Thousands protest in Colombia against Petro’s changes

Bogota, Sep 26 (EFE).- Tax, labor and health reforms; the hike in gasoline prices and land invasions on Monday spurred thousands of people to take to the streets in Colombia in the first demonstration against the new administration of Gustavo Petro, who took office less than two months ago.

“No more Petro,” “We’re going down the wrong road” and “He wants to end everything” were among the most frequently heard chants in Bogota, where two huge groups of marchers who left from different points in the city converged at the Plaza de Bolivar.

There, Petro supporters tried to create a confrontation by surrounding the marchers and even hurling things at them, but the situation didn’t escalate.

“I’m marching because in a month-and-a-half we’ve already seen a disaster in Colombia. We’re not seeing anything good, nothing that’s positive. Healthcare, I know that (the) healthcare (system) lacks many things … but we don’t have to be saying that they’re going to end healthcare, with the Healthcare Provider Company (EPS), that’s not good,” Isabel, one of the marchers, told EFE.

The so-called “Big National March” spurred many anti-government demonstrations, gatherings and sit-ins in more than 20 cities around the country and in several US, Mexican, Panamanian and Swiss cities where Colombians have settled, architect Pierre Onzaga, one of the protest organizers who announced a second day of protest on Oct. 24, told EFE.

The largest demonstrations took place in Bogota, Cali, Medellin and Barranquilla. There, thousands of people – most of them wearing white t-shirts and waving Colombian flags – shouted slogans against the Petro administration.

The marchers demonstrated their discontent, among other things, over the tax reform presented by Finance Minister Jose Antonio Ocampo in August that seeks to collect 25 trillion pesos per year (some $5.5 billion at the current exchange rate of 4,543 pesos to the dollar).

The marchers also lambasted the government’s labor reform, which will be submitted to the Colombian Congress next year, claiming that it will be more and more difficult for business owners to create jobs because the reform will increase their costs.

Another focus of the marchers’ anger was the government’s announcement of “total peace.” Last Thursday in New York City, where Petro was attending the United Nations General Assembly session, the president declared that in a matter of days he was intending to implement a multilateral ceasefire with several armed groups who have approached the government in keeping with his “total peace” project.

“I don’t agree with the negotiations the government is making. The (tax) reform (and) that (total peace) agreement that he has with the criminals really has us rather worried,” another marcher named Jairo told EFE.

He went on to say that he feels that “we have to let (Petro) govern,” but he added that he doesn’t agree “with the way in which he’s negotiating with the terrorists.”

“I don’t agree and that’s why I’m marching,” he said.

To these elements, one may add the criticism that has been circulating of several of Petro’s Cabinet officers and against the Liberal and Conservative Parties, which are supporting the government and backing the reforms being pushed by Petro in Congress.

The demonstrators focused their criticism of the Cabinet on the head of the Mining Ministry, Irene Velez, and on Defense Minister Ivan Velasquez.

“We’re working people but here in the north of Cauca (province) we don’t have any protection when the indigenous people invade the farms,” a man who told reporters he was the owner of a small farm on which he grows sugar cane that he sells to sugar refineries.

The Ombudsman’s Office has warned that cases of illegal land occupation have increased in several parts of the country, with 108 cases being registered, 36 percent of them in the southwestern province of Cauca.

The majority of the land invasions have been staged by local indigenous people claiming that they want to “liberate Mother Earth” from overexploitation.

In the northern part of the country, there have also been land occupations by peasants demanding the return of lands they claim were taken from them during Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict between the government and leftist guerrillas.

“The Petro government is being shown that its reforms are not popular, are not acceptable to a large majority of Colombians,” said Enrique Gomez, a former presidential hopeful and a harsh critic of the government.

He said that the government and the “bad policy parties are not going to be able to impose on reforms on the Colombian people like the tax (reform) and the pension (reform),” and he didn’t hesitate to assert that lawmakers in Congress are “for hire.”

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