshadow unrest in other parts of Latin America and even beyond, where people are increasingly despondent over the inability of governments to respond to the economic hardships brought on by the pandemic.

In Cali, some marchers have burned buses, attacked police stations and looted stores, leading to the deployment of 2,100 soldiers and 10,000 police officers to the city.

Despite the chaos, human-rights groups blame the police, who sometimes fire live ammunition, for using disproportionate force. That has prompted condemnation from the United Nations and the European Union.

Fifteen people have died in the protests in Cali, though police haven’t designated responsibility. Nationally, prosecutors have opened seven investigations for alleged homicides by officers, and two policemen have been arrested in connection with the deaths of protesters.

The unrest has made Latin America’s fourth-largest economy, which had already contracted nearly 7% last year because of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns, buckle further.

Cali had long been viewed as a potential powder keg because it has one of Colombia’s highest homicide rates and is ringed by shantytowns filled with people driven from their homes during the country’s long guerrilla war. Last year, the poorest fifth of the city’s residents lost 50% of their income, the government statistics agency said, and unemployment rose to 19%.

A group of women from the community served lunch to participants in the demonstrations.

The blockades are generating more misery, preventing people from getting to their jobs at nearly 90% of the city’s companies and forcing 41% to temporarily shut down, according to the chamber of commerce. Losses have topped $500 million.

Dairy and poultry farmers in the surrounding countryside say their animals are starting to die for lack of feed. Those producers not only supply Cali but also cities as far away as the capital, Bogotá, with its eight million people.

Jorge Bedoya,

president of the Farmers Society of Colombia that represents farmers nationwide, said the blockades are generating job losses. “And no one will be held responsible. Who is going to cover the losses suffered by producers?” he asked.

Santa Anita Napoles,

where 3.5 million hens produce two million eggs daily, is among the more prominent companies of the region battered by the road blockades.

Luis Fernando Tascon,

the company president, said one-third of his birds haven’t been able to eat in the last week and can’t produce eggs. They will soon die.

“The birds are hungry,” he said. “What we’re asking for is that we not put our food security at risk. At stake is the food that nourishes an entire country.”

Amid the protests people gathered around a plantain shipment at a street market in Cali.

Political observers say the protests have further weakened President

Ivan Duque,

a conservative who was elected in 2018 on a law-and-order platform. Even before the unrest, he was viewed unfavorably by 66% of Colombians, according to an Invamer poll.

The 44-year-old Mr. Duque had hoped that an ambitious tax reform would stabilize finances depleted by the outlays during the pandemic. But instead, his proposal to raise more than $6 billion in new revenue set off the protests on April 28, which have continued even though he withdrew the plan.

Mr. Duque held talks Monday with the labor unions, truckers, university students and other protest leaders. Both sides agree on the need to provide more assistance to the poor, and the president announced Tuesday that he would extend a program to make university tuition free for poor and working-class students during the pandemic.

Demonstrators still have a range of grievances, from stopping police violence to halting government plans to privatize state companies. They are also pushing for a guaranteed basic income for millions of poor people—a demand government officials say is unfeasible because it would cost five times what it expected to collect under the failed tax-increase plan.

People waited in line at a Cali fuel station to obtain their allotted two gallons per person.

The most immediate challenge for the government is to open up roads. Blocking streets and highways is a crime but there are so many blockades that police have been unable to dismantle them.

“Even if it is not done with firearms or aggression, blocking roads is a violent act because it restricts the rights of people to feed themselves, get oxygen and vaccinations, and to work,” Mr. Duque, 44, said while visiting Cali on Tuesday.

Protesters here say that tactic is the only way to grab the government’s attention. The roadblocks have also become gathering points for protesters, who camp out beneath highway overpasses and cook pots of chicken stew over open fires.

On Simón Bolívar Avenue in central Cali, protesters have staked out an area the size of several football fields where they set up a first-aid station and raised Colombian flags and banners proclaiming their will to “resist.”

Salsa dancers performed a show for protestors and supporters of the general strike.

On Tuesday, the four-lane road became a makeshift dance floor as a salsa troupe entertained protesters.

Fausto Prieto,

a former city hall worker and a protest leader, explained that people need to let off steam after two weeks of tension. But he expects that the police will soon try to clear them out.

Fausto Prieto is one of the leaders of the protests.

“We are waiting for them,” said Mr. Prieto. The police “have come here three times and three times we have pushed them back.”

A poll for a Bogotá TV station conducted over the weekend showed that 81% of Colombians under the age of 35 supported the protests. But here in Cali, some residents are growing exasperated.

Gasoline shortages mean that motorists must often wait overnight in gas lines that can stretch for 10 city blocks. Food prices are soaring. The city has taken on the appearance of a wasteland, with garbage piling up and business districts empty. At some roadblocks, the demonstrators demand money to let people pass.

“Rather than making things better, the strike has made things worse,” said

Alba García,

a retired dressmaker, as she bought plantains at an outdoor market at double the normal price. “This is horrible. We can’t go work or visit our kids. We can’t go out. We are kidnapped in our own home.”

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