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Building Momentum

The Anti-Free Trade Strike in Colombia

by STEVEN MATHER

As Colombian peasants ended their eighth day of an anti-free trade agreement strike last night by forcing President Juan Manuel Santos to the negotiating table, thousands of protesters banging pots and pans filled the main plaza of the capital Bogota in solidarity.

According to organizers around 300,000 strikers are involved in the action. They have blocked roads across Colombia and put the brakes on the agricultural sector of the national economy, demanding the government suspend the fta with the US and the EU.

The economic pressure and the high level of support there is for the strike across the country – reflected by the protest last night in Plaza Bolivar – has seen the govenment’s position shift. Santos has now agreed to speak to the peasants’ national representatives and keen to do some kind of deal.

The free trade agreement with the US came into force in July 2012 and within a year agricultural imports have increased by 70%. In 2011, Colombia imported 5,000 tons of rice from the US. In the year after the fta came in, 98,000 tons were imported.

Poverty levels in rural Colombia were already at 65% before the US fta came into affect.

The EU fta came into force on 1 August this month. Its impact has yet to be felt.

Gathering Momentum

The action got off to a slow start last week. Some coffee growers from Huila department pulled out from the strike last minute and this led Santos to dismiss the strike. “It hasn’t been as big as expected,” he said. But that Monday was a bank holiday.

On Day 2, it was clear the strike was quickly spreading across the country. It had reached at least half the 32 departments(states), dairy workers standing alongside potato, rice and coffee growers. Truckers, miners and health workers also downed tools and joined the action.

By the weekend, after five days, the local mainstream media were reporting that 37 highways had been blocked across the country and the price of agricultural products had risen by up to 200%.

The departments of Cauca and Narino – parts of the country known for their grassroots militancy – and the capital Bogota have seen sustained blockades and confrontations with the police.

In Cauca, 8,000 protesters blocked the Panaamerican highway, that makes its way up from Ecuador in the south, until the police forced it open on Day 3.

In the southern departments of Narino and Putumayo, roads to and from Ecuador have been blocked.

Three main highways into Bogota – with a population of over 7 million – had also been disrupted and campesinos from Cundinamarca department were blocking the passage of all vehicles. Students were involved in confrontations with the police at the city’s National and Pedagical universities.

But chilly Boyaca, high in the mountains and not known for its resistance in recent times, has seen the most successful strike action.

Cesar Pachon is a potato grower and a leading figure in the action in Boyaca. “To produce 100kg (220lbs) of potatoes costs 70-75,000 pesos[$36-39],” he said. “We sell it at 25,000 pesos. To produce the same quantity of onions is 65,000 pesos y they sell for 10,000 pesos.”

Pachon says the livelihood and way of life of Colombians has been squeezed by cheap imports, flooding into Colombia due to free market policies going back to 1994 and the so-called economic opening brought in the policies of the Washington consensus.

This hardship has motivated Boyaca peasant organizations to bring this key agricultural region to a standstill. They have blocked nine main roads in the department. The main routes in and out of departmental capital Tunja, including the main highway to Bogota, were closed throughout the week.

The police, in the form of the Mobile Ant-Disturbance Squad (Esmad), has used tear gas indiscriminately in response. “Many people have complained because there are pregnant women and children where they are launching the gas,” said local mayor Carlos Triana. “The Esmad don’t have any form of identification. Any one who films them also ends up being assaulted.”

But the protesters have managed to stay one step ahead of the Esmad. When a blockade has come under attack, it has broken up and reformed further down the road.

Boyaca business owners were complaining of the economic impact of the strike by Day 3. Large-scale cattle farmer organization Fabegan said dairy farmers were losing 300,000 litres (79,000 gallons) of milk a day, while local bus company Cogflonorte said it was losing 700 million pesos daily. The price of a basket of potatoes had gone from 40,000 pesos to 59,000 pesos in a week.

Government Strategy

The Santos government strategy has been to play good-cop bad-cop and attempt divide and rule.

Aggressive and violent deeds by the riot police (Esmad) have gone hand in hand with strong words from Santos. They would be “implacable” in the face of road blocks, he said.

Agricultural minister Francisco Estupinan  was also wading in, branded the protesters “intransigent” and their demands “unmeasured”. He said that renegotiating free trade agreements was not possible.

The usual smears from those in power that the protesters had been infiltrated by guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) were also making their way into the national press.

The government refused to negotiate with the national representatives of the strikers, with their collective demands. In the first week talks only took place between different regionas and sectors of those involved.

At the same time, the government knows Colombians have a lot of sympathy with the strikers. Santos has said he is on the side of peasants and his government is keen to talk, provided road blocks are lifted.

Talks between the agriculture minister and the Boyoca protesters ended on Day 6 without agreement.

Santos Climbdown

But by Day 8 [yesterday], it was clear this strategy was not working and something had to give.

Late last night, as the protesters with their pots and pans in Bogota’s Plaza Bolivar were pushing at the police lines protecting the national parliament, Santos was announcing simultaneous talks, scheduled for today, with the representatives of dairy, potato and onion farmers from the different departments.

Forcing a renegotiation of free trade deals with two economic super powers is not going to happen as a result of this action. Colombia’s ruling class ideologically favours free trade. They are also heavily dependent on the US government for military aid.

But economic sweetners proffered to ease the peasants’ plight are likely. Santos signalled yesterday that access to credit through the state’s agricultural bank Banco Agrario could be made easier. A reduction in the high cost of fertilizers, a key economic input for farmers, has also been mentioned in the media.

Whether that will be enough to settle the dispute, or force a split in the movement that will leave the more radical elements isolated will become clearer later this week.

The strikers’ six demands are; (i) the implementation of economic measures to reverse the crisis in agricultural production (this includes suspension of ftas; (ii) the provision of land titles for peasants; (iii) properly-financed peasant economic reserve zones that protect the peasant way of life and produce food stuffs for the domestic economy; (iv) participation of local communities and small-scale miners in the decision on natural resource exploitation; (v) guarantees of political participation for peasants; (vi) government investment in health, education and housing for rural and urban communities.

Steven Mather is a British journalist based in Colombia. He is about to launch Frontlinecolombia.com, a new website/blog for news & analysis of Colombia’s social confict. He can be contacted at stevenmather@frontlinecolombia.com.