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Social unrest in Colombia spreads as govt fails to reach out to strikers

posted by Steven Cohen
Social unrest in Colombia spreads as govt fails to reach out to strikers

(Photo: Marcha Patriotica)

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As President Juan Manuel Santos’ government tries to calm the situation through localized negotiations, Colombia’s national strike movement is gaining momentum with shows of support from the citizenry and the addition of new groups to strike efforts. 

More than 10,000 people participated in “cacerolazos” — protests in which participants bang on kitchen pots and pans — held throughout Colombia’s major urban centers Monday night in support of the agricultural strike, as new labor and social groups announced they will be joining Colombia’s striking farmers, miners, health workers and truckers in protest activities.

As of Monday, 50,000 “community mothers” will be on indefinite strike, according to an announcement made by the president of the national union.

Colombia’s “community mothers” administer public day and foster care, and the strike will affect services to more than four million children nationwide,  according to the president’s statement.

Like other labor groups, the child service workers are striking because of what they claim are unfulfilled promises on the part of the national government. From the start of 2013, each community mother was supposed to be receiving the minimum wage, plus a government supplement to cover work expenses and benefits. The national union president told Caracol Radio Monday, however, that workers are still operating under unlivable wages, and that the government’s program to retire employees above the age of 55, under the condition they be given lifetime pensions, has been characterized by restrictions and bureaucratic red tape, leaving almost all the laid-off workers without guaranteed benefits.

Meanwhile, in Bogota, employees of Colombia’s National University “took over” the school, closing classes for its more than 30,000 students and shutting down all administrative activity.

This after students engaged anti-riot (ESMAD) forces last week in violent crashes at the university gates.

The university workers union, comprised of mostly non-administrative staff, went on strike once before this year, and claim promises made in previous negotiations remain unfulfilled. The last time the workers launched protests, a large portion of the student body participated alongside them.

Classes were closed Monday at the University of Nariño as well, in this case due to student-led protests.

The students shut down the city center in Pasto, the capital of the Nariño department, and were joined by teachers, taxi-drivers and merchants in a day-long show of support for the Nariño agriculture protests, which so far have been among the most heavily involved and violent in Colombia.

In other parts of the country, too, the agriculture strikes are intensifying.

Citrus farmers from Quindio dumped 30 tons of oranges and mandarines onto local highways in protest, claiming that the current market price per kilo for their fruit covers only 40% of the costs it takes to produce that same amount.

Protesters in Arauca walked out of negotiations with the departmental government, demanding the release of Huber Vallasteros and other union leaders arrested during the first week of protests.

Risaralda’s Coffee workers announced that on Wednesday over 150 trucks will carry protesters to the center of Pereira, the capital, where they will demonstrate in the main plaza in solidarity with the national agricultural movement. Economists in nearby Huila predicted coffee strikes in the department could lead to a 40% loss in total departmental production and a 30% in the national production of artisanal varieties popular in Europe and the United States if the more than 70,000 workers who joined local protests Saturday do not return to their farms soon.

In Antioquia, one of the quieter agriculturally based departments up until this point, 2,500 indigenous miners established a campsite Sunday while they organize a march to Medellin, and several hundred potato farmers shut down roads in the south of the department Monday.

In the Cundinamarca department, moreover, 500 potato farmers have already assembled in preparation for a mass march to Bogota down one of the main regional highways.

The potato farmers, according to industry leaders, have lost $17.5 million in the first week of protests alone.

On Monday, as truckers and transport workers in Cundinamarca announced their strike efforts will continue, the director of the Association for the Development of Intermunicipal Transport said that the Colombian transport sector is losing $3 million a day due to road problems and strikes, with 600,000 regular travelers unable to get services and 30,000 vehicles sitting idle in eight departments alone.

The governor of Casanare said that inaction from the national government could force his department’s prominent rice sector to join the national agriculture strikes. The farmers, he said, are already sympathetic to the protesters, and are watching 2,000 tons of rice harvest are spoiling every day due to stagnent transportation networks.

And with the Santos administration’s refusal to establish a national negotiating table, the outlook for farmers nationwide is increasingly similar to that of the rice farmers in Casanare. The president of the Colombian Farmers Society told reporters Monday that even farmers not initially inclined to strike will soon be forced to do so if the government does not take some measure to ensure safe transport or subsidize their losses. Thousands of tons of produce, he said, have been spoiling across the country since the start of the protests, including over 200,000 gallons of milk a day.

In Colombia, a growing chorus of citizens and protesters are calling for the national government to do something to adress the pressing concerns of striking workers, and end the potentially catastrophic economic paralysis that is beginning to take effect in various parts of the country.

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About the author

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Steven Cohen is an editor at Colombia Reports and contributing writer on the Beacon independent journalism platform. His interests in Colombia pertain mainly to labor, environmental, and human rights issues, though he is also a big fan of coconut rice and Aletico Nacional soccer.

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