“It’s Our Turn Now”: Colombia’s Agricultural Movement Is The Biggest in the Country's History

An interview with Oscar Gutiérrez Reyes on agricultural sovereignty as a challenge to the neoliberal model. 

February 18, 2015

The rise of neo-populist regimes throughout Latin America over the past two decades exposed deep fissures in the ability of the United States and its allies in the IMF, World Bank, and World Trade Organization to advocate neoliberal economic reforms as the blanket solution to the region’s chronic problems of underdevelopment. While the failure of neoliberalism in Latin America pushed most countries to the left, Colombia has remained a key ally of the Bush and Obama administrations, electing staunch right-wing radical Álvaro Uribe Vélez in 2002 and 2006, and then Uribe’s Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, in 2010 and 2014. Both played a key role in negotiating free trade agreements with the United States and the European Union in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

While critical of Colombia’s persistent and ghastly record of human and labor rights violations, the international leftist press has focused the brunt of its attention on the fate of the country’s traditional left: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the former of which is currently embroiled in peace negotiations with the Santos government in Havana, Cuba. Interestingly, the fate of both the old guerrilla left and the neoliberal right are being challenged by an outbreak of leftist mobilization that has received little attention thus far.

During the past two years, an unprecedented surge in grassroots radicalism has effectively shut down the country through mass civic strikes that continue to threaten Santos’ ability to govern. In fact, the year 2013 witnessed the largest number of protests in Colombia since researchers began tracking them nearly four decades ago (Cinep/PPP 2014). Protests that began with struggles by Colombian coffee producing farmers (cafeteros) to challenge governmental support for the liberalization of the coffee market have since morphed into a broad agrarian movement that includes farmers and workers throughout the national agricultural economy and beyond. This movement, mobilized under the umbrella organization Dignidad Agropecuaria Colombiana (Colombian Agricultural Dignity), now stands as the foremost challenge to the persistence of neoliberalism in Colombia and thus poses a threat to one of the last holdouts of U.S. hegemony in the region.

The following is an interview with Oscar Gutiérrez Reyes, a long-time activist and organizer living in Colombia’s central coffee region, Manizales, Caldas. He was a key coordinator of a series of coffee protests of the 1990s and is now a central figure in the recently established militant coffee producer organization, Movimiento por la Defensa y Dignidad de los Cafeteros Colombianos (Movement for the Defense and Dignifity of Colombia Coffee Workers), which led the latest wave of protests. He is also now a central figure in Dignidad Agropecuaria.

Could you tell us who you are and what your role is in the Dignidad Cafetera movement?

I was born in 1953 in Armero, Tolima, a thriving cotton town until 1985 when it was destroyed in a tragic eruption of the Ruiz volcano. I grew up in Bogotá, however, and from an early age became involved with the leftist Movimiento Obrero Independiente Revolucionario (Independent Revolutionary Worker Movement, MOIR) of which I remain actively involved.

Initially I worked with oil workers in Tibú, Norte de Santander, and then began organizing coffee pickers in Chinchiná, Caldas. In 1978, I was sentenced to one year in prison for organizing a strike of coffee pickers, becoming the first tried by a military tribunal under the infamous "Security Statute" of President Julio César Turbay. I was also active on numerous political fronts associated with the coffee sector, including a committee leader of the antipeajes (anti-toll) struggles that arose when the government proposed toll taxes on the newly constructed “coffee highway system” that runs throughout the coffee region. In terms of formal politics, I have served as Secretary General to the Mayor and as a Municipal Councilman in Chinchiná during several periods and was a Caldas Departmental Deputy between 2001 and 2007. In 2002, as Deputy, I suffered an assassination attempt on my life whose perpetrators and motives were never clarified.

