Colombia’s largest rebel group, the FARC, on Wednesday expressed solidarity with the thousands of coffee growers currently on strike while criticizing the government’s neoliberal economic model for exasperating the problem.
“Although the Santos government says that its economic policy is not up for discussion at the [negotiation] table in Havana, the reality is that the Colombian people are contesting [the policy] with the demonstrations, strikes and protests throughout the country,” read a statement signed by the FARC’s high command.
Thousands of Colombian coffee growers on Monday took to the streets in departments all across the country to protest what they perceive is a lack of financial support from the government during this tough time for the industry. President Juan Manuel Santos, himself a former coffee federation official, called the strikes unjust and unnecessary saying his administration had given more financial assistance to the industry than any other previous administration. Nevertheless, protestors insist the current subsidies are inadequate.
“The government says it will not negotiate with troublemakers and the Ministry of Agriculture justifies the brutal repression with the false [claim] that the FARC are involved, they are stirring up trouble, they are [involved with the strike] and are exacerbating the situation,” the message continued.
The government on Monday did allege that the FARC may have infiltrated the protests and were stoking the flames. This protest has indeed made strange bedfellows. Not only are guerrillas criticizing Santos, but the former hardline conservative president Alvaro Uribe lambasted the president as well. The ex-president on Monday tweeted that Santos was treating the protestors “like terrorists.”
Though the protests erupted Monday, the problem has been years in the making. Poor weather conditions that led to leaf rust beset several coffee growing countries in Latin America. Falling international prices coupled with massive amounts of foreign investment due to mining and oil booms led to a “dangerously” high peso. The three formed an almost perfect storm of adverse conditions for Colombian coffee farmers. Though the FARC acknowledged the merit of some of these arguments, they claimed they were just the symptoms of a systematic illness.
“The coffee crisis is explained by the lack of protection due to neoliberal policies which are imposed on farmers…unfavorable international prices and an…overvaluation of the peso [have led] to obvious consequences: a sharp drop in domestic production, increased imports from Peru and Ecuador to meet domestic demand and [reach] export quotas and, above all, a progressive deterioration of income and work of farmers [who are] mostly small and medium scale producers.
Juan Manuel Santos promised to turn each Colombian peasant into a prosperous and smiling Juan Valdez, with his donkey and coffee sack, like the one in the publication stamp of the powerful National Federation of Coffee Growers…but where is this Juan Valdez?…He is being persecuted by the bullets and tear gas of the repressive squadrons of the [riot police] in the country’s villages and roads where thousands of coffee growers protest against the [government’s] abandonment of their sector. From Havana, [we express] our solidarity with the struggle of the peasants, [with] their dead, [and the] dozens of wounded and imprisoned.”
While the protestors believe the government is not doing enough, the insurgents claim they themselves have put forth concrete proposals on farmers’ behalf.
“At the [negotiation] table in Havana we have proposed that small and medium coffee [farms] should receive immediate protection measures, like subsidies, compensations, and extraordinary safeguard measures aimed at overcoming the sectors’ structural crisis. Today, we reiterate this demand. It is urgent to strengthen the national coffee production,” the statement concluded.
In addition to criticizing the government’s handling of the coffee protests, the FARC said that the ongoing strike at the Cerrejon coal mine in northern Colombia and the possible truckers union strike reinforced the problems of neoliberal economics.
On his trip to the western port city of Buenaventura to announce that the government was donating over 500 free homes Wednesday, President Santos met with trucker union officials to try and head off a possible strike.