By Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) – The Colombian government’s chief negotiator on Tuesday rebuffed accusations from the leaders of protests that President Ivan Duque’s administration was not committed to talks, saying it was listening to people’s frustrations but would not allow violence.
Last week, a senior protest leader warned that demonstrations – which have been rumbling for two months – would step up a gear in the second half of the year if neither the government nor Congress meet protesters’ demands.
Emilio Archila, the top official charged with implementing a 2016 peace deal who is leading negotiations with protest leaders, said that talks had halted because of the strike committee’s decision to withdraw.
“The government of President Ivan Duque is a government that has listened, is listening and will continue to listen,” Archila told Reuters in an interview.
“Saying there is no will to negotiate is simply not based in reality,” he added, noting the government had reached regional agreements to suspend protests and road blocks.
Protests began in Colombia at the end of April in opposition to a now-withdrawn tax reform, which prompted the resignation of the former finance minister.
Demonstrators widened their demands to include calls for a basic income, opportunities for youth and an end to police violence.
The attorney general’s office has so far linked 24 deaths to the protests, with a further 11 under investigation. However, rights groups accuse security forces of killing dozens more protesters.
While most protests have been peaceful, some have ended with looting and clashes between security forces and protesters.
The government continues to work to reduce social inequalities and poverty with better education programs, health and employment options for young people, Archila said, though warned that road blocks, which led to shortages and increases in food and fuel prices, will not be allowed.
“We have nothing against peaceful protest, on the contrary, we believe it is part of the dialectical process of democracy,” Archila said. “Blockades … aren’t a form of peaceful protest.”
Authorities will be “very energetic” with those who do not protest peacefully, including those who commit vandalism, and especially against people who use protests as a shield to carry out acts of terrorism, Archila added.
Although almost all blockades have been lifted from highways, either through negotiations or interventions by security forces, protests on Monday continued in cities including the capital Bogota, second city Medellin and Barranquilla, where a statue of Christopher Columbus was torn down.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Oliver Griffinl Editing by Cynthia Osterman)