Strikes, protests challenge Colombian government

Tens of thousands of Colombian workers and peasants carried out demonstrations and blocked highways across the country in an August 19 strike against the US-backed government of President Juan Manuel Santos.

While the main impetus for the strikes and protests came from small coffee growers and other peasant farmers, the strike movement included actions by truck drivers, miners, health care workers and teachers. Students are set to carry out nationwide protests next week.

Dozens of people were reported arrested and at least six wounded as the Santos government carried through on its threat to remain “implacable” in the face of the popular unrest. The government mobilized some 20,000 militarized national police across the country, equipping them with 13 airplanes so that they could move rapidly to centers of protest actions and deploying armored cars and other weapons of war.

Mass mobilizations were reported in at least 23 separate municipalities across at least 12 departments, and there were initial reports of as many 16 highways being blocked by peasant and trucker protests in some cases with tree trunks and burning tires and in others with 16-wheelers with their tires flattened. In the northwestern province of Antioquia, striking miners blocked a roadway, carrying a banner reading “miners are not criminals.”

On the eve of the strike, Santos declared that he would “not sit down and negotiate anything in the middle of a strike.” His government announced its plans for mass repression and for draconian penalties against anyone blocking highways. It vowed to enforce a law that allows for up to four years in jail and huge fines for such an offense.

"We have to defend the rights of all Colombians; of course we defend social protest, but there are fundamental rights such as mobility, health, education that must be preserved,” Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo declared Monday.

The references to health and education were seen as barely veiled threats against teachers and hospital workers participating in the strikes. Health care workers are fighting against a so-called health reform initiative of the Santos government aimed at privatizing the country’s medical facilities and turning its existing workers into casual labor. In some Bogota hospitals, workers blockaded all but the emergency entrances. Cuts in funding have pushed some 500 public hospitals to the brink of bankruptcy.

Days before the strike action, Colombia’s minister of labor warned that hospital workers could face legal retaliation for endangering the public’s health.

Government officials have attempted to intimidate protesters by alleging that they are acting at the behest of the Colombian guerrillas of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), in one case referring to the peasants and workers as “useful idiots.”

Miners have been waging protest actions across the country for the past three weeks against the policies of the Santos government, which are aimed at shutting down small scale mining and clearing areas for systematic exploitation by large transnational mining corporations. The government has also targeted the so-called artisanal mining sector because it has in some areas operated under the protection of the FARC guerrilla movement, which has tapped it as a source of funds alongside coca production. Santos recently granted the security forces the power to seize machinery from informal mining operations.

Coffee growers and other peasant farmers are demanding that the government provide more support for small scale agriculture, including subsidizing both the costs of agricultural supplies and prices and that it set aside areas for peasant agriculture, protecting them against the encroachment of agribusiness. The peasant farmers see the pursuit by the Santos government of a series of free trade agreements placing their future increasingly in danger. Colombia has one of the most severe rural poverty rates in South America. The rural population is demanding increased government assistance, particularly with the provision of electrical power, safe drinking water and sewage facilities.

Monday’s nationwide action, one of the largest mass protests in recent years, comes as Colombia prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections next year as Santos completes the last year of his presidential term. Declaring their support for the strike are political elements ranging from the Polo Democrático Alternativo or PDA, whose leading figures include Antonio Navarro Wolff, the former head of the M-19 guerrilla movement, which disarmed and transformed itself into a bourgeois political party at the end of the 1980s, to the Centro Democrático of Colombia’s ex-right-wing president and former Santos patron, Alvaro Uribe.

The former president has bitterly opposed Santos, who served as his defense minister, over his opening of peace talks with the Colombian guerrillas of the FARC as well as over the appointment of former political opponents to government and the prosecution of former Uribe aides over crimes ranging from embezzlement to illegal wiretapping and other conspiracies.

The talks between the Santos government and the FARC have made little progress after a dozen sessions in Havana, Cuba. So far the two sides have agreed solely on a promise of land reform. Meanwhile, the government has insisted that it will continue to wage military operations aimed at crushing the guerrilla force until a full agreement is concluded. It claimed on Monday to have delivered a “strategic blow” to FARC in the southwest of the country with a raid that claimed the lives of two guerrilla commanders.

The country’s civil war has claimed nearly a quarter of a million victims over the past half century, with the lion’s share of the killings carried out by security forces and right-wing paramilitary death squads.

Recent polls have shown Santos’ popularity rating plummeting from 70 percent two years ago to barely 50 percent today. Indeed, fully 60 percent of those polled said that they did not want to see the right-wing president re-elected. The fall in Santos’ approval ratings has tracked the decline of the country’s economy, which has seen a sharp contraction in production and growth rate in recent months. Colombia remains the most socially unequal country in Latin America.

Monday’s mass protests came just one week after US Secretary of State John Kerry made Colombia his first stop in his first trip to Latin America. He voiced his support for Santos and his talks with the FARC. Washington has for years counted Colombia as its closest ally in the region, having poured some $8.7 billion largely in military aid into the country since 1999 under a US initiative known as Plan Colombia.