An uprising of the rural poor (campesinos) in Colombia entered its 11th day on August 29. An estimated 250,000 people took part in strikes and highway blockades across the South American country's highlands, where most of Colombia’s population of 42 million is concentrated.
The central objective of the uprising is to guarantee minimum prices for agricultural products, and to annul Colombia’s free trade agreements (FTAs) with the United States and the European Union.
The blockades are strongest in the provinces of Boyaca and Cundinamara, in the centre of the country around the capital, Bogota. The region is home to 8.5 million people.
Despite worsening food scarcity, residents in Bogota have shown their support for the uprising by blockading highways on the outskirts of the city, where they have engaged in a running battle with riot police.
In the south of the country, blockades in the provinces of Narino, Caqueta and Cauca have cut off traffic between Colombia and Ecuador and countries further south.
Protesters have also temporarily blockaded highways around Cali and Medellin, Colombia’s second and third-largest cities, over the past week and a half. As of August 27, 48 highways were blockaded across eight provinces.
As of August 25, one police officer had been killed and more than 160 wounded in the uprising, according to the government.
The casualty list for the campesinos remains unknown. Though none have been killed, there have no doubt been several hundred if not a few thousand injured among the protesters.
The campesinos’ central negotiating committee has denounced the “criminalisation of the protests, the disproportionate use of force, and the police use of firearms” to create fear and intimidation.
A student journalist arrested at the site of one blockade also denounced police violence. Along with five others arrested with him, he was beaten by police after being captured. After being charged and released, the journalist had to be hospitalised.
Oscar Gutierrez, spokesperson for Dignidad Cafetera (Dignity for Coffee-Growers), told Associated Press: “We are fighting [the riot police], but it is a very difficult situation. The government is really sticking it to us.”
Further intensifying the situation, on August 25 a guerrilla attack in the south-east reportedly killed 14 Colombian army soldiers. The attackers were unknown, but may have been guerrillas from the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN). The ELN is not taking part in the peace negotiations being held in Cuba between the Colombian government and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the largest guerrilla army on the continent.
When the uprising began on August 19, the central concern was the collapsing prices for agricultural products provoked by FTAs with the US and EU. The campesinos want minimum price guarantees for their products, along with government support for fertilisers and other inputs.
Agriculture in the US and EU is heavily subsidised. An estimated 18% of US farmers’ income comes from government subsidies, and in the EU the figure is 35%. In this context, the “free-trade” deals cut between Colombia and the US and EU have left Colombian campesinos in an impossible situation.
“Before, we used to earn 800 pesos [$0.46] for every litre of milk sold,” said Moisés Delgado, a campesino spokesperson.
“Now, with the free trade agreement, we only get 500 pesos and we cannot live off this.”
The FTA with the US came into effect in May last year.
This situation has forced many campesinos to sell their lands and join the burgeoning slums in Colombia’s cities. This has led to the further concentration of land in the hands of agribusiness.
This also fits with one of the FTA's central aims ― to increase the profitability of Colombian textile factories, which rely on cheap urban labour.
President Juan Manuel Santos claims to want to find a solution to the problem, “so that the campesinos can have a dignified income, can stay in the countryside, and can see the future with hope and optimism”. But his trade policies tell a different story.
As Cesar Pachon, leader of the potato-growers sector, made clear, the uprising follows protests in November 2011 and May, each of which led to negotiations with Santos’s administration, but no real change.
“We have been tricked twice now,” Pachon said. “This time we are not going to yield until we see dramatic solutions.”
The rural uprising has since become a lightning rod for discontent against the US-backed Colombian government. This extends to opposition to privatisation of social services and cheap concessions to multinational mining corporations.
On August 28, campesinos were joined in protest by unions representing teachers, health-sector workers, students and industrial workers. Truck drivers are also striking alongside the campesinos.
Colombia is the highest recipient of US military aid in Latin America and is the US’s key ally in the region. In a region of left and left-leaning governments pursuing policies aimed at regional independence from Europe and North America, Colombia hosts several US military bases.
In June, it also made overtures towards participation in Nato. Its right-wing, US-friendly stance therefore stymies further integration between the left-wing ALBA alliance, and particularly between Venezuela and Ecuador. With elections due in May next year, any change in the political climate in Colombia would be of dramatic significance for South America.
Colombia’s right-wing status quo is, however, sustained by perpetual political violence. The country has been repeatedly condemned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for the high rates of assassination of journalists, human rights workers and trade unionists.
The campesinos’ negotiating committee has denounced paramilitary intimidation of protesters at several sites. They also report that police have been offering up to 10 million pesos ($5000) to protesters who identify the uprising’s leaders.