Colombia on edge as protests sweep the country

Thousands of miners, truck drivers, health workers, and teachers have joined farmers in strikes that have blocked major arteries across Colombia.

By , Correspondent

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    Students throw stones at a police vehicle during protests in Bogota, Colombia, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. Students are protesting in support of farmers who demand lower fertilizer prices, complain of being undercut by cheap imports from near and far of products including potatoes, onions and milk, and say their sector is being hurt by free trade and other agreements promoted by the government.
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Colombia's major cities erupted into violence yesterday as tens of thousands took to the streets in support of the nation's farmers, who have been on strike for eleven days.

Five people were reported killed, including a 15-year-old boy, in clashes with riot police that led President Juan Manuel Santos to announce the mobilization of 50,000 troops to restore calm to the country today.

Colombia's farmers – around 60 percent of the country's population, and the economy's backbone – say they can no longer make a living after years of neglect by the government in which crop prices have fallen, import prices have risen, and trade agreements have opened up the domestic market to large international companies they cannot compete with.

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Miners, truck drivers, health workers, and teachers with their own grievances have joined the strike, which has seen at least 72 roads blocked across the country and an estimated 175 people arrested. Meanwhile, the government has appeared to increasingly distance itself from the protesters, a risky tactic given the sensitive peace talks currently taking place in Cuba between Colombian officials and leftist rebels the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Santos is also expected to run for reelection next May.

"Colombia is on edge – how will this pressurize those at the negotiating table in Havana?" says Kevin Howlett, a Bogota-based political consultant. "This is hardening opposition against [President Santos] and creating a highly tense, politicized environment in the run-up to elections."

Santos' perceived mishandling of the protests and alleged police abuses have exacerbated the crisis, analysts say. "He has allowed his government to appear pitted against the nation," says Mr. Howlett. 

Initially refusing to talk to farmers' leaders, Santos later claimed, "The so-called farmers' strike does not exist." He said protests were being incited by left-wing guerrillas.

Thursday morning the president changed his tune, acknowledging that the country's farming sector had been "abandoned" during a nationwide television address. "The protests are valid ... but via dialogue we will resolve the problems," he said.

But that offer has fallen through following the violence yesterday afternoon. Santos called off negotiations and announced the militarization of the capital and "any other town or zone where the presence of our soldiers is necessary."

"The government knew about the strikes in advance, but was slow to react and forgot all the rules of crisis management," says Howlett.

Peaceful protests take a turn

The vast majority of around 30,000 people marching in Bogota Thursday were peaceful, but chaos broke out when groups of hooded youths began throwing rocks and homemade explosives at police.

Witness accounts from both Bogota and Medellín, Colombia's second city, claimed police also incited violence in some cases, attacking peaceful groups of protesters with batons and tear gas.

Video footage uploaded on social media sites and played on national news during the past week shows police apparently assaulting protesters in rural areas and taking their food. The reports led to the announcement of an internal investigation.

Hundreds of people have been injured, including dozens of police. Nighttime curfews were announced Friday in Bogota and the nearby city of Soacha. 

Police are trying to "delegitimize peaceful protests and claim that we are criminals," says Silvia Guzman, an artist at the Medellín demonstrations. "The government has always accused us of being guerrillas if we object to what they are doing."

The roots of the protests and those participating are diverse, but all have a common gripe – that the government's economic policies are impoverishing its working class and rural population.

Producers of coffee, rice, potatoes, milk, and a host of other goods say trade agreements have left them unable to compete with cheap imports.

Regulations imposed by the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement force them to buy costly seeds from approved suppliers every year, while millions of tons of crops grown from "uncertified" seeds have been destroyed, farmers claim.

In his Thursday address, Santos promised import tariffs on 23 fertilizers would be lifted, though farmers say there is a need for more profound changes. 

"The government has made major steps to modernize the economy, at least on paper," says Howlett. "But it has failed to communicate the benefits of the free trade agreement, and just one percent of government budget is assigned to agricultural spending."

"All we want is that that the government respects its people and allows farmers to grow and sell their crops fairly," says student protest leader Heider Garcia Cerdona.

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