Colombia’s national government started off talks with striking farmers on the wrong foot, arriving six hours late at a meeting to seek a lift of strikes that on Tuesday spread to the country’s oil sector.
According to Caracol Radio, one of Colombian news outlets reporting most on the ongoing strikes, the government said weather conditions had impeded the helicopter of the negotiation team to make the 60-mile flight on time. Road travel to Tunja, where the talks were held was impossible because of roadblocks.
Subsequently, negotiations led to no results and will be continued Tuesday.
According to reports from representatives of other major strike sectors, thus far the government has only made direct contact with one of the national negotiating teams, and has “constantly stalled” the lone ongoing negotiation it has entered into with miners.
As the government failed to designated organs to address the strikes and failed to arrive timely on the meeting with the Boyaca branch of the striking farmers, oil workers joined other striking sectors on Tuesday, spreading the work stoppage to one of Colombia’s most prominent export industries.
Despite backtracking from comments made Sunday declaring “there is no national strike”, President Juan Manuel Santos and his government have still yet to make any efforts to recognize national strike leaders and organizations.
Santos was the subject of criticism last week for saying Monday’s national protests did not have “the expected magnitude”, and drew similar responses when he claimed on Sunday that “there is no national strike”. Since then, he has tried to explain himself via Twitter, saying, “when I say the agriculture strike is not national, it’s because it’s concentrated in a few departments and on a few determined products.”
Cuando digo que el paro no es nacional agrario es porque esta concentrado en pocos departamentos y en unos productos determinados.
— Juan Manuel Santos (@JuanManSantos) August 25, 2013
In a 10-part tweet Monday, the President attempted to mitigate the inflammatory potential of his comments by laying out a more nuanced position regarding the agriculture strikes. But, judging from statements made by Colombia’s labor leaders, Santos’ most recent soundbite is actually an accurate depiction of the stance being taken by his government so far toward social mobilization.
In conversations with Colombia Reports, leaders of the mining, education, agriculture and healthcare sectors said they have yet to see a desire on the part of the government to come to a substantive agreement, or indeed, to negotiate at all.
Representatives of Colombia’s striking truckers union could not be reached for comment, but as of last week, the national president of the union told Colombia Reports that the government had yet to make any attempt to negotiate.
The miners are the only major labor body currently involved in negotiations with the government. (Coffee workers are also engaged in dialogue, but the coffee sector pertains to the larger agricultural movement.) But according to Luz Estrella Ramirez, executive director of the miners’ national negotiating team, the talks have been “paralyzed” for some time now.
“All we’ve seen so far from the government,” she said, “is a willingness to wear us out. There’s been no genuine willingness to negotiate.”
Talks, she said, are scheduled to recommence Tuesday.
“There is supposed to be a meeting [Tuesday] morning with a few ministers, but we have no idea whether the government is going to continue in its intransitive stance toward the people of not being willing to recognize what was already in agreement: recognition for small and medium-scale miners, suspending or offering some way out of Decree 2235 (which lets them burn our machinery) [and] ensuring environmental protections against multinational mining companies and environmental programs to help small miners minimize their impact.”
After the meeting, delegates from various mining departments will meet to decide the best approach going forward. The conversation will be a tough one, explained Estrella, because the government’s presumed strategy has been working.
“The miners are getting tired,” she said. “This, for us, is our 48th day on strike.” The national union has already set up a resource distribution system to ensure a strike can continue if that’s what the delegates decide, but “it’s going to be a hard choice to make, because mining families are the ones most feeling the effects of the strike.”
If the government really is trying to sap the energy from the mining movement over the course of endless, fruitless negotiations, however, Estrella thinks it might want to reconsider its plan.
“It’s a double-edged sword [the government is] playing with. We can say ‘we quit’, for example, but in that case the problem stays where it is, and in a few months we’ll find ourselves on strike again, and after the experience we’ve had this time, it will be a more complicated, tougher situation [for the government] to solve.
“I think the government is missing out on a golden opportunity to provide order to the situation facing traditional mining in this country.”
The miners, who say participation has fluctuated over the course of the strike, estimate that at one point 350,000 workers were involved in protest efforts.
When Santos said “there is no national strike”, he was talking specifically about the agriculture sector, the only he has mentioned on television, the internet, or radio over the course of the past week. And his subsequent explanation that the greater national strike is in fact several isolated strikes reflects his administration’s approach so far to the social unrest.
