Colombia: Amid a tightening election, Santos faces farmer strike

Less than a month before facing reelection, President Juan Manuel Santos has a farmer problem. A national coalition of agricultural workers went on strike Monday accusing the government of reneging on promises it made during a strike in August.

On Monday, poncho-clad potato farmers in the highlands and sombrero-wearing coffee cultivators near Medellin blocked traffic along key roads and organizers promised escalating disruptions.

Near the town of Tunja, about 93 miles northeast of the capital, organizers said farmers were still coming out of the hills and planned to paralyze traffic along the important corridor.

“We have no faith in the central government,” said Walter Benavides, a spokesman for the striking farmers who was also one of the negotiator’s of last year’s agreement. “They’ve lied to us repeatedly…We don’t want words, we want actions.”

Farmers are making four demands: the renegotiation of free trade agreements, which they claim are flooding the market with cheap imports; credit relief; the reining in of large mining operations they say are displacing farmers; and a drop in the costs of fuel and fertilizers.

These were the same issues that sparked a 17-day strike eight months ago that left 12 dead.

The government claims it’s making progress on the agricultural front. After last year’s strike, it banned the importation of potatoes for two years, reiterated a promise to subsidize coffee farmers and raised the 2014 agriculture budget to historically high levels, among other measures.

“We know that the countryside and its inhabitants face numerous difficulties,” Santos said during a campaign event on Monday in Bogotá, where he laid out his vision for the next four years. “These difficulties are not new, but come from decades, I would even say from centuries, of state neglect.”

He said his administration was building a national plan to make sure farmers are part of Colombia’s economic resurgence. But he also suggested the strikes have a political element and said his government wanted to talk to all farmers and not just their leaders.

Germán Vargas Lleras, Santos’ vice presidential candidate and the former minister of interior, questioned the timing of the demonstration.

“To insist on a strike four weeks before the elections is unsettling,” he said.

Santos needs rural support. While he’s still leading what has become a three-way race, it’s getting tighter. A poll released over the weekend by the media outlets Semana, RCN and La F.M. gives Santos 23 percent of the vote, followed by Óscar Iván Zuluaga — who is backed by popular former President Alvaro Uribe — with 15 percent. Former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa is in third place with 11 percent. Trailing in the race are former Bogotá Mayor Clara López and former Senator and Minister of Defense Marta Lucía Ramírez with 6 percent each.

The same poll in February gave Santos a 17-point lead over Zuluaga, and last year his campaign was hoping he might win more than 50 percent of the vote and avoid a June 15 runoff. Even so, most major polls show Santos winning in the second round against any of his potential rivals.

The government had been hoping that down-to-the-wire negotiations would hold off a campaign-season protest. But on Monday, as the strike took shape, there were signs of intransigence. Demonstrators missed a meeting with the Minister of Agriculture Rubén Darío Lizarralde in Bogotá Monday morning. And Lizarralde told local media that the government had nothing more to put on the table. The two sides, however, did sit down later in the day.

Colombia suffers some of the highest income inequality in the world and farmers are often the hardest-hit. While the national poverty rate is 30.6 percent, the rural rate runs 11 percentage points higher, according to government statistics.

And while the administration acknowledges farmers’ legitimate gripes it also claims that guerrillas with the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN, are inciting the demonstrations.

“Some of those who are pushing the farmers in specific regions are the FARC and the ELN,” Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said last week. “They think that through this they can pressure the government, but they’re wrong.”

In Cuba, where the FARC and government negotiators are trying to hammer out a lasting peace agreement, the guerrillas said they support the farmers’ claims but denied they were infiltrating the protests.

“These are farming organizations telling the state ‘Live up to your promises from last year,’” FARC Commander Ricardo Téllez said in a statement Monday from Havana. “This story about linking the protests to the guerrillas is a pretext to use violence to suppress the protests.”

In Tunja, Benavides said farmers simply want to make a living at what they do. He said banks are still confiscating land and local onion farmers are being undercut by cheap imports.

“There is no one infiltrated here,” he said, responding to the administration’s guerrilla claims. “It’s just government demagoguery to discredit the protests.”

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