Colombia under fire for backing Cuba protests while stifling dissent at home

Colombia’s government has been accused of hypocrisy after calling for solidarity with protesters in Cuba even as it cracks down harshly on mass demonstrations against economic inequity and human rights abuses.

Colombia is bracing for another round of anti-poverty demonstrations and unrest, with large marches planned for Tuesday 20 July, Colombia’s independence day, after taking a monthlong hiatus during a surge in Covid-19 cases.

Colombia’s rightwing government, led by President Iván Duque, has said the marches are the result of “terrorist” agitators and are supported by illegal armed groups.

But the Colombian government’s tone towards dissent at home jars with its support for mass marches in Cuba, with Colombia’s foreign ministry calling on communist rulers there to “guarantee the freedom of expression” and “respect the right” to peaceful protest.

Protests in Colombia began in late April in response to an unpopular and since-axed tax reform, and they quickly spread across the country, morphing into a wider howl of outrage against deepening economic disparity and human rights abuses.

In the unrest, police kiosks and bus stations were vandalized and protesters threw up roadblocks around the country.

The police response was brutal, with officers routinely using teargas and billy clubs to quell disturbances. In some cases, authorities fired on demonstrators with live rounds. At least 44 protesters have been killed by police and dozens are still missing, according to local watchdogs.

A recent human rights commission to Colombia made up of delegates from 13 countries found that authorities used counter-insurgency tactics against protesters.

“The Duque government has zero credibility commenting on the Cuban protests,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andes director at the Washington Office on Latin America, a thinktank. “Its unwillingness to address the systemic abuses that took place in the context of the protests shows that it only considers human rights when it benefits its political agenda.”

Duque announced on Monday some reforms to the national police, including new uniforms and human rights training for anti-riot officers. Critics say the changes are cosmetic rather than practical.

And ahead of Tuesday’s planned demonstrations, police ramped up a crackdown on protesters, arresting 12 members of the so-called “frontline”, an amorphous group of mostly young protesters who have skirmished with police at marches in cities nationwide.

Celebrating the arrests as though they were a huge drug seizure, Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, tweeted images of the suspected agitators and their seized equipment, including hard hats, respirators and what appeared to be homemade grenades, photographed next to a bandana emblazoned with the words “SOS Colombia, they are killing us”.

Nearly 3,000 soldiers have been dispatched to Bogotá, the capital, where they will monitor bus stations and protest hotspots on the edges of the city. In Cali, a major city in Colombia’s south-west that quickly became the center of unrest in April, a curfew and ban on liquor sales has been announced, while the surrounding Valle del Cauca province is under lockdown. Police have announced that they’ll confiscate any “shields, helmets, goggles and respirators” from protesters.

But those sympathetic to protesters say the government is fearmongering, as part of a campaign of repression against protesters.

“They’re trying to whip up fear, they’re detaining people arbitrarily. The police don’t come out to control crowds, they come out with rifles raised – they’re preparing for large-scale repression,” said Laura Guerrero, whose son Nicolás Guerrero was killed at a protest in Cali. “The right to protest exists but the police don’t respect it.”

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