In Colombia, thousands of workers, famers and miners have joined together in a national strike to protest the government’s economic policies. Colombian farmers claim that they cannot compete with subsidized crops imported from the United States and European Union. This week, nearly 30,000 people marched in Bogotá to protest government policies, trade deals and alleged exploitation of regions. Other reports estimate that more than 200,000 workers have blocked many of the country’s major roadways.
The agrarian strike in Colombia, as it is being called, involves a broad coalition of the agrarian industry, labor unions and much of the country’s rural population. The strikers are challenging an economic model that has produced widespread poverty and income disparity while allegedly rewarding multinational corporations and large agribusinesses that benefit from Colombia’s “free trade” agreements.
Javier Correa Velez, the head of a Colombian coffee-growers association called Dignidad Cafetera, said, “We’re not trying to overthrow the government or support one armed group or another, we just want solutions to our problems.” Among these problems, increasing fuel and fertilizer costs as well as government neglect of rural areas have decimated Colombia’s agricultural industry.
In terms of income inequality, Colombia is the seventh most unequal country in the world. It also has the highest unemployment rate in Latin America. There are more than 7 million Colombians living in poverty and 2 million of them are classified as living in extreme poverty. 40 years of armed conflict between the government, rebel groups and drug cartels has displaced many Colombians and left others without means to support themselves or their families. These indicators suggest that economic reforms are needed, and the agrarian strike may be a watershed moment for Colombian labor and poverty activists.
To date, the strikers’ efforts have resulted in some government action. Since February of this year, the government has responded with increased subsidies to coffee growers, providing more than $333 million. Some recent reports suggest that President Juan Manuel Santos may be ready to sit down and discuss the farmers’ demands, ending a long stalemate between the government and labor. This is a significant shift in the President’s rhetoric. Earlier in the year, he criticized the strike as an attempt to increase tension between the government and certain rebel groups with which the government has been negotiating peace agreements.
For now, strikers and government ministers remain deadlocked. But the farmers’ resilience and persistence has changed the tone of the debate and caught the attention of the international media.
– Daniel Bonasso