Images of the “Paro Nacional Agrario” in Chapinero, Bogota

The “Paro Nacional Agrario” which has engulfed Colombia is rapidly spiraling out of control. President Santos’ reticence to address the concerns of the most impoverished and overlooked sector of society, the farmers, has become a major cause for concern. Road blockades are making domestic travel an impossibility and at the latest count 30 major routes are now impossible. Students have taken up the cause and today as marches and protestors converge all over Bogota, these are the scenes that took place in Chapinero on Thursday.

Damage to Banco Popular on the Carrera 7, Bogota

Damage to Banco Popular on the Carrera 7, Bogota

What is going on in Colombia?

The nationwide agricultural strike in Colombia continues into its second week the government and the strikers have yet to reach any solution to halt the growing number of national highways being blocked, a scaling up in violence and the increasing scarcity of food reaching the major cities including the capital Bogota.

In Boyacá a department neighboring the capital, where some of the most intense flashpoints of the strikes have been located, there is a edgy atmosphere as helicopters circle overhead and the streets in most towns and villages empty of people after 5pm leaving only members of the Colombian riot police known as the Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (Esmad) out patrolling.

ESMAD operatives in Chapinero on the Cra 7, not intimidating in the slightest!

ESMAD operatives in Chapinero on the Cra 7, not intimidating in the slightest!

Communicating through his official twitter account Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos said on Monday from the capital of Boyacá: “Yesterday I committed to dialogue and to negotiate with our farmers. I’m in Tunja to deliver for the country.” For many, including members of his own government, President Santos’ hesitation to recognize the strikes until last Sunday has been viewed as a grave error.

With 30+ highways blocked in five departments there is almost no flow of traffic to or from Bogota and in the key market town of Duitama in Boyacá there are no longer any supplies of basic foodstuffs such as eggs, bread and milk. In the capital, potatoes and other provisions have more than doubled in price leading to long lines in supermarkets as some residents fear the worst.

A Student Explains the Situation in her home town in Boyaca

Said Colombian student Alejandra Rincon of the situation, herself stuck for ten days in Duitama: “the last people to get through to Bogota did so on foot. It is even difficult by bicycle right now since there are nails and barbed wire strewn about to puncture tires. Some roads are so empty that there are reports of car-jackings and muggings.”

Political graffiti

Political graffiti

With the lorry drivers on strike over the high costs for fuel in 11 provinces across Colombia, more than 200,000 farmers striking in Boyacá alone and now talk of further strikes in the coffee, oil, health and education sectors, it remains to be seen how the government plans to calm the situation.

With two people reportedly killed in skirmishes including an Esmad officer, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon made a scapegoat of the leftist Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) – currently engaged in peace dialogues with the government in Cuba – of infiltrating the strikes and “causing deliberate disorder”.

The ESMAD intimidate a motorcyclist

The ESMAD intimidate a motorcyclist

And as reports and youtube links show scenes of violence from Esmad members towards strikers, the situation is in real danger of spiraling out of control for the government as students and other citizens declare unity with those out voicing their discontent with the government, the high cost of living, insufficient subsidies for the agricultural sector and the Free Trade Agreements signed with the US, UK, Canada, Europe and other countries.

Read: Advice on Demonstrations in Colombia

On Sunday night 50,000 people demonstrated in the streets of Tunja banging on pots and pans in solidarity with the strikers. Further shows of support have been held, in particular in Bogota where hundreds of supporters favoring the strikers filled the Plaza de Bolivar on Monday night in front of the seat of government. Coordinated demonstrations occurred all over the country.

President Santos: Out of Touch and Out of Time?

While President Santos continues to claim that he has not ignored the plight of the agricultural community saying that “farmers were and are and will always be in our priorities, from the first day of my government we gave precise instructions that show true priority, policies and budgets,” he may have acted too slowly. Amazingly the strikes are being massively under reported.

Cleaning up the mess

Cleaning up the mess

Colombia is set to host presidential elections in 2014 and the political horizon is evolving. President Santos has not formally confirmed that he will defend his position but if he cannot hold things together he may, as political analyst and director of www.colombia-politics.com Kevin Howlett said: “if the government is unable to remain in control of events President Santos’ fall in support could well become irreversible.”

Howlett’s piece in the news portal Colombia Reports “The Week Santos Lost Colombia” is to be applauded and shared.

Worried about visiting Colombia? Read my advice column!

 

 

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