I am currently the president of the Polo Democrático Alternativo (Alternative Democratic Pole) for the department of Caldas, which is essentially a coalition of leftist movements and political parties founded in 2005. I have also been National Coordinator of the Ligas de Usuarios de Servicios Públicos (Public Services Users League) and founder and regular contributor to the newspaper, El Usuario (The User). In this context, I was one of the early promoters of a referendum to establish water use as a basic fundamental right.

For over 30 years now I have been a political leader of cafeteros, promoting the most important struggles in this sector. I have been an advisor to many agricultural organizations in the current round of negotiations with the national governmentan effort to force them to comply with the agreements reached as a result of the national strike of August 2013.

What are the origins of the Dignidad Cafetera movement?

The origins of Dignidad Cafetera can be traced to a 2012 proposal devised by the Santos government and the National Federation of Coffee Growers (Fedecafé) to increase the “coffee contribution tax” (tax on coffee exports) from 6 cents/lb. to 12 cents/lb. Angered that this tax would not serve the interests of producers, some 50 cafetero leaders from throughout the coffee-producing departments of Colombiaincluding Antioquia, Risaralda, Caldas, Quindío, and Valle del Caucamet with long-time activist for cafetero rights, Senator Jorge Robledo, at the Gran Hotel de Pereira on February 14, 2012. These talks resulted in the first Encuentro Regional Cafetero (Regional Cafetero Conference) held in the San Lorenzo indigenous reserve in Riosucio, Caldas, on June 4, 2012. Over one thousand coffee farmers from across the country attended. We ended up drafting a letter that was sent to President Santos expressing unanimous rejection of the new export taxes and declaring a list of demands for governmental support for the sector

As a show of our strength and the seriousness of our convictions, we organized a massive “National Coffee Mobilization March” on August 27, 2012, that brought together some 20 thousand cafetero farmers into the city of Manizales, Caldas. Threatened by this broad force of opposition, the government rescinded its proposal, and this was essentially Dignidad Cafetera’s first in a number of victories since then.

Dignidad Cafetera then went on the offensive. We first organized a planning committeeCongreso Nacional Cafeteroto strategize our next steps. This led to a series of major protests and acts of civil disobedience. We ended up getting the Santos government to approve a grant for coffee farmers: two thousand pesos per arroba of coffee produced, which was then increased to six thousand pesos.

On December 17, 2012, in Ibagué, Tolima, we decided to conduct the first Paro Cívico Cafetero Nacional (National Civic Coffee Strike) set for February 25, 2013. During this strike more than 150 thousand coffee growers in Colombia across all sectors, including large and medium farmers, peasants, laborers and indigenous people protested in the country's roads under heavy government repression. The cafetero strikers were joined by a large contingent of cacaoteros (cacao growers), primarily from the department of Santander.

On March 8, following eleven intense days of strikes, the government caved. First, the government agreed to establish a subsidy program, La Protección al Ingreso al Cafetero (Cafetero Income Protection, PIC), that would go to producers as a grant between 145 and 165 thousand pesos per load of coffee in order to make up for shortfalls between the selling prices of coffee beans and the costs of production. Second, they agreed to participate in a series of negotiations around our list of demands, including the problems of producer debt, price controls for agro-inputs, of the growing importation of expensive foods and cheap coffees, and the development of large-scale mining in coffee regions. As a result of these negotiations, over 70 thousand coffee farmers have been able to refinance their debts.

What about the creation of the Dignidad Agropecuaria movement of Colombia? What are its origins and why create a broad umbrella organization alongside Dignidad Cafetera?

Shortly after the strikes of February and March 2013, a new national agrarian strike led by cafeteros and cacaoteros brought in paperos (potato growers) and other campesino agricultural producers from the colder altitudes, who started their own organization, Dignidad Papera y de Cultivos de Clima Frio, and rice growers from Tolima and elsewhere who started their own organization, Dignidad Arrocera.

