FT-CI

Colombia

12 Days of an Historic Strike in Colombia

13/03/2013

By Magui V.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013

After remaining in the streets for twelve intense days of struggle, the approximately 90,000 peasants that participated in the national strike of coffee growers, having the support of 340,000 truck drivers, hundreds of healthcare workers, customs officers, indigenous communities and students from the biggest universities of Colombia, ended their action, after the government of Juan Manuel Santos, cornered, ended up handing over a kind of “subsidy” of 180 billion pesos (more than $99,000,000 US), to try to contain the acute crisis that one of the central products for the country’s economy is going through.

However, in the face of the enormous agricultural crisis that is battering Colombia, the agreement continues to be ridiculous. The coffee growers’ strike was ended after Santos responded to the demands of the coffee growers representing small, medium-sized and large hectare plantations. However, the negotiations were carried out between the national government and the National Commission of Coffee Growers, made up of representatives mostly from the caste that the corporate National Federation [1]represents, without the participation of the delegates from the strike organization (peasants and rural workers) and without referring to the most profound demands of the thousands of poor peasants and agrarian laborers, that work year after year in harvesting the coffee crop, under extremely precarious conditions, without a fixed contract, social security, or any kind of stability at work, who are precisely the people that threw themselves into the struggle, by confronting the repression and getting organized collectively, in order to support, in the streets, a national strike lasting almost half a month.

While the landowning coffee growers were demanding subsidies from the government to counteract the low productivity of coffee, it was the social unrest of the poor peasants, the agricultural workers, the truck drivers, students and indigenous communities, that made them come together in a strike that completely expressed the crisis of the neoliberal economic model, profoundly dependent on imperialism, that the government of Santos, and, previously, the terrible regime of Uribe, made sure to perpetuate in the coffee-growing country. The agreement signed with the national government left out this contained area of social unrest.

The national coffee growers’ strike as an expression of the agricultural crisis

The so-called National Coffee Growers’ Strike was called by different coffee-growing organizations and around 560,000 families that depend on production of the bean, among whom are, on the one hand, large, medium-sized and small producers, that feel their interests are affected, and, on the other hand, mostly, hundreds of poor peasants, who migrate every year, from farm to farm, during the harvest season, in order to be able to survive from the coffee harvest.

In the middle of one of the worst crises for marketing the bean, the coffee growers demanded of the national government that it increase the price of coffee, increase subsidies and limit imports of the product, a result of the signing of almost 20 free trade agreements, that replaced domestic consumption and reduced production from 11,000,000 sacks of coffee in 2008, to 7,000,000 in 2012.

From the beginning, the Santos government rejected the measure and went out to apply all the weight of repression on the mobilized peasants, claiming that it was a matter of an “unjust and unnecessary” demand and promising with impunity that the sending of a public force to lift the blockade on the roads, would provoke “a massacre.”

The lives of the demonstrators are worth nothing to the government, that knows well how to look after its own interests, since Santos is one of the most prominent figures in the enormous coffee sector. With the formation of the National Federation of Coffee Growers, a business caste formed by big producing landowners, that controls the monopoly of domestic and foreign marketing of the bean, a mechanism has been established to appropriate a part of the value of the sale of coffee from all the producers, to keep it in a “joint savings fund,” which the Federation and the politicians have at their disposal, in order to reinvest in their own firms. Santos is one of the businessmen that is profiting from this savings fund.

The fundamental problem: the concentration of the land

Although this problem touches the money of big, medium-sized and small coffee growers, in reality, the entire weight of this enormous crisis in coffee falls on the shoulders of the poorest peasants and agricultural workers, who see their sources of employment reduced, affected by the signing of the neo-liberal Free Trade Agreements, and by the systematic ejection from their own lands, a result of the mining concessions, worth millions, that the Colombian government has extended in favor of multinational corporations, like Gran Colombia Gold (that is active essentially in the coffee-growing region), as well as the brutal attacks by paramilitaries and the Colombian armed forces, that have now left more than 5,000,000 victims of forced displacement (Codhes).

