Thousands march across Colombia to oppose government reforms

BOGOTA, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Thousands of people took to the streets of Colombia's major cities on Wednesday to protest social and economic reforms that leftist President Gustavo Petro presented to Congress, policies he says will improve access to health care and protect people's rights, but which opponents say will aid criminals.

The demonstrations, organized by the opposition right-wing Democratic Center party, were similar in size to marches which took place on Tuesday at Petro's encouragement, where his supporters filled streets to show their support for the reforms.

Petro - Colombia's first leftist president - on Monday presented a controversial health reform to Congress, with which he hopes to treat illnesses quickly, increase access, boost salaries in the sectors, and fight corruption by eliminating intermediary payment services.

The president also looks to present labor and pension reforms, as well as programs to guarantee free access to university education for students without the money to pay for it, while delivering subsidies to impoverished families and the poor elderly.

Colombia's opposition have blasted Petro's proposals, saying they endanger the country's economic stability and could plunge it into chaos with higher poverty.

"I don't agree with Petro's reforms, they are detrimental to our country," said business administrator Johana Cardenas, 43, told Reuters at a protest in Bogota.

Petro built a broad coalition in Congress with support from left, center and right-wing parties which helped him push through a tax reform late last year, yet projects such as the health reform have caused fractures in that alliance and even within the government.

"The change that the government is calling for favors criminals and is dividing Colombians," said pensioner William Castro, 64, who warned of chaos if the government nationalizes sectors including health.

More than half of Colombia's population lives in poverty, according to official statistics.

Laws approved by Congress must be examined by the Constitutional Court to assess their legality.

As with marches to support the government on Tuesday, the opposition marches took place without incident and were peaceful, according to officials.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by David Gregorio

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