After remaining largely quiet over the past month regarding upcoming national labor protests, President Juan Manuel Santos and his administration hardened their rhetoric heading into the weekend before Monday’s strikes are set to break out.
Only three days before university students and social activists plan to join five of Colombia’s largest labor fronts in a series of demonstrations scheduled to kick off a coordinated national strike, President Santos added his voice to a letter sent out by the Interior Minister warning of police crackdowns on unauthorized protests and an announcement by the National Police that it will be deploying 16,000 extra police units across the country to control potential violence and ensure the free flow of roadways.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Santos promised the government will not negotiate with protesters as long as strikes are still in effect.
“We are not,” he said, “listen closely, so that this is very clear: we are not going to sit down to negotiate anything in the midst of a strike.”
Peaceful protest, he said, “is a fundamental part of any democracy.” But “strikes that block roadways and compromise the rights of other citizens are another thing entirely.”
The strikes, moreover, will not be an effective way of eliciting concessions from the government, at least according to its chief executive.
“[The protesters] should forget about that,” said Santos.
The President also joined the Minister of Agriculture in reiterating what has been the government’s consistent narrative throughout the buildup to the protests: namely, that the labor movement is being highjacked by the interests of armed groups trying to put social pressure on the government.
“The government is not going to let [the outside groups] interested in taking advantage of these protests to damage and violate the rights of other people get what they want,” said Santos, echoing comments made by Francisco Estupinan earlier in the day urging coffee workers to “not let themselves be manipulated by minorities with outside interests.”
Meanwhile, the Ministry of the Interior published an open letter on its website, directed specifically at 28 of the principle organizing groups behind the August 19th movement, explaining that national and local police forces have been authorized and instructed by the central government to take legal action against any unauthorized protests, or any protests that attempt to close highways or otherwise “violate the rights of other citizens,”
The letter, which claims that the government will strike “a healthy balance” between the rights of protesters and the rights of other citizens, cites a law outlining punishments ranging from heavy fines to 48 months in prison for protest activities that jeapordize any of several generalized public rights. The mention, specifically, of “public health” could be pertinent, as the Minister of Labor has stated previously that hospital workers planning to strike on Monday could face legal reprisal for endangering Colombians’ health services. Similarly, the right to “food security” could possibly be construed to apply to striking farmers or truckers, should the indefinite strikes lead to food shortages, or spikes in food prices, in any of Colombia’s major cities.
Carlos Rios, Press Secretary for the Interior Ministry, was unable to tell Colombia Reports which of the various nationwide protests have received the “permission of the competent authority” that would protect them from police confrentation, or how public security forces would be construing the broadly worded “public rights” they have been tasked with defending.
What is clear, however, is that the government is taking an almost militaristic stance in the immediate runnup to Monday’s protests.
After its leader was dismissed earlier this week in President Santos’ total reorganizing of his military cabinet, the National Police released a statement Friday saying that 16,000 additional officers have been placed in deparment and major urban centers across the country in preperation for Monday’s demonstrations, and that the government will be deploying the entirety of its riot police force, as well as 8 surveillance helicopters, national intelligence teams, various surveillance vehicles and anti-riot tanks in areas where it expects violent conflict.
The government has called the strikes unjustified and irresponsible, but protesters across sectors are unanimous in insiting that their attempts at civil dialogue with government officials have gone unheard or unanswered.
According to discussions between Colombia Reports and strike organizers over the course of the week, only the miners and a small subsection of the agricultural sector (the coffee workers) have received any form of contact from the government. The government, they say, has made no effort to avoid the strikes, despite being provided with official declarations of terms and various opportunities to dialogue.
In the absense of diplomacy, the government is apparently counting on a show of force to deal with what some Colombian media sources have called the largest social movement in recent history.
- Santos dice que no negociara nada en medio de los paros