Rural Colombians are winding down the national strike that has engulfed the country since August 19. Roadblocks are coming down and laborers are beginning negotiations with the government. But it appears unlikely that an overhaul of the country’s free trade policies—the bitter medicine that many rural Colombians are demanding—will be part of a compromise from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
The strike has mobilized Colombians from numerous sectors. Roadblocks in rural areas included groups like coffee growers—who staged protests earlier this year against the importation of coffee—and truckers, who have been struck by a recent price hike on petroleum. In Bogotá and other cities, health care workers and university students have called for a rollback of privatization in the health care and education industries.
Unifying the strike is dissatisfaction with Colombia’s free trade policies. A lack of investment in infrastructure and the importation of cheap foreign goods, such as coffee and powdered milk, have wreaked havoc upon the earnings of the rural poor. Protesters are also upset with other aspects of Colombian policy, including one law forcing farmers to buy certified seeds, offered exclusively by private corporations such as Monsanto.
Santos has struggled to manage the emerging political crisis as he focuses on beginning peace negotiations with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army—ELN), Colombia’s largest guerrilla group after the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC). Peace talks with the FARC began in November 2012.
The president ignored the strike during its first week, declaring that the “so-called national strike does not exist,” and blaming roadblocks and demonstrations on “10 or 15” agitators.
The story on the ground is different. On August 29, Neil Martin, director of the civic organization Paso Internacional, observed a large non-violent march in the capital that was met with violence from Colombia’s riot police, the Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron—ESMAD).
“What we saw was a relatively peaceful protest which was repressed by the riot police and then turned into a melee,” said Martin. “We witnessed several different instances of the riot police firing tear gas into crowds of peaceful protesters. We saw the riot police throwing projectiles like bricks into crowds of mostly non-violent protesters.”
On August 30, Santos ordered the military into Bogotá and other regions affected by the strike. Clashes so far have left at least five dead and hundreds injured, including protesters, police and civilian bystanders. ESMAD officers in padded uniforms and riot shields are now joined on the streets by military personnel armed with assault rifles.
As security forces clear roadblocks and disperse marches, the Santos administration is scrambling to negotiate an end to the strike. Agreements with various industries have coaxed individual sectors to take down roadblocks. A Gran Pacto Nacional (Grand National Pact) is set to be signed on September 12, but numerous groups have stated they have not yet agreed to join the statement.
The Colombian government has been uncompromising on its stance toward free trade policy. Despite Santos’ declarations that poverty alleviation would be a priority, 46.8 percent of rural Colombians are still poor and 22.8 percent remain in extreme poverty, according to a report by the Colombian national development agency, Dirección de Desarrollo Social (Social Development Office—DDS).
Without compromises from the government to protect the livelihood of farmers and other rural workers, the causes at the root of the national strike will not disappear for long.
More than 1,500 Indigenous Bolivian protesters arrived in La Paz on Wednesday after a 603-kilometer (375 mile), 66-day march demanding that President Evo Morales renegotiate the construction of a 305-kilometer (190-mile) road that is slated to traverse the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS).
Hundreds of supporters in the Plaza San Francisco received the Amazonian demonstrators chanting, “The TIPNIS is untouchable, Bolivians own the TIPNIS,” while distributing food, water, flowers, and blankets. La Paz Mayor Luis Revilla, who supports the protestors, welcomed the marchers and presented them with symbolic keys to the city.
Organizers of the months-long protests are demanding that the government permanently abandon the joint Brazil–Bolivia project, at least along the proposed route. Morales today invited the protestors to discuss their grievances in the office of Vice President Álvaro García Linera, after earlier statements by Minister of Communications Iván Canelas indicated the presidential palace is under construction and not an appropriate place to receive the group.
Protest leaders in response have rejected such claims and insisted they won’t leave until they talk to the president. “The President has told us he waits for us in the presidential palace. We’re here and we won’t move until he sees us,” said Indigenous leader Fernando Vargas.
Panamanian lawmakers on Thursday voted by a wide margin to revoke a 1960s-era law that had prohibited foreign investment in Panama’s mining sector. It is widely speculated that the change will allow Canadian mining company Inmet to now move forward with plans to build Central America’s largest copper mine.
"What we're trying to do is develop regions, create jobs and reduce poverty," said National Assembly leader Jose Muñoz of President Martinelli's Democratic Change party in response to angry remarks by protestors that made their way into the halls of Congress. Opposition to the law is driven by fears that new mining operations will damage farmland and water supplies in rural areas. President Martinelli has in the past spoken out against the mining law and is now expected to sign the changes into law.
In addition to the Inmet copper project, which is projected to require a $5 billion investment in operations that will eventually produce 250,000 metric tons of copper a year, interest has also been shown from companies in South Korea and Singapore, among others.
Navy Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera, a leader in Argentina’s military junta from 1976 to 1978, passed away on Monday in Buenos Aires at age 85. Massera collaborated with Jorge Rafael Videla and Orlando Ramón Agosti to stage a coup d’etat that overthrew Isabel Perón in 1976. The repressive dictatorship that Masserra and his colleagues established in Argentina, and the Dirty War they waged against leftist insurgents and dissidents, lasted from 1976 to 1983.
Nicknamed Admiral Zero, Massero was in charge of the Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (Navy Mechanical School)—perhaps the most symbolic, clandestine detention and torture facility in of the dictatorship era. Many of the individuals who disappeared and were tortured by the junta—estimates range from 9,000 to 30,000 people—passed through the walls of Massera’s Escuela.
After the country’s return to civilian rule, Massera was found guilty of murder, torture and invasion of privacy by the trial of the Juntas reconciliatory body in 1985. Despite being sentenced to life in prison, Massera received a pardon in 1990 for these charges as well as for his involvement in Operation Condor by then-President Carlos Menem. In 1998 he was again convicted, this time of concealing and changing the identities of the children of the disappeared, and was sentenced to house arrest due to his age.
Massera died of cardiac arrest, which was related to a history of neurological problems.