All of these new agricultural movement organizations began working together to organize a broad national agrarian strikethe Paro Agrario Nacionalwhich took place between August 19 and September 12, 2013. This was the birth of Dignidad Agropecuaria, which linked all of the new organizations who were inspired by the challenge Dignidad Cafetera was posing to the neoliberal model pushed by the country’s political establishment. Currently, the Dignidad organizations now include the producers of the following agricultural products: coffee, cocoa, caña panelera, rice, potatoes, onions, milk, beans, banana, avocado, fruit, and cereal.

Although the national agrarian strike was strongly repressed by Colombian security forces and highly stigmatized by the public media, it was a great success because we managed to achieve a level of solidarity in Colombia that has never existed in the country’s history. People throughout the country were on the streets banging pots and joining the protesters, and mass demonstrations of support emerged in Bogotá and most of the capital cities of the departments, especially Tunja, Popayán, Cali, Bucaramanga and Medellín. This support helped tilt the balance of power towards us at the negotiating with the government. Unfortunately, at this point, the government has yet to fulfill most of its promises from those talks.

On October 6, 2014, we held the First National Congress of National Agricultural Dignity to officially establish ourselves as a trade organization (gremio económico).

Why is Dignidad Agropecuaria now discussing the need to form a gremio like that typically used by traditional economic elites?

It is our turn now. The gremios that are now in the country's life do not represent the interests of and general welfare of the country’s farmers. As it is, the gremios as organizations are supported financially by so-called “fiscal funds” (parafiscales). The management of these funds, where they are allocated, how they are allocated, to whom and for what purpose, are therefore negotiated to meet the demands of the state itself, a state which has historically been the mechanism of control of the dominant classes of the country.

Was there general agreement among the leaders of Dignidad Agropecuaria that this was the appropriate direction? What are some of the internal debates about the utility of establishing a more formalized producer organization?

The internal debate revolves around how to centralize the organization in such a way as to give it the necessary distance and autonomy from the government, the existing political parties, and the dynamics and whims of the peace process that has been going on between the FARC and the Santos government in Havana, Cuba. We are not tied to any one political party and are not involved in any way with the armed struggle. Yet, we must handle the issue of electoral politics and partisanship with care so as not to divide the organization. It is imperative that we maintain this distance because if we become identified with the interests of one party over another, we will not be able to maintain our unity and unanimity across the different sectors and groups of producers throughout the country, and we will not be able to form the type of united front required to challenge the neoliberal model and its advocates in government.

How do you explain the timing of Dignidad Agropecuaria's success? Why hasn’t Colombia experienced a national agrarian movement like Dignidad Agropecuaria until now?

Dignidad Agropecuaria is a reflection of Colombia’s national agrarian crisis, a crisis that was primarily caused by the economic liberalization brought on by the free trade agreements Colombia signed with the United States and the European Union. Of course, it was also the result of a long history that linked Colombia’s social and economic domestic policies to the interests of the United States that created a condition of perpetual backwardness. What Dignidad Agropecuaria has done is create a platform for domestic campesinos and non-monopolistic agricultural producers to defend their social and economic interests as well as promote Colombia’s right to food sovereignty. That is why Dignidad Agropecuaria has been so successful in mobilizing thousands of people to take to the streets to protest their rights and it is also why we have been so effective in activating some several hundred movement leaders, men and women throughout the country, who are now taking on leadership roles in the organization and galvanizing our presence across the social and economic landscape.

Colombian trade unionists have been subject to some of the most atrocious levels of employer, state, and paramilitary repression since at least the 1980s. And despite the fact that labor codes were adopted alongside Colombia’s free trade pacts with Europe and the United States, unionists are still murdered with almost total impunity. Has the agrarian movement been able to forge alliances with organized labor? If so, what role does organized labor play?

