After two weeks of intense demonstrations up much of the coastline, strikers in southwestern Colombia officially suspended all protest activities Friday in light of pending negotiations with government officials, Colombia Reports confirmed.
Many of the 11 municipalities shut down by the protests had already begun to clear up, after national government representatives sat down with organizers Thursday to discuss a preliminary negotiation agenda. But with Friday’s announcement of a formal schedule for talks, the last of the remaining holdouts have put protest activities to the side, at least for the time being.
“With the agreement that came out of the negotiating table, we decided to raise the strike while the negotiations are initiated,” Carolina Bastidas told Colombia Reports.
During the almost two weeks prior, some 250,000 protesters had taken to the streets in the southwestern states of Cauca and Nariño, shutting down transportation and local economies throughout the region and costing local businesses an estimated $1.2 million in losses, according to the regionally based El Pais newspaper.
Bastidas, who works with the leftist Patriotic March (Marcha Patriotica) political group in Nariño and is closely involved with the protest movement, said the roughly 50 Afro-descendent social groups that organized the strike will remain “on permanent assembly” until talks with the government begin September 18. From there, they will “watch how things progress” before deciding whether to return to strike.
“We aren’t thinking about that now,” she said, referring to the possibility of renewed protests. “Now we are just preparing for negotiations and waiting to see if they are serious.”
Formal talks don’t begin until next month, but protest leaders are already charaterizing the negotiation framework outlined with government officials this week as “historic.”
The agreement, signed by the governor of Nariño, the vice ministers of rural development and public relations from the Ministry of the Interior, and representatives of the natioanl Comptroller and Inspector General’s Offices, reflects the 10-point list of demands protesters submitted to the government prior to the start of strike activities.
|“As long as we don’t have good education, as long as we don’t have good health care, that’s an attack on our human rights.”|
Included are clauses calling for the establishment of a negotiation table between government officials and protesters, as well as a number of permanent committees, comprised of various government bodies, to investigate regional corruption, ensure transparency, and guarantee human and political rights for the protesting communities.
Initially, the negotiation table will convene at least four times every 20 days. After the first round of talks, the parties will meet at least once a month going forward, though additional meetings can be agreed to or called for at any time.
“Faced with the power of mobilization and resistance from the Pacific coast communities, the government had no other choice but to begin ceding to the demands that the strike committee presented,” read a statement released by strike leaders.
At the time this article was published, the Ministry of the Interior had yet to respond to Colombia Reports’ repeated requests for comment.
A statement released by the ministry claimed, “Oversight bodies will advance investigations into cases of corruption denounced by the communities, with the goal of identifying the level of corruption, those responsible [sic], and bringing an end to this situation.”
Corruption and the ‘precarious’ situation of coastal communities
The agreement was announced in the municipality of Gaupi, Cauca, where just one week earlier, the mayor was removed from office by order of the national inspector general, amid widespread charges of mismanagement and neglect.
Demonstrators in the other 10 municipalities involved were protesting similar conditions, in what was labeled by organizers the “Civic Strike Against Corruption.”
|“Faced with the power of mobilization and resistance from the Pacific coast communities, the government had no other choice but to begin ceding to the demands that the strike committee presented”|
“When we’re talking about corruption,” said Edilberto Campa, speaking with the Patriotic March during protests, “we’re talking about the administrative model of nepotism…how the people sharing power plan, orient, and distribute the administrative resources that belong to our communities.”
Campa, a leader within the Ethnic and Popular Movement of the Pacific, framed the state of “abandon” characteristic of the mostly Afro-descendent Pacific coast as a human rights issue.
“As long as we don’t have good education, as long as we don’t have good health care, that’s an attack on our human rights,” he said. “When those resources aren’t invested where they should be, that’s corruption, that’s violating the human rights of these vulnerable children on our Pacific coast.”
Victimization at the hands of illegal armed groups is high throughout the Pacific region, especially in places like the southwestern city of Tumaco, currently a stronghold of the FARC rebel group, the country’s largest; the coastal city of Buenaventura, the scene of an ongoing drug war for control of important trafficking routes; and the northwestern state of Choco, where a number of armed groups fight over illegal mining operations and trafficking routes to Panama.
And centuries of economic exploitation have left many communities in poverty, despite the abundant natural resources distributed throughout the region. Large-scale industrial farming and mining are the primary sources of revenue in many areas, but provide little in terms of substantive economic support.
What funds do come in from the national and state governments are often wasted by corrupt local politicians. Communities often lacked paved roads, functioning electricity, potable water, and other basic services.
“The state of vulnerability in which these communities find themselves is very, very precarious. The Colombian state is totally absent,” said Bastidas. “All these communities live under extremely high levels of poverty and general misery.”
Bastidas explained that while initially, the talks with the government will only include representatives from the municipalities involved in the recent protests, the issues facing Afro populations are common throughout the coast.
“That humanitarian crisis that spans the whole Pacific is still present. We hope that these negotiations manage to create policies that can be a model for the whole Pacific coast.”
Aggressive state response
Colombia Reports was unable to find any reports of violence on the part of the protestors. The state’s handling of demonstrations, however, “was characterized by repression, militarization, and the criminilization of social protest,” said Bastidas. “There were a number of acts of aggression committed by the police against protest leaders.”
|“Through intimidation, persecution, and the violation of the right to social protest, the [military] looks to generate confrontational situations that justify repression,”|
In one instance, recorded by the human rights division of the Patriotic March, an Army major was seen tearing down protest information materials and, later, accusing one of the local organizers of being a pawn for leftist guerrillas, an allegation long used to justify targeted aggression against human rights workers and journalists.
In another, troops reportedly entered the hotel room of a journalist covering the protests and asked him invasive questions, in an apparent attempt to intimidate him.
The Network of Alernative and Popular Media (REMAP) recorded a number of additional instances in which protesters were labeled terrorists and journalists were threatened. On August 18, a soldier reportedly discharged his weapon into a crowd of protesters, injuring three people. On August 15, a different soldier reportedly pointed his weapon at a journalist and accused him of being a terorrist.
Early on, military rather than civilian officers were reportedly sent to police protest sites, employing tactics reminiscent of those used to crackdown on last summer’s Agrarian Strike movement.
“Through intimidation, persecution, and the violation of the right to social protest, the [military] looks to generate confrontational situations that justify repression,” read a denunciation published on REMAP.
At the time this article was published, none of the relavant governmental human rights bodies were able to confirm the denunciations made to public officials.
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