It is necessary to distinguish, then, emphatically, the class content that comes from the different actors in the coffee-growers’ strike. While the big, medium-sized and small producers were backing negotiation for more subsidies to even out their profits, even receiving opportunistic “support” from the most reactionary groups of the Colombian right wing, like the “Party of the U” itself, of former President Álvaro Uribe; the conflict for the peasants and the poorest rural workers of Colombia is a structural problem of the capitalist system, that has to do with the concentration of land, which, in Colombia, means that 52% of its ownership is in the hands of scarcely 1.15% of the population, a part of the phenomenon that is turning Colombia into one of the most unequal countries of the region, with more than 15 million poor people, and a particular index of rural poverty that is located at 46%. A structural problem that connects with the conditions that thousands of Colombian workers and laborers experience, those who joined the strike in solidarity, to raise their own demands. Teachers, students, health care workers, customs officers, truck drivers, cacao growers, together with indigenous communities, that, as in the area of Arauca, are confronting the transnational mining corporations, in defense of their territory. All these forces, in the streets, resisted brutal repression from the ESMAD, already known as murderous, sent by the Santos government. The ferocious repression by the ESMAD claimed the life of a peasant and left more than fifty people injured: burned, mutilated, hit, a result of the bombs, rubber bullets and stun guns, that are part of the enormous deployment of the repressive arsenal of this Colombian police force, specializing in attacking social protest.

The Santos-Uribe confrontation

Once more, Santos’ mask falls off. The inter-bourgeois disputes with Uribe clearly respond to a conflict of interests for the control of economic and political power in the country. Santos turned towards a more “diplomatic” façade, when Uribe’s exclusively militarist policy had shown its failure in the objective of the national government and US imperialism (from Plan Colombia), of completely wiping out the guerrilla group (although they managed to deliver extremely harsh blows against it); to this was added national and international pressure, because of the enormous scandals about the connection of officials from the Uribe government with the paramilitaries and drug trafficking.

Then Santos decided to try out a solution of less open confrontation and more “consensus,” by approving the demagogic laws about land and restitution for the victims of the armed conflict, producing a rapprochement with the Chávez government at that time and beginning the “peace processes” with the FARC guerrilla force in Havana. However, no one forgets what role Santos played, as Uribe’s firm hand, when he was his Minister of Defense, and now as a continuation of Uribe’s regime of terror, “by other means.” The brutal repression of the strike is a new expression of Santos’ policy of continuity with Uribe, over and above the disputes among the rulers.

A fundamental solution to Colombia’s agrarian problem

While the country was brought to a standstill because of the road blockades and protest actions, the government was seeking to improve its image, by speaking well of the negotiations in Havana with the FARC, where one of the key points is exactly the agrarian question. The government’s cynicism has no limits, when one of the representatives designated for the negotiations in Cuba (in addition to two of the highest leaders of the police and the army, leaders in the fight against the insurgency) is precisely the General Secretary of the entrepreneurial caste of the National Federation of Coffee Growers, Luis Carlos Villegas.

Neither this business caste, nor the coffee growers that are looking after their very own interests, is going to touch the central problem of the land in Colombia a bit. The enormous struggle of the Colombian strikers does not end at the negotiating table between the government and the coffee growers. It is necessary that the poorest peasants and the workers continue their legitimate struggle, by organizing themselves with total independence from bourgeois and petit-bourgeois groups, that are trying to put themselves in front of the legitimate popular demands, for their very own benefit.

In order to fight for a substantive solution, it is necessary to attack the ownership of the land and the interests of the big corporate capitals. It is the working class that can block the big coffee corporations and monopolies, as the truck drivers did in this strike, and those drivers, added to the peasants’ blockade of the routes, brought the country to a standstill for 15 days. It is the alliance of the workers with the thousands of the poorest peasants, that can decisively confront the government and imperialism, far more than limited subsidies that do not solve the underlying issue, but in order to demand the end of the free trade treaties, a real process of agrarian reform, with the expropriation of the concentrated lands without payment, the end of concessions and servility to the multinationals, and the end of uncertain employment for those who harvest the coffee beans and all the agricultural workers. Independent organization is needed to confront the political and economic power of Santos’ government and of its ballast Uribe.

No more murdering, disappearing, torturing and criminalizing the social activists! The state, through its repressive apparatus, is the author and accomplice of the paramilitary forces, of the genocide against the workers, the poor peasants, indigenous communities, men, women and children of Colombia. Justice for all the victims of state terrorism!

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  • [1As one coffee grower said: “That conversation of the government with the Confederation is not the voice of the peasants, nor of the coffee growers … I appeal to the government not to toy with the dignity of the people,” http://www.aporrea.org/internacionales/n224255.html

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