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End to Colombia’s National Strike Remains Uncertain

September 9, 2013

by Peter D'Amato

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.

Tags: Colombia, Colombia protests, political protests

Monday Memo: Colombian Farmers Reach Deal – Capriles’ IACHR Case – Peña Nieto’s Reforms –Brazilian Protests – Colombia Peace Talks

September 9, 2013

by AQ Online

Likely top stories this week: Colombian government and striking farmers reach a deal; Henrique Capriles takes Venezuela’s election results to the IACHR; Enrique Peña Nieto outlines his plans for reform; Brazilians protest again; and the Colombian government and FARC resume peace talks.

Colombian Government Strikes Deal with Farmers: The Colombian government announced on Sunday that it had reached an agreement with protesting farmers that have been striking since August 19. The strike aimed to draw attention to the economic difficulties they face in competing with cheap imports from abroad. The farmers agreed to lift all road blockades by Tuesday and will join the government in negotiations to address their demands and reach a final agreement. The government has already agreed to cut fertilizer prices and provide cheap credit to farmers.

Venezuela's Capriles to Challenge Maduro's Win Before IACHR: Former Venezuelan presidential candidate and opposition leader Henrique Capriles will bring a case challenging Venezuela's April 14 election results before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on Monday. Venezuela's Consejo Nacional Electoral (National Electoral Council—CNE) confirmed in early June that President Nicolás Maduro had won the election by a slim 1.49 percent margin over Capriles, and the Venezuelan Supreme Court upheld the decision. The IACHR must first decide whether the case is admissible. This comes as Venezuela's withdrawal from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is to become effective on Tuesday, September 10, a year after the government announced its withdrawal from the human rights body.1

Peña Nieto Champions Tax Reform: Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto outlined his plans for tax reform on Sunday in a speech from the presidential residence. The tax plan is intended to generate billions of dollars for social programs by closing tax loopholes for the wealthy and create a new universal pension for Mexicans over age 65. Meanwhile, Mexican opposition politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador led a demonstration of about 30,000 Mexicans on Sunday to protest Peña Nieto's tax, energy and education reforms.

Brazilians Protest on Independence Day: Brazilians in 150 cities took part in protests on September 7 (Brazil's Independence Day), interrupting a military parade in Rio de Janeiro, chanting outside Congress in Brasília as President Dilma Rousseff gave a speech, and clashing outside a soccer match in Mane Garrincha stadium in Brasília. Police fired tear gas at demonstrators in both cities, and at least 50 people in Brasília and 50 people in Rio were arrested. The protesters are continuing to demonstrate against poor public services, political corruption and public spending on the 2014 World Cup.

Colombian Peace Talks Resume in Havana: The fourteenth round of peace talks between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) begin in Havana on Monday. The last cycle concluded on August 28, after nearly coming to a halt when the government proposed holding a public referendum on any peace accord. The rebels have said that they would like to incorporate the agreements into Colombia’s constitution, a demand that the government has rejected. However, the FARC confirmed that they are willing to restart the talks this week.

1Editor'sNote: Venezuela withdrew from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, not the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. See AQ's Daily Focus on Tuesdsay, September 10 for a complete explanation.

Tags: Brazil, Colombia, FARC, Mexico

ELN Frees Captive Mining Executive

August 28, 2013

by AQ Online

Colombia’s second-largest rebel group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army—ELN), released a Canadian engineer on Tuesday after holding him hostage for seven months. Gernot Wober, vice president of exploration for the Toronto-based Braeval Mining Corporation, was turned over to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The ELN captured Wober in January along with five other Braeval employees in the Bolivar Department, demanding that mining company abandon its gold and silver mining project in the north of Colombia. In July, Braeval announced it was terminating all mining activity in Colombia due to “unfavorable market conditions,” opening the door for Wober’s release. In a video message posted Tuesday, ELN leader Nicolas Rodriguez hailed Wober’s release as a humanitarian act, saying that “this outcome proves that conflicts can be solved through negotiation."

After waging a 48-year armed conflict with the Colombian government, the ELN has expressed its willingness to negotiate peace accords, similar to the negotiations taking place with the Fuerzas Amradas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) in Havana. However, government authorities insisted that the ELN release all of its hostages before the two parties can begin dialogue. 

Tags: ELN, Colombia

Monday Memo: “La Bestia” Train Accident – FARC Negotiations – Venezuelan-Palestinian Oil Deal – New WTO Director – Mexico Energy Consultations

August 26, 2013

by AQ Online

Likely top stories this week:  Six people die in “La Bestia” train accident in Mexico; Colombia-FARC peace talks resume in Havana; Venezuela and Palestine sign energy deal; Roberto Azevêdo will become the new WTO director; and public consultations on energy reform begin in Mexico.

