Colombia’s summer of discontent: protests threaten to paralyze country

Just before midnight, masked men armed with sticks began hurling rocks at 40 heavily armed riot police, who responded with gunshots and flooding the street with tear gas. As dawn broke on this usually bustling gold-mining town, stores were shuttered, streets were blocked with sandbags, rocks and smoldering tires. At least eight police and five civilians were injured in the melee.

The actions marked the beginning of a national strike aimed at paralyzing this Andean nation in hopes of winning a laundry-list of concessions. President Juan Manuel Santos has accused guerrillas and other armed groups of trying to infiltrate the protests and ratchet-up tension as the country is in the midst of delicate peace talks with the FARC rebels and heading into elections next year.

The agrarian strike, as it’s known, is broad-based and far-flung. Coffee, cacao, potato and rice farmers have joined ranks with cargo truckers, gold miners and others. Teachers and labor unions are also joining in. Their demands are equally ample, calling for reduced fuel and fertilizer prices, the cancellation of free trade agreements, increased subsidies and the end of a crackdown on informal mining operations, among others.

Government negotiators worked through the weekend and managed to mollify some sectors in some parts of the country but it wasn’t enough to stop what many believe could become the largest protest of the year.

The National Police said at least 20 people had been detained and estimated that some 12,500 were participating in protests in 20 different municipalities. But there was no mention of the injuries in Segovia or elsewhere. More than 16,000 police have been trying to dismantle roadblocks that were snarling traffic on a day when many were trying to return home after a three-day weekend. Bus transportation was also anemic as companies decided to suspend service to avoid run-ins with protesters.

At a news conference in Havana, where peace talks are taking place, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, backed the protesters.

“We hope that the government’s hackneyed custom of linking all social and popular protests with the boogeyman of the FARC isn’t an excuse for violence from the armed forces,” guerrilla commander Iván Márquez read from a statement. He also said the government should reconsider a free trade agreement with the United States, which he said had put national farmers at a disadvantage against a flood of subsidized U.S. agricultural imports.

In Segovia, some 2,000 people from surrounding hamlets began congregating in the town over the weekend. Several people said that guerrillas had been pushing villagers to participate in the march. Others said that local criminal groups, known as the Bacrim, were supporting the protests. On Friday, a pamphlet circulated declaring anyone who participated in the protests a “military target.” The warning was signed by a local group called Seguridad Heroes del Nordeste, or Security — Heroes of the Northeast, composed of former paramilitary fighters.

Javier Correa Velez, the head of a coffee-growers association called Dignidad Cafetera, said farmers have little control over who joins the protests.

“We’re not trying to overthrow the government or support one armed group or another, we just want solutions to our problems,” he said. “The strike is simply a symptom of an illness that the entire agriculture sector is suffering from.”

High fuel prices, expensive agro-chemicals, government neglect of rural areas and free trade agreements — without adequate safeguards — have made it impossible for farmers to compete, he said. Coffee growers went on strike in February and won increased subsidies, but since then the government has failed to meet other concessions, including reduced prices for fertilizers and pesticides, he complained.

Authorities say the government has provided more than 600 billion pesos, or about $333 million, in aid to coffee growers since the February strike. Santos said only a minority of coffee growers, who he accused of being “useful idiots,” were participating in Monday’s actions.

One of the keys to the protests could be cargo truckers, who have the ability to block roads and collapse commerce with their 18-wheelers. While there were reports of such roadblocks on Monday, they were not widespread. Instead, many drivers had simply parked their trucks and refused to haul loads.

On the eve of the strike, Jaime Moreno, the executive director of the National Association of Truckers, said there was no reason for confrontation, but that his association was committed to keeping its 180,000 members off the streets. Truckers are asking for better roadways and lower fuel prices to remain competitive — particularly against Venezuela and Ecuador where fuel is subsidized. Gasoline in Colombia costs about $4.83 a gallon — some of the highest in the region — while gas in Venezuela is about 4 cents a gallon.

Moreno said he wished they had been able to avoid the strike, but he accused the government of dragging its heels at the negotiating table.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “we’ve seen that protests are the only action the government seems to respond to.”

This has been a long summer of discontent for Colombia. In June, farmers in Catatumbo, along the border with Venezuela, went on strike for two months and blocked roads for more than 50 days before agreeing to sit down with negotiators. They’re asking the government to suspend the areal eradication of coca fields, which often damages nearby crops, and to declare the area a “rural reserve,” which provides more local autonomy.

Last month, small and informal miners in several departments, including Antioquia, where Segovia is located, took to the streets to protest a government crackdown, which includes destroying equipment being used by illegal operations. The miners complain they’re being marginalized in the interest of multinational companies.

“We are defending small mining. We are defending our bread and butter,” said a 28 year-old miner from Remedios who, armed with a stick and a cloth hiding his face, did not want to be named out of fear of repercussions. “The government wants to take our mines and give them to foreign companies.”

The government has said the measures are necessary as they try to keep the FARC and other criminal organizations from muscling into the lucrative industry.

Referring to previous protests, the Texas-based Stratfor analysis group said the unrest is a sign “that many have been left out of Colombia’s economic boom over the past decade.”

“While the influx of foreign direct investment has benefited some, its benefits have not been felt uniformly,” the group wrote. “And while the free trade agreement benefited some parts of Colombian society, it has harmed domestic producers.”

Stratfor said that even if a peace deal is inked with the FARC “the intersection of natural resources, socioeconomic inequality and criminality will persist in causing instability and unrest.”

It’s unclear how long the current protests will last. Some sectors have said they will end their strike Monday, others have vowed to protest all week and others are calling for an indefinite strike.

In Segovia, protest organizers said they wouldn’t stand down until Santos forms a negotiating committee that deals with their — and every other sector’s — demands. Santos, however, has said he will not negotiate with strikers.

“Everybody knows how a strike starts,” said Agriculture Minister Francisco Estupiñán in the days leading up to the protests. “But no one knows how it ends.”

Miami Herald Special Correspondent Nadja Drost reported from Segovia.