On Monday, August 19th, negotiators from the Colombian government–lead negotiator Humberto de la Calle, Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo, former Peace Commissioner Frank Pearl, ret. General Jorge Enrique Mora, and industrialist Luis Carlos Villegas–joined FARC-EP negotiators in Havana for the thirteenth round of peace talks. Last Friday, President Santos announced that Villegas would replace Carlos Urrutia, who resigned in July amidst accusations of land-related corruption, as Colombian Ambassador to the United States. It is unclear when the new appointment will begin and what it will mean for the negotiating table.
National Strike Begins
The peace talks resumed in a context of heightened uncertainty as Colombian society geared up for a national strike of undefined duration. The general strike began on August 19 (a holiday in Colombia) and was reported to be affecting 16 departments throughout the country on its first day.
The strike was announced by the Mesa Nacional de Unidad Agropecuaria (National Working Group of Agricultural Unity) and led by coffee producers represented by Dignidad Cafetera in response to what is considered to be a widespread crisis in the agrarian sector and a series of unkept promises (“acuerdos incumplidos”), including unrealized subsidies to offset high prices for fertilizers, agricultural inputs, fuel, and imports. The agrarian strike is being supported by other agro-industrial sectors, particularly the truckers and the health workers. The coffee producers are joined by cacao, potato, and rice farmers; flower growers; small-scale miners; the dairy sector; teachers and students; and the three labor union confederations.
Each sector is driven by motivations relating to their own living and working conditions, but linked to overall structural issues of rural development and political exclusion being discussed at the peace tables in Cuba. The truckers are on strike because of the high costs of fuel and inadequate investment in transportation infrastructure. The coffee sector, hit hard by low market prices for coffee and in bankruptcy, is calling for government support and subsidies. The small-scale miners are protesting the government crackdown on informal mining operations. Last month, more than 200,000 people associated with the National Confederation of Colombian Miners (CONALMINERCOL) went on strike in a dozen departments where informal and illegal mining is most prevalent to protest Decree Law 2235 (2012), which authorizes public officials to confiscate the heavy machinery that is also used for illicit mining. Although the government has since reached agreements in many areas of the country, northern Antioquia continues to be mobilized. The Mesa Nacional Agropecuario de Interlocución y Acuerdo (The National Agrarian Table for Interlocution and Agreement/MIA), a coalition of agrarian organizations, is also calling for structural changes including access to land and protected peasant zones. Finally, the main union, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), is protesting the government’s anti-labor policies (labor unionists in Colombia continue to be some of the most threatened in the world) and the impact of free trade agreements on workers. (For more detailed regional analysis of the aforementioned sectors, see “Anatomía de los paros” in Semana, Aug. 17, 2013.)
The Santos administration has played down the extent of the strike. Santos noted on Monday that the strike has “not been of the magnitude that was expected.” Minor incidents were reported during the strike yesterday, but the protests have largely been peaceful. The Asociación de Transportadores de Carga (ATC) reported that 35,000 trucks stayed off the roads in Antioquia, and some 200,000 remained immobile throughout the country. Highways and roads were blocked in Boyacá, Nariño, Arauca, Putumayo, Valle, and the Eje Cafetero. Marches and public mobilizations were also held in Santander, Caquetá, Huila, Atlántico, Bolívar and Sucre.
At the Peace Table
The strike was clearly on the minds of the Havana negotiators. The FARC, as might be expected, is supporting the protesters’ demands. At the opening of Monday’s talks, FARC negotiator Luciano Marín Arango (aka Iván Márquez) read a press communiqué that called for the revision of provisions of the Free Trade Agreements with the United States and others, as they ignored the “national economic reality” and the “precarious situation” of farmers who are now competing with a flood of subsidized foreign imports. He urged the government to avoid criminalizing the “right to social protest.” The government negotiators for their part avoided comment on the protests.
Continued Social Upheaval
This week’s strike follows other signs of social upheaval in recent months. The Asociación de Campesinos (ASCAMCAT) in Catatumbo in Norte de Santander shut down the highway from Tibú to Cúcuta for 56 days in an effort to secure a protected peasant zone (zona de reserva campesina/ZRC) and to halt the crop eradication programs–two issues on the peace agenda in Havana. The peasants agreed two weeks ago to lift the road blocks and establish a negotiating table with government authorities. The government has offered subsidies and funding for agricultural projects, but a contentious 16-point agenda, that includes the question of establishing a ZRC remains under discussion. (See the report of a recent church delegation to Catatumbo: DECLARACION DE LA VISITA PASTORAL AL CATATUMBO VF-1.) Clearly, the social discontent that is surfacing in recent months underscores the need for structural change in the rural sector and for developing participatory mechanisms where marginalized populations can be engaged in a process to address historic economic injustices and political exclusion.
Governors Support Peace Process
Last Thursday, thirty-two Colombian governors met with President Santos in a forum in Medellín to discuss possible post-accord scenarios. The governors gave their full support to the peace talks, and President Santos urged them to begin preparing for peace. Santos called on the governors to help him create an environment of tolerance in the regions that would permit the guerrillas to exchange bullets for ballots.
Santos’s initiative with the governors is well placed and timely. It exudes confidence that talks in Havana will produce an agreement, and a recognition that any agreement will have consequences in the regions and require the support and commitment of local and regional authorities to be implemented.
The role of the regions in securing and sustaining peace in Colombia was underscored in an interview that appeared on August 20 in El Colombiano, with Alan Jara, the governor of Meta who was held in captivity by the FARC for nearly nine years. Jara noted that in Meta, there are 130,000 victims of displacement, in addition to victims affected by forced disappearances, kidnapping and land mines. “One of every five inhabitants is a victim,” he said. Jara explained: “There is no need to wait for peace. We need to have a plan for peace. We have spent 50 years in conflict, and if the end of the conflict is signed and we don’t plan well, everything can be ruined. People expect that with an accord all the problems will be resolved. That’s not how it is. Highways, schools, and work opportunities are not going to simply appear. We need to foresee this now.” (“No hay que esperar la paz. Que tengamos desde ya una planeación para la paz, llevamos 50 años de conflicto, y si se firma el fin de este, y no se planea bien, todo se puede dañar. La gente espera que con la firma se arreglen todos los problemas, eso no va a ser así: No van a aparecer las carreteras ni las escuelas ni las oportunidades de trabajo, y eso hay que preverlo ya”.)
It is a good sign that the President and regional leaders are pursuing conversations about how to address these difficult post-conflict issues. Peace in Colombia will clearly require leadership and engagement in the regions. While social conflict of the kind we are seeing with this week’s strikes is more present in some regions than in others, dealing peacefully and thoughtfully with the problems that generate social protest provides good practice for peace. Setting up mechanisms now that might be usable for resolving the kinds of additional conflicts likely to emerge in the post-accord phase cannot hurt and could be helpful. The current protests are a good reminder that reaching an agreement is important, but complying with the terms of the agreement and seeing that it is fully implemented is the real key to sustainable peace.