BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Colombians unhappy with President IvÃ¡n Duqueâ€™s response to nearly a week of boisterous protests over everything from job losses to shark hunting took to the streets again Wednesday in a continuing tide of unrest.
The daily protests jolting the South American country proclaim a wide array of complaints but echo one refrain: an opposition to a government that many believe only looks after the most privileged citizens.
â€œWe feel defenseless to everything,â€ Lucy Rosales, 60, a pensioner in Bogota. â€œWe donâ€™t feel like we have a voice that represents us. Itâ€™s many things that they allowed to accumulate.â€
Several thousand people blowing whistles and waving Colombian flags began marching through streets in cities around the nation by midday.
The new demonstration came a day after Duqueâ€™s attempt to quell the discontent by holding talks with a protest steering group hit a snag: Members of the National Strike Committee refused to join broader talks the president has called with all social sectors, fearing their demands would be diluted. That has created new uncertainty about how long the already costly protests might drag on.
â€œThe government has not been able to learn from the Chilean and Ecuadorian experiences,â€ said Jorge Restrepo, an economics professor, referring to recent mass demonstrations in both of those countries. â€œIt has made very many mistakes.â€
The steering committee presented a 13-point list of demands Tuesday that asks Duque to withdraw or refrain from tax, labor and pension law changes that are either before the legislature or rumored to be in development. The labor and student leaders also want Duque to review free-trade agreements, eliminate a riot police unit accused in the death of an 18-year-old student protester and fully implement the nationâ€™s historic peace accord with leftist rebels.
Organizers dismissed Duqueâ€™s calls to join his â€œNational Conversationâ€ that would run through March – an initiative that appears to take a page from French President Emmanuel Macron, who opened a â€œGreat National Debateâ€ to involve citizens in drafting reforms after months of angry protests in that country.
â€œItâ€™s a monologue between the government and its allies,â€ said DiÃ³genes Orjuela, president of the Central Workers Union, one of the main forces behind the National Strike Committee.
Several protesters said they agreed with the Strike Committeeâ€™s decision to shun Duqueâ€™s dialogue.
â€œColombia is used to being lied to,â€ said Ana Maria Moya, a student. â€œOne learns not to trust in words.â€
It remains unclear to what extent the Strike Committee represents protesters in what has become a largely citizen-driven outpouring of discontent. An invitation to gather in a park or bang pots and pans quickly goes viral on WhatsApp and soon hundreds fill neighborhoods with the angry sound of clanging metal and chants like â€œGet out Duque!â€
â€œWeâ€™re tired,â€ Moya said. â€œWeâ€™re saying, â€˜No more.â€™â€
Various leaders have tried to capitalize on the momentum, but none yet has emerged as the unequivocal voice of the protesters.
â€œThere is a contest over the ownership of the protesters,â€ Restrepo said. â€œI see students get out in the streets because they need more social mobility, higher levels of income, more opportunities at least in employment. But then the ones that claim they represent those students in the streets are the unions.â€
Colombia is widely considered in need of labor and pension reform. Few retirees currently have access to pensions, with the lowest-income earners the least likely to get one. Labor laws make it difficult to hire new employees. Even as the nationâ€™s economy grows at a healthy 3.3%, unemployment has risen to nearly 11%.
â€œI would characterize the demands of the National Strike Committee as highly conservative, regressive and counter-reformist demands,â€ Restrepo said.
Orjuela, a former schoolteacher who participated in Colombiaâ€™s last major strike, in 1977, said protest organizers would be willing to support a pension reform as long as it involves a state and not a private-run system.
Even as they parse out the details, the committeeâ€™s general message decrying Duque has resonated widely, tapping into the myriad frustrations of Colombians.
An estimated 250,000 Colombians marched last Thursday in one of the nationâ€™s biggest demonstrations in recent decades. The protests have been smaller in the days since, but are still drawing thousands each day.
For some it is big-picture issues like not fully implementing peace accords, endemic corruption and persistent economic inequality. For others it is small indignities, like relatively pricey public transportation that is also slow and overcrowded.
One unusual sight in the protests has been that of giant plastic sharks hoisted by at least one protester denouncing a government decision allowing a certain amount of shark fishing.
â€œItâ€™s like all the groups are feeding off each other,â€ said Gimena SÃ¡nchez-Garzoli, a human rights advocate with the Washington Office on Latin America.
Few expected that such a mixed bag of motivations could generate a prolonged protest, though many now think it could continue, exacting both an economic and human toll. Thus far, four people have died, hundreds have been injured and millions of dollars have been lost from businesses shuttering during demonstrations.
The patience of some Colombians is beginning to wear thin.
Julio Contreras, a deliveryman who was tear gassed while trying to get 20 kilos (44 pounds) of chicken to restaurants, said he is ready for the protests to be done.
â€œTheyâ€™re not letting us work,â€ he said. â€œThe students should be in the universities and not affecting us.â€
Associated Press writer Cesar Garcia contributed to this report.