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Colombia's Ambassador To The U.S. On What's Next For Government As Protests Continue

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Anti-government protests in Colombia have now entered their fourth week. Protesters have blocked roads and highways, straining supply lines for food and gasoline. And more than 40 people have died, some in conflicts with police, while hundreds more have been injured. This started when the government tried to raise taxes to fill a pandemic hole in its budget. President Ivan Duque has since withdrawn that proposal, but the protests have continued, fueled by anger over poverty, the pandemic and police brutality. To talk about all this, we're joined now by Colombia's ambassador to the U.S., Francisco Santos. Ambassador, good to have you back.

FRANCISCO SANTOS: Ari, it's great having you - talking to you again.

SHAPIRO: So four weeks in, what is the government's immediate plan to deal with these protests that keep going?

SANTOS: No, Ari, the first thing is start to protect, again, those who want to protest, to look into abuses and go after them with the attorney general's office, but also to restore public order, especially the blockage of roads that have created a humanitarian crisis in Cali, for example, a city of 2.3 million people. And third, start implementing what he has agreed with some of the groups he has been talking to. For example, a subsidy for - of 25% to all of the - on the hiring of young people from 18 to 28, a very big program to help young people acquire housing, implement also university - free education for the poorest 30% of - college education for that 30% percent. (Inaudible).

SHAPIRO: So you're saying the government is making some concessions to protesters' demands. At the same time, the government has been accused of a heavy-handed crackdown on protesters. I understand that the administration claims criminal groups have infiltrated the protests and are responsible for attacking police stations, government buildings and businesses. But does that justify the use of force in responding to these demonstrations?

SANTOS: No. And first or foremost, Ari, we're a democracy, and we protect the right of citizens to protest. And we - and anybody within the police force or the military who acts outside the law is going to be prosecuted. As a matter of fact, if you saw today's newspaper or Washington Post, of the four cases, three of them are already in a judicial phase (ph). They've - the policemen have been indicted. But there's no justification for it. President Duque said it very clearly. There's no - we will not accept the abuse of force. But it's a very complicated scenario where you have very small groups of vandals infiltrated by the FARC, by the ELN - small groups that have nothing to do with the protest creating this chaos. And to be very sincere, they want the narrative, which is also part of how things are now in the world.

SHAPIRO: And yet President Duque chose to allow the military to join police in responding to these protests in Colombian cities. Does bringing the army into city streets risk exacerbating the violence?

SANTOS: What they are doing - and they have very, very strict, orders - is to open the road. So for example, there are caravans of trucks that they protect to bring oxygen from the ports to the hospitals. We're in the middle of the worst pandemic. Our third high of the pandemic is the worst of them all. More than 500 people die every day. And we're...

SHAPIRO: So...

SANTOS: ...Getting no supplies. So they're doing that.

SHAPIRO: So tell us about how you fight this surge of the pandemic while also dealing with a shortage of supplies like food and gasoline.

SANTOS: No. It's - that's the most worrisome thing. And that's why one of the elements of the crisis is humanitarian. And obviously, this is going to create a superspreader event. We're asking the administration to really help us to vaccinate people because we're in the peak, and it can get worse. People are on the streets, et cetera. So we're bracing for that impact. And the military, what it's doing is trying to reestablish a line so - the road so that food can come in, so that fuel can come in, so...

SHAPIRO: All right.

SANTOS: ...That medical supplies can come in.

SHAPIRO: Francisco Santos is Colombia's ambassador to the United States. It is good to talk to you again. Thank you.

SANTOS: Thank you, Ari. Have a good day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.