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Colombia strike begins as week of protests rolls on

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By Reuters
Colombia strike begins as week of protests rolls on
Riot police fire tear gas as demonstrators protest at the National University as a national strike continues in Bogota, Colombia November 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso   -   Copyright  CARLOS JASSO(Reuters)

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombian unions and student groups held their second national strike in less than week on Wednesday in honour of a dead demonstrator and to protest rumoured government economic plans, corruption and police violence.

The series of protests began last week with a 250,000-person march and a nationwide strike.

Demonstrators are rallying against economic plans – like a rise in the pension age and a cut to the minimum wage for young people – that President Ivan Duque denies supporting, as well what they say is a lack of government action to stop corruption and the murder of hundreds of human rights activists.

Marches have attracted thousands of peaceful demonstrators, but Thursday and Friday were also marked by the destruction of mass transit stations, curfews in Cali and Bogota and the deaths of three people in connection with alleged looting.

Commuters in Bogota grappled with transport delays and detours on Wednesday morning, with many opting to stay home.

“If the march is in front and we have to get off, we’ll join the march as we get to work. We need to support the strike,” said bank secretary Yanira Velez, 28, as she waited for her bus at a station in the city’s south.

“Tonight we’ll join the cacerolazos after work,” she said, referring to a traditional Latin American protest in which people bang pots and pans.

Saturday’s marches took a dark turn when 18-year-old protester Dilan Cruz was fatally injured by a tear gas canister fired by the ESMAD riot police.

Cruz died on Monday and has become a symbol for protesters, who allege the ESMAD is using excessive force in its crowd dispersion efforts. His private memorial service was held on Wednesday morning, and his family has called for nonviolence.

The National Strike Committee, comprised of major unions and student organizations, is demanding the government dissolve the force and “purify” the police.

Talks between the committee and the government have stalled amid union demands Duque meet with them without the presence of business leaders or other groups.

The committee has also demanded a rejection of the government’s tax reform proposal, which includes a cut in business duties.

Duque announced several changes to the proposal this week at the cost of some $930 million – including the return of value added tax to the poorest 20% of Colombians and lower contributions to healthcare by minimum wage pensioners.

Meanwhile, his promise to hold a social issues-focused national dialogue through March has sparked derision among marchers and opposition politicians, who see it as a tepid response to growing discontent.

Duque’s administration has been plagued by problems during his nearly 16 months in office, including a combative congress, low approval ratings and unsuccessful legislative efforts.

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Carlos Vargas; editing by Jonathan Oatis)