Six Dead and 22 Injured in “La Bestia” Train Accident: On Sunday, at least six people were killed and 22 were injured in the derailment of the cargo train known as “La Bestia” (The Beast) in southern Mexico, a train that is notorious for transporting Central American migrants through Mexico and to the U.S. border. According to official sources, at least 16 of the passengers injured in the accident were nationals of Honduras between 20 and 30 years old. Public Security Minister for Tabasco State Audomaro Martinez Zapata said that thieves had stolen the nails and metal plaques from the tracks, which led to the accident. Migrants’ rights activists demanded immediate measures to put an end to the risks that undocumented migrants face when traveling across the country, and  criticized the Mexican government for not taking this issue seriously. On Sunday, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto lamented the accident via Twitter and expressed his solidarity with the victims’ families.

Colombia-FARC Talks Resume after Crisis: On Saturday, lead Colombian government negotiator Humberto de la Calle announced that the talks between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) would resume in Havana on Monday. This statement put an end to one of the biggest crises to afflict the peace process since it began in November 2012, which was prompted when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ proposal last week that any peace agreement must be put to a national referendum. On Friday, the FARC announced that it was putting the peace talks on hold to study the referendum proposal. In response, Santos stated that the FARC is not entitled to “dictate pauses and impose conditions” on the negotiations, and ordered his team of negotiators to return to Bogotá to evaluate the implications of a hiatus in the peace process. So far, the talks are advancing at a slow pace and negotiators have only been able to reach a partial deal on one of five points in the agenda. Still, both sides have remained at the negotiation table, raising hopes for an end to the five-decade-long armed conflict.

Venezuela and the Palestinian Authority Sign Energy Deal: On Saturday, Venezuela and the Palestinian Authority signed an energy agreement that will allow Venezuela to sell oil at a “fair price” with “flexible repayment terms” to Palestinians, as well as provide expert advice and training for the fuel management and handling. The deal was signed during a meeting between Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua and his Palestinian counterpart, Riyad al-Maliki, while al-Maliki is on a tour of Latin America. During his trip to the region, al-Maliki also met Ecuadorian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility Ricardo Patiño and Guyana’s president, Donald Ramotar. Venezuela, Ecuador and Guyana are among several countries from Latin America and the Caribbean that recognize Palestine as an independent state.

Roberto Azevêdo to Become New WTO Director: Next Sunday, Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevêdo will become the new director general of the World Trade Organization. Azevêdo has served as Brazil’s ambassador to the WTO since 2008 and was selected in May to become the first Latin American to lead the WTO. In August, Azevêdo announced the appointment of four deputies, who will assume their posts in October: Yi Xiaozhun of China, Karl-Ernst Brauner of Germany, Yonov Frederick Agah of Nigeria and David Shark of the United States. One of Azevêdo’s main objectives in his new position is to revive the stalled Doha Round trade talks. In a recent statement, Azevêdo said that regional and bilateral trade accords obstructed efforts to revive global trade talks and “steal the attention a little from the multilateral system.”

Public Consultations on Energy Reform began in Mexico: On Sunday, Mexico’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática—PRD) began the first phase of a citizen consultation on the country’s fiscal and energy reforms. The set of energy reforms presented by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on August 13 would open Mexico's energy sector to foreign investors. The fiscal reform seeks to increase Mexico’s tax take by about 4 percentage points of GDP as a means to channel more resources towards education, health and infrastructure projects at the federal, state and municipal levels. Jesús Zambrano, the president of the PRD, called citizens from all parties to participate in the consultation. Members of the PRD have different positions from President Peña Nieto on both the fiscal and energy reforms and hope the result of the consultations will be taken into account by the central government. The first phase of the consultation took place in almost 3,000 centers installed in parks, plazas and metro stations in Mexico City and in the states of Coahuila, Campeche, Guanajuato, Querétaro, Colima, Nuevo León, Sonora, Nayarit, and Tabasco. A second phase of consultations will begin next Sunday.

Tags: La Bestia, Mexico, FARC peace negotiations, Colombia, Venezuela, Palestine, energy, Mexico energy reform, Mexico fiscal reform, Roberto Azevêdo, World Trade Organization

Colombian Protests Block Traffic to Ecuador and Venezuela

August 22, 2013

by AQ Online

On Wednesday, and continuing into Thursday, protestors across Colombia blocked traffic in 16 departments as part of a national protest that began earlier in the week. Tensions were triggered by the new Colombia–EU free-trade agreement (FTA), which went into force on August 1. On Tuesday, truck drivers, union leaders, health employees, and students joined the growing national protest.   Protesters are demanding increased land rights, fixed prices and subsidies for agricultural products, and improved access to potable water in agricultural fields, among other things.