We have made ​​significant partnerships with major trade union federations, including the United Workers Central (CUT). Colombian labor unions gave financial support for the coffee and agricultural strikes, sent solidarity delegations during the protests and wrote numerous press statements to support our efforts. The farm workers unions, such as sugar cane cutters in Valle del Cauca, supported our protests in 2013. Even the Union of Workers of the National Federation of Coffee Growers, SINTRAFEC, supported the national coffee strike of February 2013. We have also enjoyed acts of solidarity and support from public utilities workers unions (CHEC), from the oil workers at Colombia’s Ecopetrol Company (Unión Sindical Obrera, USO), from the national teachers' union (FECODE), in addition to informal street vendors in cities like Manizales, among others.

These partnerships with workers-linking in the interests of workers in agricultural, mining, energy and industrial sectorsare very important to us because the only way to defeat the neoliberal model and effectively renegotiate the free trade policies destroying the productive apparatus is by uniting everyone into a broad alliance. This is, of course, our overall goal.

Many labor and agrarian activists these days argue that neoliberalism is a global phenomenon that requires transnational movement organizations. Thus far, the agrarian movement in Colombia appears to be oriented towards organizing at the national level. What types of goals can be met at this scale?

We have a list of demands we’ve been struggling for, some are oriented towards the conjunctural aspects of the crisis and some are aimed at transforming the structural problems associated with the sector. Regarding the former, the crisis came following the recent fall in the international price of Colombia’s mild Arabica coffee beans. The country’s cafeteros had for decades been protected by similar drops in international prices by a domestic price floor system that pegged local sales to local costs of living. This system was rolled back in the years following the breakdown of the International Coffee Agreement’s pricing and quota system in 1989 and only re-instated through mass mobilizations organized by Unidad Cafetera.

The problem is that the new price floor system pegs local prices to a formula calibrated to international average prices, which fall far short of the costs of living for producers. This issue has been exacerbated by the government’s devaluation of the peso to promote large-scale agribusiness and extraction-sector exports. The structural problems driving the crisis, on the other hand, are not as easy to transform. The liberalization of the international coffee market that followed the abrogation of the International Coffee Agreement’s fixed quota and pricing system has made it very difficult for Colombian producers to compete on the global market against coffee produced in Brazil, Vietnam, and other producer-exporter countries, given Colombia’s relatively high labor costs and high costs of production. For example, Brazil’s coffee is the cheapest because of its high degree of technificationthe use of tractors, small planes, and machines used for harvesting and pest controlwhich dramatically reduces their production costs.

Vietnamese coffee production reflects the opposite side of the crisis for Colombian coffee producers: the costs of production are so lowaround three dollars per daywhich is substantially lower than what Colombia’s average of about 12 dollars per day during normal times. During the harvest period, workers are typically paid through a piece rate system, which is therefore a significantly higher cost to the average smallholding coffee farmers who hire them.

Both national and international marketing dynamics also seriously affect the well-being of producers. Coffee marketing is dominated by multinationals who impose purchase prices and who seek to gain from the speculation and volatility of coffee prices on Wall Street. Even if domestic price floors and guaranteed purchases of local beans exist for producers, the liberalization and financialization of the coffee market creates uncertainties that are exceptionally powerful and detrimental to those making a living through coffee production for the market.

I do not see how, given these market imbalances, Colombia has any agricultural future except ruin. We are now importing more than 10 million tons of agricultural products for domestic consumption. This is almost 50% of the basic diet of Colombians!

Do you believe Colombia’s cafeteros envision a possible future that does not require coffee production for the export market as a key source of household income?

Coffee is in a very difficult situation. Imagining and providing stable, durable solutions will not be quick and easy. It is useful to start with the idea that producers need subsidies and stable prices for coffee and that the marketing schemes adopted should limit the power of monopolies to dictate prices in the international market. None of this can be achieved without struggling nationally for a broad set of politics that is centered upon the goal of agricultural sovereignty. Therein lies the problem and hence the solution.

Phillip A. Hough is an associate professor of sociology at Florida Atlantic University. He has published widely on labor and agrarian struggles in Colombia and is currently working on a book manuscript about the rise of Colombia’s Dignidad Agropecuaria movement.


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