November 26, 2019 / 1:59 PM / 10 days ago

More protests in Colombia as Duque makes changes to tax reform

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian unions and student groups will hold another protest on Wednesday in honor of a teenage demonstrator who died after being injured by a tear gas canister, as President Ivan Duque announced changes to his unpopular tax reform proposal.

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

Other demonstrations are expected to continue on Tuesday, the sixth straight day of protests following a 250,000-person march last week organized by the National Strike Committee.

The largely peaceful protests have attracted thousands of marchers to reject economic reforms, police violence and corruption.

The committee said in a statement early on Tuesday it would demand “a permanent negotiation” with Duque, but talks lasted only about two hours, with committee leaders demanding Duque meet only with them, sans business leaders or other sectors.

The committee has demanded the tax reform, which includes a cut in duties on businesses, be rejected.

Shortly after the meeting, Duque told journalists the proposal will be modified to return value added tax to the poorest 20% of Colombians and lower contributions to healthcare by minimum wage pensioners - half of the retired population - from 12% to 4% over three years. There will also be three days each year without VAT.

The proposals will cost some 3.2 trillion pesos ($931 million), the government said.

Duque denies supporting rumored economic plans that have galvanized many protesters - including a cut to the minimum wage for young people. Demonstrators have also highlighted what they say is a lack of government action to stop the murder of hundreds of human rights activists and asked Duque to fully implement a 2016 peace deal with leftist rebels.

Asked as he left the meeting what the government could do to end protests, Confederation of Colombian Workers president Luis Miguel Morantes told Reuters “it is a negotiation, there will be things that go to a certain point, there will be a fair balance, there will be other things we have to wait for, like changes in laws, it’s very relative.”

The committee wanted an “exclusive” dialogue, but the government would like them to form part of national discussions, said official Diego Molano.

“They must understand that there are other sectors which also want to debate the issues of employment, who have proposals for young people,” Molano told journalists.

The death on Monday of protester Dilan Cruz, 18, is likely to fuel further criticism of the crowd dispersion tactics of the ESMAD riot police, which include tear gas and stun grenades.

Cruz, who was injured on Saturday, has become a symbol for many young protesters. On Tuesday mourners were gathering at makeshift shrines outside the hospital where he was treated and the place where he was hit.

The strike committee said it would ask Duque to shut down the ESMAD and “purify” the police.

The committee will increase the intensity of the strike on Wednesday “in homage to the symbol of the national strike Dylan Cruz,” the statement said, using a different spelling of Cruz’s first name than that used by his sister and the government.

($1 = 3,433.94 Colombian pesos)

Reporting by Carlos Vargas, Nelson Bocanegra, Julia Symmes Cobb and Luis Jaime Acosta, additional reporting by Luisa Gonzalez; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Alistair Bell

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