Colombia’s farmers’ strikes are into their 10th day as roads remained closed across the countryside. The crisis shows no sign of abating, as rice farmers and oil workers joined the protest, and food shortages hit the capital, Bogota.
Serious questions are being asked about the Santos government’s ability to govern a country now in open revolt. Last night pots and pans were noisily bashed by thousands across the nation’s main cities as people took to the streets in solidarity with farmers and against a government they see as negligent and out of touch.
For months, farmers have warned the Casa de Nariño of their strike plans, but the government has refused to take steps to prevent a crisis it now looks incapable of resolving.
How can the government have lost control of a situation it knew about so far in advance?
Anyone with a passing knowledge of crisis management understands the following:
- Don’t belittle the problem
- Don’t lie
- Get on your opponent’s side, don’t antagonize them
- Don’t fuel the fire
- Act swiftly and decisively.
President Santos, commander-in-chief of a nation of 47 million, appears oblivious to this.
Last Monday, Santos boasted the “country is under control;” on Tuesday, the protests had not “been of the scale [farmers] had hoped;” and on Saturday, despite over 40 road closures across nine departments, deaths, imprisonments, and rocketing food prices, the President bizarrely claimed “this national strike does not exist.” Sure, he backtracked a few hours later in a hastily arranged and unprofessional-looking press conference, but the damage was already done — Santos sounded not only insensitive, but mendacious.
Nearly 20 thousand police have been deployed since the start of the protests, but the president’s words have only made their job harder as crowds have swelled and the sense of injustice has hardened.
The government is pitting itself against the nation. The authorities have hardly helped themselves by their heavy-handed policing. Amateur footage has emerged of policemen smashing into houses, stealing food, and brutally attacking — what looked like on television at least — defenseless citizens.
No police general has taken the blame, no sword has been fallen upon.
While the battle rages, a disinterested calm hangs over the presidential palace.
How is it possible that the government has so far failed to produce a single solution to the problem?
How is it possible that the first time Santos sat down with protesting farmers was yesterday evening, eight days into the strike?
How is it possible that the government has failed to deliver on the promises it made months ago to the farmers of Boyacá?
How is it possible that the agriculture minister still has his job?
Santos is in danger of appearing like the captain of the Titanic, unwilling even to reassemble the deck chairs.
All this should worry Santos a lot more. If, as is expected, he decides to run for re-election next May, he would do well not to alienate Colombia’s entire rural population.
The problem for Santos, though, goes beyond just what has happened this week. There is a narrative forming around him — that he is disinterested and disconnected from the real Colombia. I have heard analysts begin to call Santos the “Alice in Wonderland President.”
To his critics, Juan Manuel Santos lives in a world of fancy cocktail events, gentlemen’s clubs, and posh country retreats; coming face to face with the poor and uncultured campesino (peasant farmer) is rather beneath him.
Whether this perception is fair or not is largely irrelevant. If Santos wants to avoid a deeply embarrassing defeat next year, he must change, and fast. Colombians might be able to live with a posh president, but not one who looks like he is incapable of making decisions and keeping crises in check.
Monday night, as the protests grew on the streets of Bogota, Cali, Medellin and elsewhere, I was struck by how joyous and even relieved people looked. It was almost as if Colombians were coming together in defiant and peaceful rebellion. We haven’t reached a tipping point yet; this is not the same as the “indignados” of Spain, or the mass movement in Brazil just two months ago, but something, just something might be happening. Lord knows, it’s about time Colombians started to demand more from their governors.