A challenging week confronts tens of thousands of Colombian farmers with government negotiators, as a nation-wide strike, which began mid August, deepens affecting stock supplies of food and gasoline, in the mountainous departments of Boyacá, Nariño and Cundinamarca.
The strike, which erupted on August 19th, has pitched the country’s agricultural sector, from coffee growers to dairy producers, against the government of President Juan Manuel Santos, over promised subsidies to help off-set rising costs in transportation, fuel and public services.
Many small-scale miners angry over the government’s shutting down of their concessions, as well as, destroying equipment used in the extraction of gold have been striking in the Catatumbo region for a month, setting up barricades along main roads. With grievances of being associated with criminal gangs, as many of Colombia’s small mines operate in coca-growing regions, health-care workers with their own set of gripes, teachers and students joined the mass movement, essentially shutting down health services in many remote regions of the country.
President Santos warned road blockages would not be tolerated, sending out the state’s security forces to guarantee the free flow of good and people across the country. Anyone who blocked or endangered access to health facilities would be arrested. Despite random squirmishes along major roads, and few arrests (less than 80 since strike action began), the current predicament highlights growing concerns by Colombians of the rising cost of living and the economic disparities between the capital city, Bogotá and rest of the country.
Although President Santos has stated his government is “open to talks” with the different groups who have shut down many parts of the country, he insists the government will not be bullied into negotiating, especially as violence has erupted in Boyacá; one of the country’s main agricultural departments and known for its onion and potato plantations.
The protests by truckers along the main Bogotá to Tunja highway have begun to affect food shipments to the Colombian capital. Workers at the city’s main food terminus, Corabastos (which stores the grains and perishables for a capital of 8 million), have also gone on strike. In the south of greater Bogotá, striking bus drivers from the municipality of Soacha, are affecting public transportation and the movement of workers to factories.
The strike is symptomatic of wide spread discontent from farmers to captains of industry impacted by new economic realities stemming from greater competition, as a result of free trade agreements with Canada, the United States and European Union, signed into effect by President Santos.
The strike appears to become more acute in the upcoming weeks as increasingly workers from the public sector join forces in solidarity with those who walked off the job, and sending a message to the government that more has to be done to curb the rising cost of fuel, prices in the supermarkets, and a flurry of unwelcome taxes – the 4×1,000 banking tax and cumbersome, CREE.
While many private sector companies benefit from the exploitation of the nation’s natural resource base, Colombians seem increasingly cash-strapped and concerned for their own economic well-being. The influx of cheap, foreign-made goods, has affected the productivity of the country’s manufacturing sector, and growth forecasts for the industrial sector were slashed in recent months. A strong peso has forced out of the market many locally-made goods and continues to impact negatively, the nation’s flower-growers.
As the strike extends itself, the peace talks in Havana, Cuba, with the country’s oldest guerrilla group FARC have become overshadowed by general discontent at home. If food and gas shortages begin to hit major urban centers, President Santos’ government could be facing a popular revolt which gets out of hand, and dims his chances for re-election next year.