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Strikers Fill Streets as Latin American Rage Spreads to Colombia

Ezra Fieser
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Strikers Fill Streets as Latin American Rage Spreads to Colombia

(Bloomberg) -- Colombian demonstrators clashed with anti-riot police and blocked roads Thursday as hundreds of thousands took to the streets in a nationwide strike aimed at the deeply unpopular President Ivan Duque.

Protests that were largely peaceful through the day degenerated into confrontation by late afternoon as demonstrators smashed windows, destroyed bus stops, set up roadblocks and threw rocks at police.

Riot control squads deployed armored vehicles and shot water cannons at protesters. Marchers who had massed in Bogota’s central plaza adjacent to congress dispersed as security forces lobbed tear gas into the square. In the evening, people banged pots in some Bogota neighborhoods, a form of protest which is common in Venezuela, but rare in Colombia.

Police said 207,000 people took part in about 300 demonstrations and protests across the country. The mayor of Cali, the nation’s third-largest city, declared a curfew this evening.

Opposition Senator Gustavo Petro, runner-up to Duque in last year’s election, called for an extension to the protests, planned for one-day, after the “government sabotaged the marches.”

Organizers initially called the strike to raise pressure on Duque as his government plans to reform pension and labor laws. But it morphed into a broad-based rejection of his administration, with groups from air-traffic controllers to yoga teachers joining in.

“This protest is to show the government that it has to listen to the people,” said Diana Oviedo, 34, who joined a demonstration Thursday at Bogota’s national park. “We’re here to tell the social leaders that are being threatened, the workers, the students, everyone, that they’re not alone.”

Similar anti-government sentiment has fueled protests across Latin America, with large-scale demonstrations pushing leaders to roll back austerity programs, and helping drive Bolivia’s long-standing president, Evo Morales, out of office. Investors are pricing in a risk that Colombia may also see more political instability.

“There’s a lot of tension in Latin America right now,” said Oren Barack, managing director of fixed income at AGP Alliance Global Partners in New York, which holds Colombia sovereign and corporate debt.

Sealed Borders

Groups taking part are protesting a range of issues including education funding, corruption and unsolved murders of social leaders. The government said it will seal the borders and allow local authorities to take measures such as imposing curfews to control violence.

In response, the 43-year-old Duque has defended his record and offered “to listen to all communities through a permanent dialogue.” His office has also gone on the offensive, describing many of the strike organizers’ grievances as myths, and releasing videos juxtaposing images of violent protests with those of people happily working, urging Colombians to “construct, not destroy.”

He was monitoring the protests on Thursday from a police command center where he was joined by cabinet members, according to a Tweet in which he pledged to “protection for all Colombians.”

Investor Fears

Sovereign bonds of Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia have sold off since violent clashes began. The cost of insuring Colombia’s sovereign bonds against default with credit default swaps -- a gauge of perceived risk -- has risen the most in the Americas this week.

“Because they were blindsided by what happened in Chile, they’re even more concerned by what could happen in Colombia,” said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a Bogota-based consultancy.

Colombia last saw large-scale demonstrations in 2013 during an agriculture strike.

Approval Rating

Thursday’s marches may create negative headlines that weigh on assets this week, said Dirk Willer, head of emerging-market fixed-income strategy at Citigroup Inc.

The protests may also succeed in pressuring the government into delaying and watering down pension-reform plans, he said.

And they could further weaken Duque’s already flimsy support. His approval rating fell this month to 26%, its lowest since he took office last year. A lack of a majority in Congress complicates his plans to push through a tax reform this year and pension and labor bills next year. And a scandal over a bombing raid on a guerrilla camp that killed several minors forced his defense minister to quit this month.

“Duque’s flaws have contributed to a growing level of discontent,” said Claudia Navas, an analyst at the Control Risks consultancy in Bogota. “It’s uncertain where the president is taking the country.”

(Updates with figures from police starting in second paragraph)

--With assistance from Oscar Medina.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ezra Fieser in Bogota at efieser@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Juan Pablo Spinetto at jspinetto@bloomberg.net, Matthew Bristow

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