An outline agreed to by officials from the government and Colombia’s striking agriculture sector will give an estimated 80,000 protesters a much-needed respite from roadside demonstrations, according to announcements made by both sides.
It took the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos over 6 weeks to establish a negotiating table with representatives of the national agricultural organizing body (MIA), but the initial round of talks bore fruit immediately.
MIA spokesman Andres Gil told Colombia Reports that the parties agreed to a preliminary outline for negotiations going forward, with discussions revolving around the MIA’s six-point National Declaration to start next Thursday, September 26th, in Medellin.
“Nothing is settled at all,” he said, “but this is an important step for us. The government has indicated it is ready to dialogue about the issues we have identified, and that, in and of itself, is an important success.”
The framework for negotiations includes a schedule of talks between the MIA delegation and a government commission — comprised of the vice-President, officials from the Ministries of Agriculture, Mining, Finance, Commerce, Industry and Tourism, and Planning, and various teams of agricultural and economic experts — as well as the possibility of localized talks between governors, mayors, and regional and municipal strike sectors.
Ogranizers used the early progress as an opportunity to show good will to the government, and relieve growing strains on their own members, by spreading messages telling local protest groups to abandon roadside demonstrations.
“It made sense for everyone”, said Gil. “To the government, we are demonstrating our genuine desire for honest, open negotiation, and encouraging the negotiation process. And for our own participants, who have showed so much determination and strength in their legitimate, justified protest, we felt it was necessary to give them a rest, which they deserve more than anyone.”
Local Boyaca department strike organizer Luz Dary Molina told Colombia Reports that the reprieve came at a crucial point for protesters.
“Imagine,” she said, “some of these men and women have been protesting since before the strikes even started [on August 19th]. Some have not been with their families for weeks. These are not rich people, who can afford to just abandon their responsibilities. But they have been out fighting for 4, 5 and 6 weeks now.
“They have homes to take care of, and families, farms, debts. It’s hard enough to survive when everyone is working as hard as possible — of course, that’s why we’re protesting. But imagine what it means to take so much time, and how hard it is to spend weeks like that, on the side of the roads, fighting. That’s something that most Colombians don’t understand about these movements. The government acts like all we want to do is strike, but when we go on strike, we are the ones who feel it most.”
The return to normalcy, she said, does not mean and end to strikes or protests.
“To the contrary, a rest only strengthens our resolve to fight for our dignity. We will go home, but we will be watching the situation closely, and we will be ready to do whatever is needed, depending on how the negotiations go. Besides, we already have a schedule of activities and protests here [in the Boyaca department, where protests have been among the heaviest in the country.]”
Gil, however, is hopeful that large-scale manifestations will not be necessary in the near future.
“We have always invested all our efforts into dialogue. The strike would never have happened if the government had sat down with us earlier. The protests, the roadblocks, all of this has been about getting to the point where we find ourselves now. Now, all we can do is trust in dialogue, and the government’s will to bring real solutions to the Colombian countryside.”
One potential sticking point will be the government’s initial refusal to discuss existing or future free trade agreements, which play a prominent role in the MIA’s Declaration.
Still, said Gil, “that is only one point. We are confident we can bring the government to address it, because of how central it is to the crisis we are experiencing. But it is just one point, and we have made too much progress already to let that get in the way.”
Steven Cohen is a freelance journalist with a degree in Latin American literature and Spanish from Tufts University, interested in labor, environmental and human rights issues in Latin America.