Government and protesters agree on need for peaceful protests

Angelino Garzon

The government will respect the agriculture sector’s right to protest, said Colombia’s Vice-President Angelino Garzon, so long as the demonstrations planned to kick off Monday are peaceful.

At a press conference held Tuesday in the Caribbean city of Cartagena, the vice-president reinforced Colombians’ constitutional right to free speech and protest, but emphasized that the government’s reaction to the planned national strike is something the protesters themselves will determine.

“The only thing the National Government hopes for the protest,” said Garzon, “is that it’s carried out in a peaceful manner, without blockades, without violence and without altercations with the police,” adding that, “the succes of the work stoppage is going to depend on the organizers, not the National Government, which will respect the social protest and hopes that the leaders commit, not to the National Government, but to the people, to keep the protests peaceful, without acts of violence.”

The tone struck by Colombia’s second highest executive was more reconciliatory than previous statements made by the government, but critics will still take issue with the notion that the protesters are the one’s who pose the risk of violence, and it is perhaps telling that the vicepresident did not mention any of the other striking sectors — mining, trucking, education and health — in his comments.

Responding to threats made by the Minister of Labor to bring legal action against the hospital workers joining the August 19th protests, Hector Alviz, president of the national health workers union, told Colombia Reports, “we are used to this in Colombia. Threats from the [paramilitaries], threats from the government. All we want to do is express our rights and exercise our rights. If the police start attacking us like usual, as if we were starting a riot, we will not fight back. We will stay and fight for our rights, but we will not fight back.”

At a separate point in the press conference, the vicepresident indicated he has been encouraging the Minister of Agriculture to avoid a messy, protracted strike by engaging the various agricultural workers in negotiations.

In a conversation with Colombia Reports Tuesday, however, a member of the 10-person team representing the national campesino (peasant) movement said the agriculture delegation has yet to receive any form of contact from the government, despite having submitted a formalized list of complaints to the Ministry of Agriculture and other relavent bodies last Thursday.

“Up until now,” said Francisco Cuadros, representative of the Marcha Patriotica political group in the national agriculture delegation, “the government has made no attempt to contact any of us. The coffee workers are the only ones who have had any talks with [the government] and that is only because of the publicity they get.”

Cuadros called an extended strike “inevitable,” but expressed the intent of agriculture leaders to keep protests peaceful throughout, and called on government leaders to start a meaningful dialogue.


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