Social mobilization in Colombia enters a new stage
On the 30 th of May a national agrarian strike and mobilization to block strategic national highways commenced. It is the second such action, following a national mobilization in 2013 that ended following negotiations between the National Government and representatives of the agrarian social movement. The agrarian social movement that emerged from the mobilization, and the many local, regional and national rural and urban civil society organisations that joined forces to continue the campaign for social justice and equitable development strategies and projects in rural areas, have consolidated their strategies and efforts over the last two years with constant programs of meetings and actions. The representatives of the movement (the Agrarian Summit) declared that the most recent mobilization was convoked as the National Government has failed to fulfil the vast majority of commitments that it made in the accord that ended the first mobilization following extended negotiations.
While the agrarian strike and mobilization is widely supported by leftist political parties, trade unions and many other social movements in Colombia, representatives of the National Government stated that the mobilization was an unnecessary and unjust attempt to put pressure on the Government as the government has always expressed willingness to dialogue, and the Government responded to the mobilization and blockades by deploying riot police and military forces to subdue the protests and remove the blockades. Most elements of the mass media have attempted to minimize the significance of the mobilization, portraying the demonstrators as delinquents that have no genuine grievances or legitimate objectives. The following is a translation of a recent article on the agrarian strike and mobilization by Agencia Prensa Rural, a rural press agency in Colombia.
Official oppression and anti-popular agricultural policies put in doubt the will of the Establishment to secure peace.
Since the 30 th of May the farmers of the country have been in a condition of political mobilization, participating in an action convened by the Agrarian Summit. People are talking of around 100,000 people that have blockaded major highways in various locations throughout the country. There are concentrations in Chocó, Antioquia, Valle del Cauca, Santander, Casanare, Tolima, Boyacá, Huila, Nariño, Bogotá and Cesar. Four main roads have been blocked: one in Urabá, two in Chocó, and the Pan-American Highway in Cauca. There are associated demonstrations and protests in 27 of the 32 provinces of the country.
The National Agrarian, Farmers, Ethnic and Popular Minga, as the mobilization has been called [‘minga’ is an Indigenous word signifying a collective undertaking, task or project, first applied in this sense to a nationwide political mobilization by the country’s Indigenous peoples in 2008], condemns the National Government´s failure to fulfil the commitments it made in an accord with the leaders of the Agrarian Summit following a similar national strike and mobilization in 2013. In the almost three years that have followed the first accord, threats, assassinations, and bureaucratic and judicial persecution against the leaders and members of the social movement have continued, while laws and policies are implemented that go against the spirit and letter of the agreements made with the leaders of the Agrarian Summit in terms of integral rural and agricultural development.
Although the Government now recognizes that the people have the right to mobilize and protest, the official response to the latest mobilization has been violent. The results of the mobilization in its first days, from the 30 th of May to the 5 th of June, are alarming: three Indigenous demonstrators have been killed (Willington Quibarecama, Gersain Cerón and Marco Aurelio Díaz Ulcué), 140 protestors have been detained, and 190 wounded. In Cauca two women had miscarriages following assaults by the police. In Tolima and Antioquia the leaders of the social movement have received death threats.
Armed people have infiltrated the mobilizations in different localities, accompanied by threats and pamphlets offering rewards to anyone who denounces the leaders of the social movement. César Jerez, coordinator of the National Association of Farming Reserve Zones and spokesman for the Agrarian Summit, states that “A full scale media war is in place against the mobilization, distorting and discrediting the motives and objectives that have produced the mobilization.”
Robert Daza, a member of the National Agrarian Coordination and spokesman for the Agrarian Summit, says that “there are more than one hundred concentration points in 27 provinces. Almost one hundred thousand people are mobilized.” Rural and urban communities have taken to the streets with the objective of defending the initiatives for peace and contesting the policies of President Santos that appear to contradict or undermine the efforts of the government to achieve stable and durable conditions of peace in the country.
Actions in support of the agrarian strike and mobilization
Around 130 boats have occupied the maritime zone surrounding the port in Buenaventura, blocking national and international commerce. In the municipality of Valdivia in Antioquia, the demonstrators have peacefully occupied the mayor´s office. In a public statement the local council states that the public officials there feel like they have been taken hostage. The Minga has also taken over the facilities of Ecopetrol [the national oil company] in Bogotá.
The agrarian strike has been joined by truck drivers, who have stated that around fifteen thousand of them are going to block roads around the country.
First contacts with the government since the strike began
Five days after the commencement of the strike the first meeting took place in Cali between the political commission of the Agrarian Summit and the National Government, the latter represented by Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo, the Minister for Agriculture Aurelio Iragorri, and the high councillor for the post-conflict period Rafael Pardo. The parties didn´t manage to establish a Unique Round Table for negotiations, as the Agrarian Summit has several demands before they will negotiate with the Government in accordance with a formalized structure.
Among the principal demands are: 1. Guarantees of human rights and recognition of the legitimacy of the demonstrations in terms of ending the aggressions of the Armed Forces against the people that have mobilized around the country. 2. Reactivation of the Human Rights Commission in cooperation with the Interior Ministry, the National Ombudsman and the United Nations. 3. An exchange of proposals for the installation and methodology of negotiations for a Unique Round Table for the future conduct of negotiations.
However, after the meeting the same Government used a strategy of disinformation, as its representatives stated that the Round Table had already been established and that it had been agreed that the blockades would be removed. César Jerez said in response: “One has to reproach the Government for these actions and for their failure to fulfil the agreements that have been reached.”
The authorities have ordered the people that are blocking the roads to remove the blockades. Sebastian Quiroga, a spokesman for the Peoples’ Congress, said: “They haven`t removed the Public Forces from the highways, to the contrary they have sent more. The meeting that was held and lasted all day didn`t serve any purpose.”
Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo reaffirmed that the National Government is willing to hold further dialogues, stating in a videoconference with provincial Governors and national authorities on the 30 th of May: “This is an unjustified strike, protest or mobilization in the sense that this is a government with which it is not necessary to resort to exerting pressures of this nature in order to sit down and negotiate about distinct topics, above all in areas affected by the armed conflict where we are firmly committed to consolidate peace. The dialogues are open permanently.”
Peace at stake
However, the spokespeople of the Agrarian Summit have reiterated that, despite the recent contacts with the Government, more than two years after the last national agrarian strike and mobilization the State still has not implemented most of the measures that it committed to pursuant to the accord that resulted in the removal of the blockades and the demobilization of the farmers in 2013. It is an unfortunate precedent for the peace process currently under way.
And this is how the situation has been interpreted in Havana. In an article on the mobilization by the farmers Timoleón Jiménez, Commander in Chief of the FARC, warns that: “If the response of the State is violence, we will have the most valid explanation of the prolonged belligerent confrontation that the country has experienced for the last 52 years. A government that manifests its disposition to sign a peace agreement with the insurgency, and that assumes the task of implementing the agreement in spite of the inconformity of the large land owners and others that monopolize the wealth in rural areas, cannot continue to fail to fulfil its commitments and at the same time continue resorting to the oppression of just protests.”
In this respect, Antonio Madariaga Reales, of Corporación Viva la Ciudadanía, states: “The emergence and frequency of social mobilization is going to be one of the fortunate characteristics of the post-accord environment and Colombian society will have to become accustomed to it. But even more important is that the State recognize its role as guarantor and stop considering social protest as a problem of public order. For this to occur the State must undergo not just normative changes, but also changes to the institutional culture in general and in particular to the attitude of the Public Forces.”
This will be a great challenge for the peace that is approaching.