With a “Mea Culpa," the Arrogant Santos Government Relents

The government of Colombia has been forced to negotiate with peasants' organizations in the wake of the peasants' strong show of force. The rural workers who have mounted Colombia's national agrarian strike are staying the course after four peasants and one policeman were killed and scores more detained. Hundred of thousands of peasants and small farmers are participating in this historic mobilization whose scope and magnitude have not been seen for decades.

Nazih Richani 8/27/2013

The rural workers who have mounted Colombia's national agrarian strike are staying the course after four peasants and one policeman were killed and scores more detained. Hundred of thousands of peasants and small farmers are participating in this historic mobilization whose scope and magnitude has not been seen for decades. But this is just a tactical triumph in a long struggle to address the current crisis in the rural economy. The crisis has been generated by a neoliberal model of development based on the extraction of raw materials and large bio-fuels agribusiness. It has been exacerbated by free trade agreements increasingly transforming Colombia into an importer of its basic food necessities. In August 19 when the strike started  President Juan Manuel Santos ridiculed it by declaring  that “el paro agrario no existe,” that is, “the agrarian strike does not exist." Well, against his wishful thinking, the strike is still going strong after nine days (as of this writing, 27 August) and has expanded to include most of the country’s departments. It has put the agrarian crises on the social and political map and has highlighted its centrality in a country in which some 31.6% of the population still live and depend on the agrarian economy (according to the UNDP Report of 2011 on Colombia’s rural economy).

Finally Santos acknowledged the strike in a meeting that took place on Monday August 26, with peasants’ representatives in Tunja, an epicenter of the mobilization and the capital of the department of Boyacá.  Speaking to peasant representatives, Santos openly apologized, saying “Mea Culpa” for his earlier dismissive comment on the strike and promised to continue his negotiations. Santos recognized the obvious, especially after the mobilization reached La Casa de Nariño, his presidential palace in Bogota, where 8,000 demonstrators in Bolivar Plaza raised their voices and their casseroles in solidarity with the peasants.

The fundamental question is whether this strong show of force by the peasants can translate into policy that takes Colombia in a different direction? That is a different matter. Can this strike open the door for a very serious discussion of the root cause: the economic model and the free trade agreements with the United States, Canada, and EU. How would this wide mobilization resonate in Havana where the Santos government is negotiating with the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC)?  The answers would depend on the resilience of the organizations that led the strike and the effectiveness of the democratic and revolutionary forces in pushing for an economic change that safeguards the subsistence peasant economy and the real producers of “bread, milk and butter” in Colombia.

It is premature to sing “gloria” but the “si se puede! ” dream raised last week by the peasants of Tunja and other rural cities echo the voices of the peasants who have been struggling since the 1920s.

Stay tuned.

* Updates: More marches in Bogota Tuesday tonight. On Wednesday 28 of August workers' unions and teachers are joining in solidarity. On Thursday 29, president Santos declares that there is a "crisis in the agrarian sector" finally he got it.

It seems that the agrarian strike has escalated into a national rebelion demonstrating the gravity of the crisis that the country's economic model has reached.  On thursday 29 of August, the rebellion in Bogota took the government of Santos by surprise, as was the begining of the strike on the 19th of August, by involving the poor areas of Suba, Bosa, Soucha, and Ciudad Bolivar joining in labour unions and students. In the first a young boy was killed by the police. Major streets were blocked. The government declared a curfew tonight from 8PM to 5 AM in Ciudad Bolivar, Suba, Soucha, and Bosa, which constitute the misery belt of Bogota.

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