Santos has been in contact with several local protest blocks — including, most prominently, the one shutting down the department of Boyaca — but his administration has yet to publically acknowledge the existence of the agriculture movement national organizing and negotiating team (MIA). MIA representatives say that, after having submitting a formal list of demands several weeks prior to the official August 19th strike date and various requests for a negotiating table since then, MIA has yet to receive any response from the government. The government’s strategy, it seems, is to deal with the worst departments one by one, and thereby undercut the protests at their strongest centers.
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”.
Whether or not the national organizing structure is actually as tight as he claims, though, there simply might not be anything the government can do locally.
Luz Dary Hernandez, a strike leader in Boyaca, told Colombia Reports that the Boyaca organizers have been meeting with high level officials including the President since the weekend, but the government, she said, has been misleading in its claims that the negotiations will end strike efforts.
“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 neoliberal 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 also.”
The agriculture sector, which reiterated its claim that over 1,000,000 Colombians have participated in protests thus far nationwide, is not only well-organized, but united in common cause, and the longer the government ignores that, said Cuadros the more firmly entrenched the protests are going to become.
“This is a government,” said Cuadros, responding to Santos’ recent comments, “that wants to pretend things are one way. But reality is not that way. And pretending it is doesn’t make it that way.
“We are not going anywhere just because the government wants to pretend we don’t exist.”
The protests, he said, regarding the government’s stated refusal to negotiate under pressure from ‘violent extremists’ and ‘terrorists’, “continue to be very legitimate. Much more legitimate, in fact, than the government’s response. Which has been, and still is, to ignore dialogue and meet legitimate democratic protest with violence.”
With the national media attention focused on road blockages resulting from the agricultural strike, and because of the efforts organizers have taken to ensure the continued flow of services, the national health workers strike has hardly been covered at all.
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 peaceful protesters.
“It’s not that I have anything against our good friends in the agriculture sector. What they are doing is important for [Colombia], and we support them fully, just as they support us. But look at us, the health workers — look at how we have conducted our strike. There haven’t been any road blocks, there hasn’t been any violence — even though we, too, have experienced the government’s ugly response to social protest. Of our own account, we took measures to ensure that Colombia’s hospitals continue to provide the best service they can. And how does the government respond?
“They ignore us. They act as though we don’t exist. Mind you, we have submitted documents with all the relevant agencies. We’ve tried to talk to the ministers of health and labor. And how does the government respond?
“It’s as if they want us to be violent.”
The only time the government listens to protests, he said, “is when they burn stuff in the streets and fight with the ESMAD. If the government says it respects peaceful protest, and wants the protests to be peaceful, why does it treat us like this, when we have been acting just how we are supposed to?
“It seems to me like [the government is] trying to provoke a violent reaction from the [striking] workers.”
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.
Some of the debts owed by the government date back to 2002, said Rafael Cuello, Secretary General for the national educators union (FECODE).
Of the various organizations involved in national strikes, FECODE has been probably the most transparent throughout the entire process. Since mid-July, union leaders have been overseeing a deliberately slow push toward a national work stoppage. At each point, there have been meetings on the local, departmental and national level to reaffirm the approved course of action. They have sent formal complaints to all the relevant agencies and released various documents online for public access. Originally, they were only asking for $1.7 million to be allocated in the upcoming national budget to go toward paying down the government’s debt, and all of their current complaints pertain to agreements already made in past negotiations. The September 10th date was announced in early August, as a last resort if the government failed to meet its promises before August 23rd.
And yet, not only did the government allow the August 23rd deadline to pass, according to Mr. Cuello, the government allowed it to pass without so much as initiating a dialogue about the prospect of negotiation.
“The President might think the agriculture sector is not on national strike,” said Cuello, “but if there is no action on his part in the next two weeks, Colombia’s education workers will be, and every public school in Colombia will be closed.”
Oil workers went on a 24-hour strike on Tuesday in solidarity with the farmers and to demand an end to the use of third-party contractors that offer workers only temporary contracts and no health benefits.
“For example, at [state-run oil company] Ecopetrol, there are 40,220 workers indirectly contracted and only 8,000 are steady. These workers have no labor guarantees, nor do they have the benefits of a stable contract,” the president of oil workers union USO, Hector Yesid Vaca, told news cast CM&.
- Interview with Rafael Cuello Ramirez
- Interview with Luz Dary Hernandez
- Interview with Luz Estrella Ramirez
- Interview with Hector Alviz
- Interview with Francisco Cuadros Castillo