Three strikes roil Colombia

Gabriel Chaves and Eric Ruder report on the dynamics surrounding strikes in key sectors of Colombia's economy.

Striking coffee workers march and rally supportStriking coffee workers march and rally support

COLOMBIAN WORKERS in two crucial sectors--coffee and trucking--are now on strike, while coal miners at one of the world's largest open pit mines appear close to ending a strike that began February 7 to demand better wages and health benefits.

But whether or not the 5,000 miners end their strike at Cerrejon this week, the strikes by truckers and coffee growers affect far more people. There are 340,000 truckers affected by the strike, and some 500,000 families involved in coffee production.

By March 4, the coffee growers strike, which began February 25, had essentially cut off the southwestern city of Popayan from the rest of the country, and the truckers used their vehicles to shut down a key transit route between Cali, Colombia's third-largest city, and the western port city of Buenaventura.

Meanwhile, key legislators were on their way to Havana, Cuba, where delicate negotiations between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym FARC) have been ongoing in an effort to end nearly five decades of armed conflict.

But even as the two sides engage in talks on neutral terrain, violent conflict in Colombia between government forces and FARC paramilitaries have intensified, strengthening the hand of those who prefer a continuation of the conflict. For example, former President Alvaro Uribe Velez, who is a mouthpiece for the interests of the big landowners, has sought to turn outrage at the ongoing violence to speak out against the Havana peace negotiations. "This socioeconomic group amassed its fortunes during the war and feels threatened that a negotiated peace might result in reform that will redistribute land," explains blogger Nazih Richani.

But this week, it's the specter of widespread labor unrest that has captured the national spotlight as well as thrust itself into the everyday live of Colombia's people. According to Colombia Reports:

In the south-central Huila department, authorities declared a "sanitary emergency" because trash could not be collected. In the northwestern Antioquia department, the road connecting the cities of Medellin and Ciudad Bolivar were reportedly blocked by protesters. Road blocks were also reported on 20 different roads in nine Colombian departments, prompting the country's vice-president, Angelino Garzon, to ask the protesters to "allow medications [and] food" to pass through.

According to reports, 25 protesters were injured Saturday [March 2] as Colombian riot police retook a road in Huila. The coffee farmers in this department said that they would consider marching to Colombia's capital city of Bogota if the government did not acquiesce to their demands.

Colombia's truckers also appear willing to escalate their militancy to demonstrate their seriousness. "Colombia's truckers union (ACC) on [March 1] announced that they would stage country-wide protests over a national fuel increase, and the president of the union reportedly said [March 3] that the road blockage would continue until the government removes the six-cent increase in gas prices," also according to Colombia Reports.

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OIL AND coal may now be Colombia's first and second most-important foreign-exchange earners, while coffee has fallen to fifth, but the icon of Juan Valdez handpicking coffee beans remains fused with Colombia's national identity. Support for Colombia's coffee growers is itself widespread--even beyond Colombia. Argentinean soccer superstar Diego Maradona, for example, posed with a sign of support for Colombian coffee growers.

Across Colombia, many merchants closed shops in solidarity, at least on the first day of the strike. Even former President Uribe has voiced support for the farmers, though presumably he's more interested in further diminishing the plunging popularity of Santos than in seeing a victory for growers who have a strong interest in land reform. Reports also suggest that he may run for senate in 2014 since the Constitution forbids him from again serving as president.

In preparation for the strike, farmers of the region collected pots and cooking wood and built camps. They were supposed to bring food for the first day and raw vegetables for subsequent days, and they collected money to collectively hire a bus to take them to focal points for their protests.

But it wasn't long before riot police assaulted their camps--with brutality. One protester lost his hand to an explosive thrown at him by an unidentified police officer. Police have razed camps to the ground and thrown food and gear to the ground. As coffee growers attempted to salvage their food and other necessaries from the soil, police spread toxic chemicals over the spoils to make them inedible.

Scenes like these were repeated throughout the country, while comments from police defending the brutality they engaged in because it "interrupted their vacation days" have served to further taint the image of police.

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IN A video that has spread virally through social networks, a 77-year-old coffee grower struggles to hold back his tears as he reminds viewers that coffee had been the backbone of the Colombian economy for 80 years.

For many of those years, growers paid into a fund managed by the Colombian coffee growers federation, Fedecafe, to see them through tough times. In recent years, a trifecta of crop disease, bad weather and a strong currency has forced growers to sell their produce at a loss. Yet just as the fund is more urgently needed than ever, the growers have found years of corruption, poor management and neoliberalism have pillaged the fund.

By March 1, the indigenous communities of Northern Cauca were also engaged in setting up road blockades. During the Uribe years, their movement had effectively resisted the government offensive against their territories. As they arrived in support of the growers, they brought their own contribution to the political narrative: "It's not just the coffee; it is the agricultural sector and the whole economic model."

The media has tried--unsuccessfully--to deflect attention away from the crisis with tales from the Vatican of the pope's resignation. And on March 2, the government attempted to disorganize the strike by announcing that negotiations with Fedecafe had succeeded and the strike was over.

Apparently the government hadn't learned, however, that Dignidad Cafetera, not Fedecafe, was the organization mobilizing the strikers. The public, despite the papal telenovela foisted upon them, was well aware of the difference. By the afternoon of March 3, dozens of big rigs were blocking access to the port of Buenaventura: the truck drivers had begun preparing for their strike.

The two major armed groups that for decades have claimed to be fighting for the people have been visibly distant from the struggle. The government is trying desperately to find a culprit to blame for the intensifying crisis while not jeopardizing the peace talks in Habana.

But as usual, government officials have tried to associate the popular revolt with the deeply unpopular rebel groups. But this just makes for ridiculous public relations since the government's negotiations with the FARC in Havana are daily front page news, begging the question of why peaceful protest is met with clubs and tear gas while armed guerrillas get high-level diplomatic meetings.

This has no doubt contributed to changing ideas more broadly. The strikes by coffee growers and truck drivers have wide popular support and have helped to break the stigma associated with popular struggle in the rural regions of Colombia. The strikes have highlighted the disconnection between social movements and the guerrilla groups and clarified for all to see the attitude of the government as well as Fedecafe.

At another point, the government tried to pin responsibility on the main opposition party, but the opposition quickly responded. Party leaders said that they lacked the power to call such a strike, since this power resides in Dignidad Cafetera; at the same time, they defended the right to protest and condemned the brutal response by police.

If the coffee growers follow through on their pledge to march on Bogota, the capital of Colombia, the specter of 100,000 or more small farmers would certainly be enough to make the political class tremble.

The reputation of the government depends on isolating the residents of the capital of the realities of the countryside. The last movement that threatened to walk to the capital was the Minga, an indigenous movement in 2008. Then-President Uribe, despite stratospherically high rates of popularity, prevented the arrival of the Minga in Bogota by intercepting it and reaching an agreement.

It is unclear what promises the government can offer without upsetting international interests. Recently, Colombia signed free trade agreements with the United States and South Korea, which constrains the government's ability to implement tariffs or other policies to protect agricultural and industrial activities.

Whether the government is more inclined to break with its newly signed treaties or to continue with repression of internal dissent is now being tested on the roads of Colombia.