An estimated 80,000 protesters still line roads in 10 departments, as leaders of Colombia’s agricultural strikes prepare for the first day of national negotiations with the Colombian government, according to strike organizers.
Exactly one month from the start of nationwide strikes, protests continue through much of the country, even as negotiations are set to begin between the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos and the MIA, the national organizing body behind over four weeks of widespread protests.
The talks, scheduled to begin at 11am Thursday in Popoyan, capital of the Cauca department, will revolve around the six-point National Declaration released by protesters 11 days before the announced deadline for nationwide strikes.
On September 8th, a preliminary accord orchestrated by Vice-President Angelino Garzon set the framework for the negotiations. Protesters agreed to lift roadblocks throughout the country in exchange for a national dialogue, which, up until that point, had proved elusive.
The following Tuesday, United Nations observers confirmed that roadblocks had been lifted at the 17 agreed-upon points of national importance. The government, however, took almost a week to name its negotiation commission, a delay that nearly brought an end to discussions before they had officially commenced.
Luz Dary Molina, a local strike organizer in the heavily involved Boyaca department, told Colombia Reports that the government only just avoided a return to full-scale protest efforts, including the reestablishment of roadblocks throughout the country.
“The pre-agreement [signed by the MIA and the government] called for the government to name its commission in an ‘immediate and urgent manner’. Obviously, that did not happen. We were worried from the start that the offer of a national dialogue was a trick to end the roadblocks, so when we saw a delay, we were ready to begin everything all over again.”
The government, she said, was issued a Monday deadline to appoint the commission, which now includes the vice-president and the ministers of commerce, agriculture, the interior, external commerce, and public planning, according to the government’s own announcement.
Had the government delayed another day in forming its negotiating team, she said, protesters would have returned to the streets in force, despite the ongoing militarization of roads in departments bordering Bogota.
“We have learned in this country that the government only ever responds to force, or the threat of force. It’s a shame, but that is what we always see.”
Even now that a dialogue table has been established, protesters are not letting the government off the hook.
Jule Azueta, a MIA national spokesman, told Colombia Reports that as many as 80,000 protesters are still lining roadsides in various departments throughout the country, where they will be “watching attentively for real progress” in the negotiations.
The government, he explained, has a history of using “empty negotiations” as a ploy to bring an end to strikes and protests. And indeed, several of the nationwide strikes that began on August 19th were launched specifically as a response to what protesters claim were unfulfilled promises made during previous negotiations.
“The strike continues,” said Azueta, “even though the national media is pretending it’s over. The government should know that just because the issue is no longer in the public eye, doesn’t mean we have forgotten about it, doesn’t mean we will let [the government] forget about it.”
Azueta claimed that, “despite the government’s brutal attack on democratic rights”, an estimated 200,000 workers across the country are still involved in direct protest and strike activities, waiting for updates from their national representatives in the MIA and other related bodies.
“We have felt the worst of the beatings and the killings [protesters widely claim have been perpetrated by public forces such as the ESMAD in response to protests], and many have gone home with injuries, or out of fear. But we are still here, and we will still be here, until a deal is reached.”
The protesters have not set any sort of timeline on negotiation efforts, saying they “care more about progress than dates”. But Azueta says there is a “close network of communication” throughout protest organizations already established in the event that the government’s guarantees regarding “fair and open” negotiations are held to.
In the first day of negotiations, one of the primary focuses will be establishing a rough outline for the talks, but protesters will be “flexible”, he said, “as long as the government demonstrates a genuine will to come to a solution.”
The government announced its own set of initiatives aimed at ending the strikes, following a National Pact assembly held in Bogota last Thursday. But the National Pact was almost unanimously boycotted by strike and labor organizers, who held a parallel National Summit event the same day, reaffirming the need to address the six-point MIA Declaration as a prerequisite for any lasting end to nationwide strikes.
“We cannot afford to let this moment dissolve,” said Azueta. “We have legitimate complaints and viable solutions, and the support of the Colombian people. We need to make sure the ‘campesinos’ see results for all their efforts, and solutions to the crisis they are living.”
- Interview with Luz Dary Molina
- Interview with Jule Azueta
- Proximo jueves 19 de septiembre se llevara a cabo mesa de dialogos entre Gobierno nacional y campesinos