FOR DECADES, Colombia has remained one of the most stable democracies in Latin America, even as its governments have battled drug cartels and guerrilla movements in the sprawling countryside. So the eruption of mass demonstrations in its cities during the past 10 days — and worse, the death of at least two dozen people in clashes with riot police — has been a shock that shows how even the most stable Latin American countries have been rocked by covid-19.
While global attention has been focused recently on the surge of the pandemic in India, Colombia and its South American neighbors have faced their own reckoning with the virus. On a per-capita basis, Colombia, with a population of 50 million, is reporting considerably more cases and deaths per day than India; it and Peru, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay currently have among the highest death rates in the world. Three waves of infections have devastated the Colombian economy, causing the poverty rate to spike to above 40 percent.
The protests were triggered in part by an attempt by the government of President Iván Duque to ease the hardship. In order to finance continued payments to more than 3 million poor households, it proposed increasing taxes and closing loopholes for the rich — and also raising value-added taxes on goods and services consumed by the general population. That and tough lockdown rules triggered protests in a number of cities beginning April 28. Though most were peaceful, some degenerated into looting and attacks on police, buses, banks and other infrastructure.
In several cities, including Cali, police responded brutally, opening fire on demonstrators. Video clips of unarmed students being gunned down went viral on social media, further fueling demonstrations that have continued nightly. Mr. Duque, a conservative, responded last weekend by canceling the tax reform and firing the finance minister. But the street violence escalated early this week as protesters expanded their demands, which now include guaranteeing a basic income to all citizens and reforms of policing.
Mr. Duque is unlikely to meet all those demands, though he has offered to open a dialogue with the protesters. A failure by the government to offer meaningful social reforms, combined with its heavy-handed security response, could open the way for a left-wing candidate in the presidential election due next year. That would please the nominally socialist dictatorship next door in Venezuela, which has been accused of dispatching agents to incite violence in the Colombian protests. Similar political turbulence looms in Peru, where a far-left candidate is favored to win a presidential runoff. And some analysts fear mass unrest could spread across the region as the pandemic continues to rage.
All that is more reason for the United States and other rich nations to quickly expand covid relief measures to Latin America and other poor regions. Colombia lags far behind in vaccinations: By May 2 only 6.7 percent of the population had received shots, compared with 9.4 percent in India and 44 percent of Americans. If the virus is not brought under control in the coming months, not just Colombia but much of the region around it could be destabilized.