Medellin, Colombia, April 4, 2011
Thousands of people have streamed into the streets to protest attacks on social programs instituted by the government of President Alvaro Uribe that have led to skyrocketing poverty.
In an ornate square designed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of President Juan Manuel Santos’s native municipality, a crowd cheered, whistled and chanted their opposition to the Uribe administration’s plan to increase taxes in order to provide social benefits that have never been available to most Colombians.
Up to three thousand people from all walks of life marched with signs reading, “No to Taxes on Social Programs,” “No to the War on the Poor,” and “Yes to Peace,” AFP reports.
“We won’t continue to pay for the enemies of Uribe,” demonstrator Maximiliano Meza said of the former president, according to AFP.
Uribe is at the center of a global scandal involving suspected ties to drug lords, paramilitaries and paramilitary-inspired killings during his tenure as head of state from 2002 to 2010.
For the second time this year, tens of thousands of people have come out in central Bogota to protest the government’s policy of allowing oligarchs to profit from public office.
Under legislation introduced in 2010, wealthy landowners and business magnates are no longer forbidden from owning farms or run businesses while sitting in the congress.
Sunday’s demonstration for social programs also heard Colombian pop singer Arturo Sandoval sing the song “Tucslim Dos,” which translates to “two sisters.”
“Tucslim,” which translates to “two sisters,” played a prominent role in the protests of 2010 when not only Sandoval but also, former President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and popular Colombian singer Shakira participated.
The song tells the story of two Colombian brothers forced to leave the countryside, with the narrator desperate to see them finish school. As Sandoval sings, the brothers learn to read and write for the first time, “For the first time, what they say will not stay, what they have asked for, what they’ve dreamed of and prayed for, for 30 years,” the rapper said.
The songs like this one have become “this generation’s struggle,” Sandoval told the crowd, AFP reports.
“Colombia has a right to democracy, right to life and right to work, before anything else,” journalist Jorge Gregorio said, according to the news agency.
Santos, a surprise favorite in Colombia’s last presidential election in 2010, came to power promising to hold hard-line social reforms, but has faced fierce political opposition from powerful landowners in Congress.
Santos has tried to end the big-money influence of an oligarchy that controls much of the country’s wealth and political system. He has scrapped a bill passed by Uribe that would have opened the government’s oil and gas-sharing auctions to companies from abroad, and introduced a new measure aimed at increasing land ownership by descendants of indigenous families.
The peasant-first initiative has caused a furor among the country’s powerful coca farmers, which the government says could bring an end to the country’s longstanding cocaine boom.
When Sen. Angela Palacios shouted “No to privatization” to thunderous applause from the crowd, she stood alone among Senate members.
Two thousand protesters gathered outside a cathedral before entering the square with signs reading “No to privatization.” Palacios was the only senator present at the event.
According to AFP, pro-government agribusinesses held a counter-demonstration in favor of Santos’ controversial “Blue Plan” for the poor.
In this vein, the government in a surprise announcement last month offered a list of incentives, which Uribe’s office said were aimed at eliminating poverty in seven years.
In that plan, education, agriculture, health, transport and the social welfare payments are set to be funded by a cut in credits to capital projects and new taxes on agricultural and cement exports, among other taxes.
In addition, Uribe’s administration has also called for the legalization of coca, the plant that produces cocaine, in Colombia, a move that it says would help stem the violence in the long-standing conflict between guerrillas and the state.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may have been the first world leader to weigh in on the battle between Uribe and Santos.
Chavez used his weekly broadcast program, “Alo Presidente,” last Wednesday to attack Colombia’s Congress for passing a law that would guarantee a certain level of support for wealthy landowners.
Chavez said that kind of “pink-baiting” was not sufficient to determine whether the Uribe administration would be successful in taking the spotlight from other Latin American heads of state.
Chavez acknowledged that Colombians and Venezuelans had been able to do that over the past three years and take the spotlight from the president.