Colombia Anti-free Trade Strike Brings Gains for Left

by STEVEN MATHER

Four tumultuous and sometimes violent weeks after Colombia’s national agricultural strike began, the most radical section of farmers has forced the government to sit down with its national leadership.

The MIA met the government in the city of Popayán in Cauca department (state) last Thursday and scheduled a series of meetings between now and Christmas. The suspension of the free trade agreements (FTAs) signed with the United States and the European Union is among the farmers’ demands.

It has been a hard and costly fight with twelve protesters killed, 507 injured and 262 arbitrarily detained.

Life is already tough in rural Colombia with 65% of farmers living in poverty and 1% of the population owning 52% of rural land. Travel to many areas of the countryside and you will often find no schools and no doctors. The worst living standards sit side-by-side multimillion-dollar foreign investments.

The US FTA, which came in to affect last year, is squeezing even more economic life out of communities. Rice and milk imports have increased by almost 2,000%, soya by 155% and average agricultural prices are up 70%.

The Strike

It all began on Monday August 19. In the first week, roads across the country were blockaded and the capital Bogotá was feeling the pressure. Prices of some products were up 200% (see my report here). President Juan Manuel Santos’s government conceded at the end of the week to sit at the same table with the leaders of different regions and sectors but not with them as a national leadership.

The strike continued and so did the government’s strategy to divide and weaken the strikers on the one hand while using state violence in the form of the riot police (Esmad) to batter, arrest and detain them on the other.

Support for the strike has been high, even in cities and towns that suffered from the blockades. Solidarity marches and mobilizations of thousands took place in the squares of regional cities such as Pasto, Medellín, Cali, Bucaramanga and Armenia. These events were largely good natured and without any major confrontations with the police.

This was to change on Thursday August 29 – Day 11 of the strike. A peaceful solidarity march by workers and students got underway in Bogotá between the National Park and the Plaza de Bolívar. Thousands were involved including parliamentarians Hernán Hernandez and Iván Cepeda.

While speeches were being made in the plaza confrontations broke out between students and the Esmad on the well-known pedestrianized shopping thoroughfare Carrera 7. Bricks on one side were met with tear gas, water cannon and batons on the other (Note: In these confrontations, I witnessed one photographer in his mid-20s with part of his face ripped off after a gas canister thrown by the Esmad exploded inches from him) and by the afternoon, bus stations had been smashed up and protesters had blocked one of the city’s main arteries Avenida Caracas. Things were getting out of the government’s control.

By the end of the day, Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro put several municipalities of the city under curfew and the following morning Santos declared the militarization of the capital.

Cracks in the Unity

With this level of unrest and public sympathy, a unified position among the strikers could have put the government under extreme pressure to concede real change at a national level. But unity was always fragile – not helped by sectarian political interests in some regions – and it was fracturing.

Negotiations were already underway with the potato, onion and dairy farmers of the agriculturally important departments of Boyacá, Cundinamarca and Nariño. These organizations known as Dignity for Potato Farmers, Dignity for Onion Farmers and Dignity for Dairy Farmers broke off from the national strike leadership.

Road blocks were lifted in these departments to facilitate the negotiations, which eased the economic pressure on the capital and it was returning to normality. Local news channel Caracol was reporting that agricultural prices were stabilizing in the city.

On Wednesday September 4, an agreement was announced to end the strike in the three departments. The accord was a series of measures such as subsidies and easier access to credit, some of which will only apply for two years.

The MIA made it clear that this was a sectional agreement and the deal would offer only temporary respite. The National Agricultural Strike would continue, they said. In reality, though, the government’s divide-and-conquer strategy was paying off.

The same day as the agreement was signed, the Esmad killed four people, including a five-year-old boy in Mojarras, Cauca. It was the 16th day the main Panamerican Highway, which runs up the west of the country from Ecuador in the south, had been blockaded. The Esmad were under clear instruction to unblock the highway, whatever the human cost. They succeeded.

Boyacá potato farmer leader César Pachón appeared to accept the limitations of what they had signed. “I hope the farmers understand me since even though we got many things, we didn’t get everything,” he said. “But we arrived at a moment where no further agreement was possible.”

Things weren’t looking good. The farmers in the southern departments of Caquetá, Putumayo, Cauca and the north of Huila remained determined to continue, but determination and militancy are not enough on their own. Road blocks in these departments would not make up for the absence of big agricultural areas such as Boyacá that have the potential to economically strangle the capital.

Then – almost out of the blue – progress. Santos declared his government would meet the MIA on Sunday September 8, Day 21 of the strike. Out of that meeting emerged a date to start negotiations in Popayán (today’s talks). Road blocks were lifted across the country.

Looking Ahead

It remains to be seen what the MIA can get out of the talks in terms of direct immediate gains for farmers. Colombia’s ruling elite – represented by the government – is ruthless and cynical in their treatment of those that confront them. The Santos government’s priority is to end the strike while conceding very little in concrete policy changes.

In Huila, where I was last week, farmers were disappointed and many activists felt betrayed by other regions of the country.

Many in Putumayo, where I am now, are very angry with how it looks to be ending. At two meetings of representatives across the department in the last days they were almost universally against ending the blockades. Reports of anti-coca crop fumigations on Monday just as the meeting was getting only added to the discontent.
But the struggle has made several gains for farmers and the left. Firstly, the negative consequences of FTAs and free trade policies generally have been nudged further into the conscience of the people. The strikers also have sympathy beyond the usual left parties.

Secondly, the Marcha Patriotica political movement has come out of the strike strengthened after being key in organizing the struggle. ‘La Marcha’ – as it is known – started as an organization to promote peace with social justice between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and the government. It has now begun to broaden and develop its political program, firming up its relationship with farmers, who are an essential element of its social base.

The talks will provide a fresh platform over a period of months for La Marcha to present its sensible alternative to the neoliberal status quo through the mainstream media.

The last gain for Colombia’s social movement has gone largely unnoticed. The government and the Farc have been in Cuba for the last year negotiating an end to the armed conflict.

Farmers, the Marcha Patriotica and the Congress of the Peoples social organization have been demanding representation at the table in Havana all year. They argue that an agreement to end the armed conflict on its own will not bring peace to Colombia. Only with social movements at the table will peace be possible.

Santos has rejected this, preferring to keep the Farc isolated and demonized and the social movements marginalized.

Through the strike they have effectively elbowed their way in and gate crashed the talks. The MIA’s demands for an alternative agricultural model, the suspension of free trade agreements, political representation for farmers are almost identical to the talks agenda in Cuba. This puts the Colombian in left a strong position and gives it something to build from.

It is still early days and it could all in end in tears. It is also possible, however, that a new movement could be in formation – a Colombian Bolivarian movement – the first serious left-wing organization Colombia has seen for 25 years.

The first meeting between the government takes place in the city of Medellín this Thursday 26 September.

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.

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