The road blockades are in areas of the country with important transit links with Ecuador and Venezuela, as well as Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

In the department of Nariño, in the southeast of Colombia, five strategic points of entry to the Pan-American Highway have been closed off, limiting access into Ecuadorian territory.  The centrally located department of Boyacá also has been subject to extensive blockades.

According to Eberto Díaz, spokesperson for the Mesa Nacional de Interlocución Agraria (National Bureau of Agricultural Cooperation), about 200,000 trucks across the country halted operations on Wednesday. Similar demonstrations spread to the cities of Medellín and Cali. The protests damaged government property and 56 police officers have been wounded. Forty-six protesters from the Movimiento por la Defensa y la Dignidad de los Cafeteros Colombianos (Movement for the Defense and Dignity of Colombian Coffee Growers) have been arrested.

Tags: Free Trade Agreement, Colombia, European Union

Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador Discuss Security

August 16, 2013

by AQ Online

Defense Minister Celso Amorim of Brazil met with his counterparts, Juan Carlos Pinzón of Colombia and María Fernanda Espinosa of Ecuador, in the Brazilian city of Manaus Thursday morning. The meeting was focused on strengthening security cooperation between the three nations that border the Amazon.

Protecting the Amazon from illegal activities was the main topic of the meeting organized as part of a seminar organized by the Centro Gestor do Sistema de Proteção da Amazônia (Amazon Protection System Management and Operations Center—CENISPAM). “Illegal mining and narcotrafficking are the most serious threats to the Amazon’s biodiversity and natural resources. Such activities finance terrorist and criminal organizations, are violating [our] sovereignty and threaten the security of citizens,” Pinzón said.

The meeting comes just days after an Ecuadorean army lieutenant was killed in a firefight with FARC rebels on the Ecuador-Colombian border, highlighting the need for greater security among the porous borders of South America. “By acting together, we will be more protected from security threats in South America,” Amorim said.

Tags: Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia, Amazon

Monday Memo: Kerry in Brazil and Colombia – Argentine Primaries – Colombia Peace Talks – Chong Chon Gang – Brazil Dictatorship Spying

August 12, 2013

by AQ Online

Likely top stories this week: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits Colombia and Brazil; Argentines vote in congressional primary elections; FARC and Colombian government hail progress in peace talks; Panama concludes its inspection of the North Korean ship Chong Chon Gang; and documents reveal details of Brazilian dictatorship-era spying.

John Kerry Travels to Brazil and Colombia: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will make brief visits to both Colombia and Brazil early this week to meet with high-level government officials in both countries to discuss trade and energy, as well as address the recent revelations that the U.S. conducted electronic spying in foreign countries by monitoring phone calls and e-mails.  U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos by phone to offer an explanation for the National Security Agency program, but Santos said Thursday that he wants further explanation from the U.S., and Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota expressed indignation about the program at the UN. Kerry will arrive in Bogotá on Monday and Brasília on Tuesday.

Argentines Vote in Congressional Primaries: Argentine voters went to the polls on Sunday for mandatory congressional primary elections that could serve as a bellwether for Argentina's October 27 midterm elections.  By early Monday, candidates from the government’s Frente para la Victoria (Front for Victory—FPV) led in Senate races in six of seven provinces, but FPV candidates for the Chamber of Deputies trailed in the country’s most populous provinces, including the province of Buenos Aires and the city of Buenos Aires. A third of the country's Senate seats and nearly half of the Chamber of Deputies seats will be up for grabs in October, with the results likely to affect Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's chances of reforming the Constitution and winning a third term in office.

FARC and Colombian Government Hail Progress in Peace Talks: The Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) released a joint statement on Saturday praising the results of the 12th round of peace talks. Government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said that "nobody has come this far," acknowledging progress in discussions over the FARC's future participation in Colombian politics—the second item on a five-point peace agenda. The Colombian government has refused to call a ceasefire while peace talks are underway. On Friday, the Colombian military killed FARC commander Jesus Antonio Plata Rios, known as "Zeplin," who led the rebels in western Colombia.

