Colombia
Colombia 'not effective' at controlling protest 'distortions', says Iván Duque
Speaking at an event organized by the Washington DC-based Inter-American Dialogue, Duque said he believed that the protests were largely a result of the steps Colombia took to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Colombia's government was "not effective" at combating "distortions" that have led to weeks of anti-government protests, according to President Iván Duque Márquez.

Colombia has been consumed by protests and unrests since late April, when Duque's government moved to raise taxes to fill a $6.3 billion gap, partly caused by the economic impact of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking at an event organized by the Washington DC-based Inter-American Dialogue, Duque said he believed that the protests were largely a result of the steps Colombia took - which he continues to support - to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Image of Iván Duke collapses after protests left 19 dead

"We had to deal with such a threat," he said. "We said that the things we had to face, in terms of fiscal capacity, ought to also be addressed also in 2021...it was a massive social transformation in Colombia that would allow 50% of the population to have an income in times of crisis."

However, Duque said that "we have to recognize that we weren't effective in addressing many of the distortions" and misinformation that was created about the government's fiscal decisions.

"That's why we decided to withdraw it and try to build a bigger consensus," he added. 

We said that the things we had to face, in terms of fiscal capacity, ought to also be addressed also in 2021...it was a massive social transformation in Colombia that would allow 50% of the population to have an income in times of crisis.

Since then, the protests have widened into broader demands. The Duque government has been harshly criticized by some protesters for what many perceive as excessive use of force, with dozens of protesters killed and thousands injured.

While Duque said he stands by the security forces efforts to crack down on "extreme violence, vandalism and destruction of public infrastructure", he acknowledged that incidents of police abuse have taken place.

Marco Rubio.

According to Duque, more than 80 cases of police abuse are being investigated by Colombian authorities.

"Are there cases of abuse? Yes, they are, as there are in any cities of the United States," he said. "They are investigated and sanctioned, and sanctioned promptly."

"We have said, since day one [of the administration] that there is a zero tolerance policy if a member of the military or police goes beyond the law," Duque added.

Additionally, Duque said that there are many "faces" of the protest. Some, he said, are peaceful and genuine, while "in some places, the influence of armed groups who are promoting that kind of conduct to create uncertainty."

"There are people that might want to capture the sense of chaos and build their aspirations based on chaos," he added.

On Wednesday, Florida Senator Marco Rubio - a Republican - expressed his support for Duque and blamed the unrest on outside actors.

"I told them we are with them, our strongest ally in South America, during this time when external forces seek to destabilize his country and damage the US-Colombia relationship," he tweeted.

In a video posted earlier in the week, Rubio specifically accused both Venezuela and Cuba of "using these protests to advance their agenda" and support their favored candidates in future Colombian elections, as well as taking pressure off ‘narco-terrorists' operating from Venezuelan territory.

A number of figures within the Biden administration, as well as congressional Democrats, have been critical of the Colombian government's response.

"I'm extremely concerned by the brutal PNC and ESMAD response to protests in Colombia," said Senator Gregory Meeks, the chairman of the powerful House Foreign Relations Committee. "I'm particularly alarmed by developments in Cali and call on President Ivan Duque to de-escalate the violence and make clear that excessive use of force is inexcusable."

Duque, for his part, said that he doesn't believe any tensions caused by the recent unrest have damaged US-Colombian relations.

"I'm happy to hear from the Biden administration [about] the commitment that they have in terms of building back better after Covid-19, but also putting human rights at the center of a very important debate internationally," he said.

Duque added that he believes Colombia is making progress in round-table talks with youth organizations.

"We have to see this as a crisis, yes, but also as an opportunity," he said. "2021 has to be the year of massive vaccinations, safe recovery, attending the youth's needs and stabilizing the economy." 

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