Colombia: Rural poor revolt deepens against 'free trade'

September 14, 2013
Colombian protesters march through the city of Sincelejo on August 19.

Representatives of the Colombian rural poor (campesinos) began negotiations with the government on September 12, three-and-a-half weeks into an uprising against “free-trade” policies.

By blockading highways and stopping work since August 19, Colombian campesinos made a dramatic statement for a fairer economy and greater independence from the United States.

The central demand was and is the abolition of the free-trade agreements (FTAs) with the US and EU, and guaranteed minimum prices for their agricultural products.

After the introduction of the US-FTA in May last year, prices for agricultural products halved in some sectors, making it near impossible for campesinos to survive.

The campesinos are also fighting for a fairer distribution of land, an end to punitive anti-coca policies, debt amnesty for small farmers and reductions in the costs of agricultural inputs. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets and blocked the major highways across Colombia, causing scarcity of basic goods in much of the country.

By the second week, the uprising had become a lightning rod for more wide-ranging discontent against corporate dominance of the society. Protesters showed their opposition to privatisation of social services and the free ride given to foreign corporations.

The fulcrum of the uprising came on August 29, with huge protests in Bogota, the Colombian capital. That night, President Juan Manuel Santos militarised Bogota, with thousands of soldiers joining riot police to bring martial law to the city of more than 8 million people.

By morning, two protesters had been shot dead. Hundreds more were injured, the majority suffering concussion from baton blows to the head. Injuries included asphyxiation from tear gas and wounds from rubber bullets.

Two more protesters were killed in clashes with police in the country’s south and west. Police injuries totalled 129 that day, with some suffering bullet wounds.

Fifty-thousand soldiers were deployed nationwide, enforcing night-time curfews and alcohol bans under martial law.

The violence brought both sides to the negotiating table. Santos proclaimed “A Great Agrarian Pact” would be negotiated between campesinos and the government.

Ongoing negotiations led to an agreement to lift the highway blockades on September 10 in Boyaca and other central provinces that are the heartland of the uprising. This was in preparation for the “National Negotiating Table” to be convened in Bogota on September 12.

Political stand off

The uprising has brought the government to a crisis. Santos, whose approval rating stands somewhere between 21-28%, appears desperate in seeking to regain the initiative.

After Santos's spectacular gaffe on August 25, when he claimed “the so-called agrarian strike doesn’t exist”, all the while deploying riot police and arresting campesino leaders, Santos now acts as though agrarian reform was his personal brainchild.

We need to “turn our attention back to the countryside, turn back to the countryside where poverty is concentrated, where inequality is concentrated”, Santos said on the morning of the negotiations in Bogota.

Santos has sacked five cabinet ministers since the start of the uprising. His new agriculture minister, Ruben Dario Lizarralde, a palm-oil plantation owner, has spoken of “the need to overcome rural backwardness”.

This indicates the intractability of negotiations as they stand. The government and the land-owning elite view the campesinos as the epitome of “rural backwardness”.

For the government, erasing poverty does not mean helping the campesino so much as erasing the campesino, leaving them to find whatever space they can in urban slums amid privatisation of basic social services.

As a result, it is difficult to see a conclusion to the conflict in the near future. To reconcile with the campesinos, the government would have to counteract all their previous policies.

Several campesino leaders are already denouncing the negotiations as a farce and refusing to take part.

“You can’t have negotiations with the agricultural sectors represented by family members of government functionaries,” said campesino representative Cesar Jerez.

“This isn’t serious … The pact has to be agreed upon between the groups that aren’t already in agreement with each other.”

Vladimir Carrillo, TeleSUR’s correspondent in Bogota, said the government appears set on refusing to renegotiate its FTAs.

The government has denounced those leaders who refuse to take part in its negotiations. It has made the bizarre claim that the protests have been “inflitrated” by “political elements” ― as though only the elites who control the establishment political parties have the right to “politics”.

Santos said: “They only want to destabilise the government.” He accused leftist movement Marcha Patriotica of “imposing its own agenda” and “forcing campesinos to strike”.

The president claimed other sectors supporting the campesinos are “victims of intimidation”.

The discourse is thus one of good and bad opposition. The “good” urban protesters and campesinos are innocent and loyal. The “bad” are “vandals”, “extremists”, “networks of support for terrorism”. They are the “dark forces behind all this” who manipulate the good protesters, as national police chief Rodolfo Palomino has claimed.


Campesinos representatives have made it clear that they will return to the streets if negotiations do not proceed in good faith.

The road blockades proved to be an incredibly successful way of forcing the central government to hear the people’s demands. In some provinces, 70% of economic activity was estimated to have stopped during the blockades.

An extremely hopeful sign was the campesino decision to convene their own congress in Bogota on September 12. This allows them to set their own agenda, supersede the government’s desire to stage-manage the debate and permit a real consideration of how their problems can be solved.

Alongside campesinos, the opposition to the government's agenda now includes teachers, students, health-sector workers, miners, transport unions, textile unions and the cacerolazos ― common people who leave their homes to beat pots and pans in the streets in protest.

However, there remains great disunity, which has allowed the government to negotiate with different sectors separately, even splitting campesinos between coffee-growers, potato-growers, cacao-growers and more.

For example, just as campesinos were lifting highway blockades on September 10, teachers and students were striking again in Cali after a breakdown in their negotiations with the government.

Yet what is new and hopeful in the uprising, according to Colombian university professor Fernando Giraldo, is that “the campesinos”, who have traditionally been marginalised from political life, “realised that they could bring the government to its knees and force it to accept changes”.

With fresh elections to be held next year, the direction that the rural uprising takes will be crucially important to the future of Colombian society and the region as a whole.

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