Rural Colombians are winding down the national strike that has engulfed the country since August 19. Roadblocks are coming down and laborers are beginning negotiations with the government. But it appears unlikely that an overhaul of the country’s free trade policies—the bitter medicine that many rural Colombians are demanding—will be part of a compromise from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
The strike has mobilized Colombians from numerous sectors. Roadblocks in rural areas included groups like coffee growers—who staged protests earlier this year against the importation of coffee—and truckers, who have been struck by a recent price hike on petroleum. In Bogotá and other cities, health care workers and university students have called for a rollback of privatization in the health care and education industries.
Unifying the strike is dissatisfaction with Colombia’s free trade policies. A lack of investment in infrastructure and the importation of cheap foreign goods, such as coffee and powdered milk, have wreaked havoc upon the earnings of the rural poor. Protesters are also upset with other aspects of Colombian policy, including one law forcing farmers to buy certified seeds, offered exclusively by private corporations such as Monsanto.
Santos has struggled to manage the emerging political crisis as he focuses on beginning peace negotiations with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army—ELN), Colombia’s largest guerrilla group after the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC). Peace talks with the FARC began in November 2012.
The president ignored the strike during its first week, declaring that the “so-called national strike does not exist,” and blaming roadblocks and demonstrations on “10 or 15” agitators.
The story on the ground is different. On August 29, Neil Martin, director of the civic organization Paso Internacional, observed a large non-violent march in the capital that was met with violence from Colombia’s riot police, the Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron—ESMAD).
“What we saw was a relatively peaceful protest which was repressed by the riot police and then turned into a melee,” said Martin. “We witnessed several different instances of the riot police firing tear gas into crowds of peaceful protesters. We saw the riot police throwing projectiles like bricks into crowds of mostly non-violent protesters.”
On August 30, Santos ordered the military into Bogotá and other regions affected by the strike. Clashes so far have left at least five dead and hundreds injured, including protesters, police and civilian bystanders. ESMAD officers in padded uniforms and riot shields are now joined on the streets by military personnel armed with assault rifles.
As security forces clear roadblocks and disperse marches, the Santos administration is scrambling to negotiate an end to the strike. Agreements with various industries have coaxed individual sectors to take down roadblocks. A Gran Pacto Nacional (Grand National Pact) is set to be signed on September 12, but numerous groups have stated they have not yet agreed to join the statement.
The Colombian government has been uncompromising on its stance toward free trade policy. Despite Santos’ declarations that poverty alleviation would be a priority, 46.8 percent of rural Colombians are still poor and 22.8 percent remain in extreme poverty, according to a report by the Colombian national development agency, Dirección de Desarrollo Social (Social Development Office—DDS).
Without compromises from the government to protect the livelihood of farmers and other rural workers, the causes at the root of the national strike will not disappear for long.