Panama Concludes Search of North Korean Ship: The Panamanian government said Sunday that it has concluded its search of the North Korean vessel Chong Chon Gang, stopped in Panama on its way from Cuba on July 15 under suspicions that the ship was transporting drugs. Authorities said that they had spent nearly a month unloading hundreds of thousands of bags of sugar from the ship, revealing 25 containers filled with undeclared weapons and six military vehicles. The Cuban government has acknowledged the military equipment onboard, but says that it is obsolete and was being sent to North Korea for repairs. On Monday, a team of six UN inspectors arrives in Panama to investigate whether the shipment violated international sanctions against North Korea.

Brazil's Dictatorship-Era Spying: As Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota prepares to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry this week to discuss U.S. electronic spying in Brazil, Brazil's O Estado de São Paulo revealed Sunday that the Brazilian military government spied on its neighbors—particularly Argentina—during the country's military dictatorship. Meanwhile, the digital archive Armazém Memoria (Memory Warehouse), Brazil's federal prosecutor's office, and other local and national entities jointly  launched the "Brasil: Nunca Mais" (Brazil Never Again) digital initiative on Friday, which includes hundreds of thousands of pages of searchable documents and multimedia from 710 trials of dissidents during the 1964-1985 regime.

Tags: John Kerry, Chong Chon Gang, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina

Santos Accuses FARC of Violating Peace Negotiations

July 24, 2013

by AQ Online

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos denounced the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) on Tuesday for what he described as a “flagrant violation” of the group’s commitment to end kidnappings prior to its peace negotiations with the Colombian government in Havana.

Santos’ comments, delivered at the opening of Colombiamoda (Colombian Fashion Week) in Medellín, marks the second time in the span of a week that the Colombian leader has spoken out strongly against the guerilla group. Last weekend, FARC soldiers ambushed and killed 19 Colombian soldiers in separate attacks in Arauca and Caqueta departments, putting increased pressure on those around the negotiating table in Havana. In response, Santos vowed to use decisive military force against the rebel group if necessary.

The president’s most recent statement comes just days after the FARC offered to release former U.S. Marine Kevin Scott Sutay, who was abducted on June 20, as a gesture of goodwill in light of the ongoing peace negotiations. Santos responded to the announcement by saying that the FARC “did not abduct him before [the peace talks], they recently kidnapped him, without any justification,” thereby violating a statute of the negotiations.

As part of the release, the FARC requested that a humanitarian commission composed of the International Committee of the Red Cross, former Senator Piedad Córdoba and a delegate from the community of San Egidio be sent to retrieve Sutay. Santos refused to allow anyone but the Red Cross to be involved in the handover, saying that he would not allow Sutay’s release to become a media circus.

Tags: Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia, FARC

Colombian Guerilla Unit Surrenders in Cali

July 17, 2013

by AQ Online

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cali on Tuesday for the largest demobilization of members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional—ELN) in Colombian history. A 30-member unit of the guerilla group, which included three pregnant women, surrendered in the southwestern city.

The ELN, with its estimated 3,000 members, has shown interest in convening peace negotiations with the government, but has thus far been rebuffed by officials who insist that they must demobilize and release all of their hostages before beginning negotiations. President Santos welcomed the unit’s surrender and encouraged all of Colombia’s guerrillas to fight for their ideals, “but without violence and without arms.”  Integration into the political system has been a key point in the ongoing negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—FARC) in Cuba.

While the 30-member unit’s demobilization is seen as a positive step toward the end of armed conflict in the region, it remains to be seen whether the ELN, which has been operating in Colombia for nearly 50 years, will agree to the conditions for negotiations set forward by government officials.

Tags: ELN, Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos

Colombia and FARC Conclude 11th Round of Negotiations

July 10, 2013

by AQ Online

The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—FARC) concluded their eleventh, and shortest, round of peace negotiations in Havana, Cuba, on Tuesday. This round of talks focused on whether to allow the guerillas to hold political office—one of the most contentious points in the five-point peace agenda.

This round of negotiations lasted only eight days and focused on guaranteeing the right of political opposition, particularly after a peace agreement is ultimately signed. And while the talks, which were launched in Oslo in October 2012, have yet to reach a consensus on the FARC’s participation in the political system, both sides did reach a partial agreement on the critical issue of agrarian reform in May.

President Juan Manuel Santos hopes to wrap up peace talks by November. Negotiators will also tackle the illicit drug trade, demilitarization and reparations for the victims of the nearly half-century armed conflict, which has claimed over 600,000 lives and displaced millions of civilians since the 1960s. The Colombian government and FARC will return to the table for the twelfth round of negotiations on July 22.

Tags: Colombia, FARC, Cuba

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