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Colombia protests show dark side of economic boom


Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2013-09-09

While economic data shows that Colombia is enjoying healthy and steady growth, the country's protesting rural poor feel like they have not been invited to the party.

President Juan Manuel Santos ordered Colombia’s army to secure the streets of the capital on Friday, after growing protests in support of striking farmers left two people dead.

The strike that began more than a week ago took a worrying turn on Thursday with masked youths clashing with riot police in the capital.


About 30,000 people marched peacefully in the capital of Bogota on August 29 in support of a 10-day protest by small farmers.

However, the march later descended into violence as rock-throwing masked youths battled with riot police.

Two young men were killed by gunfire near the capital in the evening.

There were also clashes in Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city.

Tens of thousands of farmers, coffee growers and truck drivers have blocked highways and fought with riot police since last week, but were joined by university students, teachers and miners as demonstrations spread to cities.

Citing the casualties and looting, Santos said on national TV that 50,000 soldiers would patrol the country’s major cities and highways, and ensure that deliveries reach city markets. Meanwhile, negotiations between government ministers and farmers were put on hold and officials were called back to Bogota, according to Colombian weekly Semana.

It remains to be seen if the clampdown will deter further protests or pressure farmers to make concessions, but days of demonstrations and the government’s army deployment appears to contradict the generally held view that Colombia was finally turning the page on decades of social unrest and basking in an economic boom.

Colombian leaders have lately enjoyed rattling off economic data, including an annual growth rate above 6% at the end of 2012. While GDP growth has slowed this year, the long-term view remains positive. Per capita income grew from around 4,400 euros per person in 2000 to over 7,500 euros per person in 2011, according to government figures.

However, Dr. Marco Romero, director of the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a group that works closely with rural Colombians, said that the bonanza was not the full picture. “Colombia’s rural areas have been left back in time,” Romero said. “Sixty percent of rural people live in extreme poverty, that figure that stands in sharp contrast to the reality in cities.”

Dr. Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, agreed that many people felt as though they had been left out of the party.

“This is not like the protests in Brazil. These are not middle-class people demanding improved services. This is something more basic than that. Poor people are demanding the fruits of Colombia’s growth,” she added.

Farmers pinched

CODHES’ Romero said that Colombian farmers have been some of the most vulnerable members of society for decades, and were now paying the consequences for the country’s fast-changing economy.

Rural communities were the first victims of the killings and mass forced displacements from the country’s five-decade-old civil conflict between the government and armed rebel groups, of which the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are the largest.

Romero noted that there was also an extreme concentration of farmland in the hands of a few owners, and a disproportionate amount of land used for cattle ranching.

Romero added, “And now farmers are facing the full brunt of 17 different free trade agreements that Colombia has signed with different countries”. Potato, corn and milk producers have warned that free trade agreements with Europe and the United States have made it almost impossible to compete with cheaper imports.

“The Santos administration has made an effort to recognise these problems, but it does not have a strategy to correct them,” Romero continued. “It has demonstrated a sort of ‘blind faith’ in foreign investment and free trade agreements. This attitude has weakened its ability to protect national industries.”

Romero admitted that the free trade agreements will likely be a boon for certain “exotic” fruits and vegetables grown in Colombia, but said it was unlikely it would compensate for losses elsewhere.

“The United State and Europe has proven to be much more pragmatic in securing clauses in free trade agreements to protect certain products that are vital to local economies. Colombia has not done this and there is now an enormous contradiction between its will to meet protesters demands and its ability to do so,” he said.

FARC behind protests?

Adding to international concerns are Colombian leaders’ declarations that the FARC were forcing otherwise peaceful rural workers to take part in the protests. The peace talks between Bogota and the rebels in Havana had previously shown progress.

Ironically, the rival camps have already reached a partial deal on agrarian reform, and must now cover the four remaining points on the agenda.

Woodrow Wilson’s Arnson said she “wouldn’t be surprised” if the FARC were trying to capitalise on existing grievances to put pressure on the government, but that struggling farmers were “capable of protesting” without coercion.

Daniel Pécaut, director of France’s School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences and an expert on Colombia, agreed that the rebels could be behind some of the protests, but that it was likely the exception, not the rule.

“Potato growers near Bogota live in a state of extreme poverty and are in no way under the orders of the FARC,” Pécaut noted.

However, Pécaut did see a link between Colombia’s new wave of social unrest and the stalled talks in Havana.

“For years there were no demonstrations because of the armed conflict. The risk of repression was so high that everyone was calm. Now that the government and rebels seem serious about peace talks, many grievances are bubbling to the surface,” he said.

Date created : 2013-08-30


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