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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Unrest has spread across South American countries in recent weeks. This is the sound of protests last night in Bogota. Colombians have taken to the streets to express their unhappiness over a range of issues and their displeasure with the president, Ivan Duque. Reporter John Otis joins us from Bogota. John, thanks for being with us.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.
SIMON: And what issues have brought people into the streets?
OTIS: Well, Scott, they're angry over a great big, long list of issues, actually. They think President Duque hasn't supported Colombia's peace treaty, which ended a long guerrilla war back in 2016. They also are calling for more protection for human rights workers, hundreds of whom have been targeted and killed by criminal gangs. And they're also worried that the government is going to cut salaries and pension benefits, so there's some economic issues in there as well. And so this is what's led to these really very large protests that we saw both on Thursday and yesterday on Friday.
SIMON: I gather the protests themselves so far have been mostly peaceful. But there are things elsewhere going on in Colombia nearby that have not been.
OTIS: Yeah. I mean, the protests here in Colombia have been largely peaceful. But towards the end of the day both on Thursday and Friday, there were outbreaks of looting and vandalism, and a total of six people have been killed here so far in Colombia.
And all over Latin America, actually, there've been a lot of protests, some of them violent. You know, in Bolivia this month, protesters helped bring down President Evo Morales after a fraud-marred election. In Chile, the protests broke out over a hike in subway fares that led to a lot of burning and looting. And in Ecuador, the government there was nearly toppled when it raised gas prices. So there's a lot of unrest and anger in this region. But the issues seem to be, you know, a little different in every country.
SIMON: President Duque has been in office just a little more than a year. What's he intend to do in response?
OTIS: Well, you know, that's one of the problems. Even before these protests began, government officials were claiming that they were part of this broad left-wing conspiracy to topple governments around Latin America. They really focused on sending in the police and army troops ahead of time to search homes for weapons. And they kind of painted the protesters more as kind of bandits and vandals rather than people with, you know, legitimate issues to protest about.
That caused a lot of anger, and that actually swelled the protests. It made them a lot bigger. So now President Duque has come out and said, OK, we're going to start a national dialogue about these issues starting next week. But he - you know, his response has really kind of been part of the problem, it seems.
SIMON: Colombia's been stable for quite some time - a number of years. Are these protests unsettling for a lot of people in the region?
OTIS: You know, that's exactly right. These protests here have caught people a little bit by surprise because Colombia has always been, you know, a very institutional country, despite guerrilla wars and cocaine, drug-related violence. There's been a lot of government stability and economic stability. That's kind of one of the hallmarks of this country. There hasn't been a coup d'etat here since 1953. And even that curfew that was imposed in Bogota last night was the first time that's happened in 43 years.
So, you know, at least for now, it seems like people are just, you know, pushing for the government to change its direction rather than as in other countries to try to bring down the government.
SIMON: John Otis in Bogota, Colombia, thanks so much for being with us.
OTIS: Thank you.
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