Striking farmers from three departments on Monday agreed to begin talks and lift roadblocks as the government agreed to begin negotiations to end a massive rural strike. However, the farmers portrayed distrust in the government’s intentions as deadly violence continued.
The president announced the formal talks after meeting with farmer representatives from Boyaca and Cundinamarca (central Colombia), and Nariño (southwest Colombia). Strikers from other parts of the country were not included in the talks.
In a press statement, Santos said the farmers would begin unblocking roads Tuesday afternoon while representatives sit down with the government to seek solutions for Colombia’s ailing agricultural sector.
The regional farmer representatives and members of Santos’ administration will get together at 1PM “and will touch different subjects to see if we are able to solve it in the fastest and best possible way,” said the president.
According to Santos, he has agreed to discuss “the cost of supplies, [and] of pesticides,” and imports of agrarian products that according to the farmers are putting them out of business.
While the president and the local representatives announced the begin talks, the national farmers’ strike organization told Colombia Reports it had not heard of the government.
Since submitting a formal list of demands several weeks prior to the strike, the national organizing and negotiating team MIA has yet to receive any communication whatsoever from any part of the government. The government’s strategy, it seems, is to deal with the worst departments one-by-one and undercut the protests at their strongest points.
The problem, said Francisco Cuadros Castillo, one of ten representatives elected to serve on MIA, is that “all the issues there are to negotiate are national ones”.
MIA has been in touch with the local and departmental protest organizers, he said, and “none of them are going to end their protests or lift their roadblocks until we’ve worked out an agreement on the national level.”
But regardless of the strength of the national organizing structure, there actually isn’t anything to be done locally.
Luz Dary Hernandez, a strike leader in Boyaca, confirmed to Colombia Reports Tuesday that the Boyaca organizers have agreed to negotiations and will lift roadblocks, but that the farmers signed no preliminary agreement and are weary of government attempts to separate talks in sectors and effectively divide the protesters.
“We would not abandon our brothers and sisters throughout the country even if we could. But the truth is we can’t. There is nothing the government can offer us, the ranchers, dairy farmers, potato farmers, onion farmers of Boyaca, because we want agriculture reform in this country. If we wanted money, they could just give us money, and it would be over. But we are here to stand against the neo-liberal politics that have destroyed the Colombian countryside for 20 years now. We are here to ask for the end of [Colombia’s] Free Trade Agreement [with the United States]. We need better prices on fertilizer, and we need cheaper gas to get our produce to market. We need guarantees on our harvest and rights to own our land. We need the dignity we deserve. There is nothing the government can do for us, the Boyaca farmers, without also changing the lives of the entire Colombian countryside,” Hernandez said.
“This is a government that wants to pretend things are one way. But reality is not that way. And pretending it is doesn’t make it that way,” said Cuadros.
“We are not going anywhere just because the government wants to pretend we don’t exist.”
Accusations of police brutality in Colombia’s regions most severely struck by the strike continued.
According to Prensa Rural, a rural rights organization, and the Marcha Patriotica, a leftist political movement, police “assassinated” a protester in Cundinamarca, pushing the number of protest-related fatalities to four.
In the southwestern Cauca department, police opened fire at protesters from a helicopter, injuring three farmers, the organizations said.
Additionally, one strike organizer was arrested on accusations he had ties to the FARC.
Other strike organizers told Colombia Reports on Monday that the government has made no contact one week into the strikes.
According to the president of the national health workers union (ANTHOP), however, 13,000 health workers are still on strike, representing the tens of thousands more who would be, if their service wasn’t necessary to ensure the basic function of Colombian society.
Hector Alviz told Colombia Reports that though the ‘green alert’ that went into effect last week, and the extended work shifts that is implies, has been draining on health workers, the strike is still going strong.
Representatives from hospitals across the country will be gathering this week to devise a new strategy to get more attention from the government, which, according to Alviz, has not made any contact with organizers.
“We have to see what we can do to make our presence felt. We as health workers can’t go on total strike. And when some of us are protesting, and there is a ‘green alert’ in the country, everyone else has to work that much harder.”
Alviz said he is disturbed by the government’s unwillingness to dialogue with protesters who try to not alter public order.
The education sector announced it will close the entire Colombian public school system starting September 10th, unless the government fulfills past obligations, including paying nearly $50 million in backlogged benefits and establishing an effective protection and relocation program for Colombian teachers threatened by paramilitary organizations.
The strikes began months ago in the northwestern Catatumbo region. The Catatumbo strikes were joined by miners in July. The strikes became a national issue when on August 19 farmers from all regions in Colombia laid down work and truckers parked their cars along highways. As dissatisfaction with the government grew, health workers and public university professors decided to join the strike.