Last week a Colombian friend sent me a video on Youtube. The chilling footage showed a brutal police response to the ongoing general strike in Colombia. Sadly this offers a window on to the reality of politics here, where peaceful protests are met with state-sanctioned violence. The police are trying their best to break the striking workers’ morale.
The Youtube video shows Colombian riot police on motorbikes following striking farm workers back to their communities, tear gassing their homes and breaking windows. Protesters have seen peaceful demonstrations and highway blockades attacked with brutal force, while the major highways of the country have been heavily militarized in order to prevent disruption. The government has sanctioned the use of extreme force to minimize the impact of the strike but it has in fact only served to embolden the strikers.
The protest began on 19 August as a national strike of agricultural workers who demanded lower costs of inputs and better access to markets. It has since widened and transformed into a general strike against the policies of President Juan Manuel Santos, with workers from public health, education, transport and mines joining the indefinite strike, and students occupying both universities and schools. The demands, which are broad and reflect the diverse segments of society involved, include the call for a more accountable police force and the overhaul of restrictive trade union laws.
The protest is an organic reaction to the neoliberal policies – the product of no less than 11 free trade agreements between Colombia, the US and the EU – that have devastated local communities. These deals have led to continuous rises in petrol and food prices, and have destroyed local agricultural markets.
The strikers enjoy widespread public support, in Latin America’s third most unequal country where between 45 and 64 per cent of people live below the poverty line. The wave of protests reflect a deep dissatisfaction with Santos’ government: 72 per cent of the Colombian population do not think favourably of the president, up from 44 per cent in June, according to the latest Gallup polls.
With the population in open (peaceful) rebellion against the government, the state has responded with a calculated effort of repression and selective negotiations. The police justify their actions by claiming that terrorist elements have infiltrated the protests, while workers uphold their right to strike. Some are paying the price with their lives – nine workers are dead, and another 303 protesters seriously injured. At least 11 people have been hospitalized with serious gunshot wounds, a testimony to the excessive force used by the police to quell the protests.
Police have arrested some 250 people, many on suspicion of ‘inciting rebellion and terrorism’, among them prominent trade-unionist Huber Ballesteros. Ballesteros’ political party – the Patriotic March (Marcha Patriótica) – condemned his arrest as an attempt to ‘demoralize and de-mobilize the popular agrarian movement’. Despite state force, striking workers have scored important victories. The transport workers, including lorry drivers, have reached tentative agreements with the government including a price-freeze on petrol prices.
Farmers have won a historic fight against policies that gave allowed large-scale multinational corporations to monopolize agriculture. Small-scale farmers and agricultural workers in the area of Tunja have managed to overturn a 2010 resolution that prohibited the use of non-certified seeds in agriculture. They simultaneously managed to increase government spending on farming for domestic consumption. Colombian neoliberalism in its present form seems unable to resist the overwhelming tide of public dissatisfaction which has fuelled the general strike.
Despite these important concessions, the government appears to pursuing a two-pronged strategy: maintaining repressive policies and opening selective negotiations in an attempt to break the resolve of other sectors. It is no coincidence that negotiations, which started on 27 August, came after the police failed to break the strike. Restrictive curfews across the country have become the norm, including in the capital Bogotá which, by many accounts, is currently one of the most highly militarized zones in Colombia. In a country still driven by a 50-year-old civil war, this general strike has drawn distinct battle lines between the affluent oligarchy and subsistence farmers allied with the urban poor and progressives.
With community protests and highway blockades, these social movements are demanding nothing less than an overhaul of Colombian neoliberalism – the streets and highways have become the battlegrounds for the future of Colombia.
¡Arriba los que luchan!