Santos “militarizes” Bogota after farmers’ strike riots

Peasant growers take protest into 12th day in several Colombian regions

Riot police tanks try to disperse protesters with a water cannon during clashes which erupted after a march in support of Colombian farmers protesting in demand of government subsidies and greater access to land, in Bogota on August 29.
Riot police tanks try to disperse protesters with a water cannon during clashes which erupted after a march in support of Colombian farmers protesting in demand of government subsidies and greater access to land, in Bogota on August 29.GUILLERMO LEGARIA (AFP)

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Friday ordered his negotiators to walk away from negotiations with farmers from Tunja, in the department of Boyacá, and announced military patrols in Bogota following the havoc wrought on Thursday during a march supporting farmers’ strikes.

After an extraordinary Cabinet meeting held on Thursday night, Santos announced that he had ordered “the militarization of Bogota" and threatened to do the same “in any place or area where it is necessary.” He also deployed “50,000 military personnel to work with the police on road accessibility.”

Santos told ministers who were in talks with the peasants to “return to Bogotá and leave the [government’s] proposals on the table,” leaving it up to the farmers to decide whether they accept them and end the agricultural strike that reached its 12th day on Friday. “We remain entirely open to dialogue with the real peasants,” said Santos, insisting that the only reply the government has received so far is “the constant postponement of an agreement because they do not want to reach one, or perhaps because they are not being allowed to,” in reference to hypothetical influences from guerrilla groups.

On Thursday, President Santos had recognized protest was a legitimate one: “Peasants who have suffered the most from abandonment are the same peasants who are protesting. These are legitimate protests, protests backed by many arguments.”

The nation’s leader pronounced a televised speech at an unusual time on the same day that a giant demonstration was scheduled in all the main cities to support the farmers’ national stoppage.

“There is no doubt that we are riding through a storm; a storm that built up through an accumulation of abandonment and a lack of policies in the agricultural sector for a very long time. And now we are paying the consequences,” said the center-right president.

We abandoned the agricultural sector for a very long time. And now we are paying the consequences"

Santos was talking about the protests that have so far drawn peasants from 16 of the country’s 32 departments, and which include small producers of potatoes, cocoa, milk, strawberries, corn, coffee and cereals. Until Sunday, however, the president had sought to play down the strikes, going as far as to say that “the stoppage does not exist.”

Farmers have been protesting free-trade policies which they claim have been ruinous to them, citing the high price of fertilizer and fuel, which raise commercialization costs, the import of cheap food products and the lack of subsidies to competitiveness.

Santos announced, among other things, a check on the price of fertilizer and pesticides, the elimination of tariffs on some types of fertilizer, and a close watch on prices, besides a crackdown against smuggling.

But this was not enough to make farmers unblock the 30-odd roads where they are making their claims felt. On the contrary, the peasant leaders negotiating in Boyacá, a department in the center of the country that is the main producer of potatoes and the heart of the protest, said they will not yield to the government’s offers of sectorial talks, but will instead push for a national agreement. These leaders added that they are in no rush to reach a deal, as they have enough food to last them two months.

After a four-day negotiation, the government had been expecting to reach an agreement on Thursday. But a solution still seems far off. On the contrary, every day sees new groups of small growers struggling under international competition joining the nationwide protest.

Meanwhile, the social networks have also managed to get part of the cities’ populations to support the farmers’ demands. And rather than mitigating the protests, Santos’ televised speech only increased social activities in connection with the striking. In Bogota, Cali and Medellín, as well as 12 other cities, widespread mobilization tipped off the government about the degree of solidarity that the rural protest has found in urban areas.

Many of the demonstrations, both in rural and urban areas, ended in confrontations between peasants, students and other demonstrators on one side and the riot police (Esmad) on the other. Video footage of Esmad aggressions against peasants quickly spread on the social networks and fed the flames of indignation, prompting the police to announce an internal investigation.

Groups of vandals took advantage of the situation in several cities while the protests were taking place. Until 10pm on Thursday night, violence erupted in four municipalities out of the 20 where authorities had decreed a 5am curfew. In three other cities, criminal gangs sacked commercial neighborhoods and faced off with the police. In Bogota alone, a preliminary report talked about three civilian deaths and 25 wounded police officers. There were over 300 arrests throughout the country.

Santos is distancing himself from re-election because he is distancing himself from the people"

The situation became so delicate that President Santos called an extraordinary Cabinet meeting at 10pm that night.

The government’s response to the strike has been erratic. While the Agriculture Ministry was meeting with the peasant leaders, the Defense Ministry was accusing the FARC of infiltrating the protests. And Santos’ changing views on the protest have made people more distrustful rather than calmer.

Analysts are calling Santos’ handling of the issue imprudent, clumsy and improvised. Ricardo Galán, an expert in political communications, said the president was dealing with the protest clumsily because announcements like Friday’s could have been made three months ago, thus avoiding the call to demonstrate altogether. Héctor Riveros, a security consultant, agrees and says that the president has made the right decisions, too late. “Why does a president who has been in office for over three years now say that there have been no agrarian policies for a long time? It’s good that he’s admitting it, but he has been in the presidency for three years.”

Senate president Juan Fernando Cristo, of the ruling coalition, does not see it that way. He asserts that the Santos administration has had a chronic agrarian crisis blow up in its face although it is in fact two decades old; thus, the president can only be accused of not seeing it coming.

“The president has sensibly and humbly accepted that there is a crisis, that some sectors have been hard hit, and this crisis must serve to do what should have been done a long time ago, which is foment a change in the agricultural model in this country,” said Cristo.

But Santos has been erratic not only in his denial and later acceptance of the strike and the protests, but also in the way he has handled the social protest. Every since Santos took office, his administration has encouraged a search for social dialogue, and ratified it with talks with FARC in Havana. “This is a government that is considering agrarian reform, that is open to dialogue, and people are taking advantage of that to protest,” says the analyst León Valencia.

Santos, he added, does not have a clear strategy for national social dialogue; he is on the defensive; and he has no clear reform package to offer. Instead of listening to the farmers, from day one of the demonstrations he ordered the police to clear the roads and keep all protests in check. As a result, footage of Esmad officers hitting farmers quickly circulated across the country.

“The feeling is that poor peasants are getting abused, ignored and persecuted [...] This creates serious problems among the lower classes,” says Valencia.

For Santos, losing control over security is a recurring issue; he has been grilled about it by former President Álvaro Uribe, who once helped him reach the presidency and who is now the main opposition leader. And there, too, Santos’s speech has been ambiguous. While on one hand he is encouraging social protest, on the other he is also allowing the use of force against farmers and students.

“This is a blow to Santos’s leadership; he has failed to bring the country together and his leadership is not being recognized; people don’t understand why he says yes to open dialogue with subversive organizations (FARC) but no to citizens making their claims,” explains the pro-Uribe analyst Rafael Guarín.

There is a lot at stake for Santos. With one year to go before presidential elections, his chances of re-election are looking dimmer. “He is distancing himself from that possibility because he is distancing himself from the people,” says Galán.

Similar views are held by Guarín, who believes that the government’s response to the strike limits its own room for maneuver and could have serious repercussions: the backbone of the next presidential campaign could well change from peace and security to social unrest.

The government says that both the FARC and Uribe’s opposition are taking political advantage of the peasant protest, and accuses them of egging on the protesters.

“The vast majority of peasant petitions are fair and valid, but we cannot ignore the fact that there are opportunistic politicians out there who are making the most of this fair social protest,” said Cristo, who believes that behind the vandalism and the criminal actions, there are sectors who are interested in creating trouble for the government.

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