While President Juan Manuel Santos was hosting his National Pact event Thursday, over 3,000 delegates representing striking farm workers across Colombia were gathered some 20 minutes away, at Bogota‘s National University, hosting what they have called the National Agro-Producing Summit.
President Santos announced measures Thursday aimed at alleviating what he has called the economic “crisis” facing Colombia’s rural population. But labor representatives and protest leaders from the countryside itself reject Santos’ so-called National Pact, saying it is not representative of their interests and insufficient to adress their problems.
The national agricultural negotiating team (MIA) and various other national and regional labor bodies boycotted Santos’ meeting Thursday along with various other national and regional labor bodies, participating instead in a parallel summit, where discussions revolved around demands heading into an expected round of negotiation with the government, and general protest strategy going forward.
In an interview with Colombia Reports, MIA representative Francisco Cuadros explained that the President’s National Pact does not provide substantive solutions to the issues protesters feel are central to their movement, and will therefore be ineffective as a means of ending the nationwide strikes that have been ongoing since August 19th.
“You cannot have a national agricultural pact without the national agro-producers,” he said. “The National Pact is a unilateral agreement made by the President, with the support of Colombia’s biggest landholders and largest producers. These are the same people who have always decided agricultural policy in Colombia, and none of them speak for the people, the small and medium-scale producers who have been in the streets fighting for their rights and dignity for more than three weeks now.”
At the conclusion of the first day of meetings, the President signed several decrees targeting agricultural production, including measures erasing tariffs on production materials such as fertilizer and compost and limiting importation of agricultural products, primarily milk, from other Latin American countries.
But the decrees, said Cuadros, do not take into account the proposals released weeks ago by the striking workers themselves.
“We do not need the government to decide agricultural policy for us. The people who decide policy should be the ones in the fields working, the ones living the social crisis.”
Delegates from the MIA’s National Summit, which featured representatives from labor unions, social organizations and indigenous communities, held a press conference Friday reaffirming the national strike platform, and announcing their plan to hold a second summit in October, which will reportedly be comprise some 50,000 participants from across the country.
Said Cuadros: “the National Pact won’t end the strike. We have said that before, and the President knows that. He wants to pretend he is doing something without having to listen to us or dialogue with us, but it won’t work. Our terms have been clear since before the [August 19th] start [to national strikes], and as soon as the government decides to acknowledge them, we can start finding a solution together.”
As part of a deal made this past Sunday between the MIA and a group of government officials and departmental governors led by vice-President Angelino Garzon, protesters agreed to lift roadblocks across the country in exchange for a start to national negotiation focused on a six-point declaration submitted by the MIA two weeks before the August 19th strike deadline.
On Tuesday, United Nations observers confirmed the lifting of roadblocks at 17 crucial points across the country, but protesters say the government has not yet fulfilled its end of the agreement.
“The government was supposed to establish a commission to negotiate with [the MIA] in an ‘urgent and immediate manner'”, said Cuadros. “It’s been three days [since the MIA lifted its roadblocks] and we haven’t heard back from anyone, or seen any signs that the commission is being created.”
At the MIA’s summit, he said, protest organizers recommitted themselves to dialogue efforts. But protesters, he said, will not wait forever.
“Some of the protesters went home [after lifting roadblocks] to be with their families and tend to their affairs. But many are still waiting on the sides of roads in departments across the entire country. How long will they wait before they initiate roadblocks, again? I can’t say. The organizers here [at the summit in Bogota] want to negotiate, but we cannot control everyone [we represent], and ultimately, we stand in support of the people on the roads.
“We have decided to be patient and see how things progress. But we are in constant contact [with one another] and if there is no progress soon, we will decide on another course of action, one that will be more difficult for everyone.”
- Interview with Francisco Cuadros
- Pequenos y medianos productores rechazan el pacto agrario de Santos y notifican que el paro agrario continua (Radio Santa Fe)