Colombia is undergoing a major social crisis. On Thursday, thousands of farmers marched through the capital clanging together pots and pans. Demonstrators wearing balaclavas clashed with police forces, breaking shop windows while riot police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds. Two have been killed and scores arrested or injured.
Bogota has finally been touched by a 10-day protest that has seen thousands of farmers and state workers from around Colombia protesting economic policies that are squeezing the working class.
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Up until this point the protests have included cacao, coffee, rice, potato, and other farmers together with truckers, gold miners, teachers, and labor unions. Protesters are demanding a reduction in the price of fuel and fertilizers, the cancellation of certain free trade agreements, increased agricultural subsidies, and an end to crackdowns on informal mining.
Julio Roberto Gomez, a major union leader, said that more demonstrations would follow if the government of President Manuel Dos Santos doesn't rectify the demonstrators' grievances.
Dos Santos has put forth policies to remedy the crisis, including a plan to lift import duties on 23 products while working towards a lasting solution for farmers. However the gap remains wide between protesters' demands and what the government is willing to concede.
Not all of the farmers' woes can be blamed on government policies. Colombia's agricultural sector was hit hard by searing droughts immediately followed by unusually heavy rains. Weather volatility has made it tough to do business, straining producers already bowed by disadvantageous economic conditions. Colombian farmworkers have also complained that free trade agreements (specifically with the U.S. and Europe) have made it difficult to compete with cheap imports.
What can the U.S. do here? The news cycle tells us that a tactical strike on Syria is growing more likely. If true, this will occupy the time of lawmakers and government agencies in the coming weeks. The U.S. and Colombia maintain a cordial diplomatic relationship, but what the U.S. could or should do to ease tensions at this point remains unclear.
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Compounding the tense situation further is a conflicting narrative from leadership in Bogota.
President Manuel Dos Santos has publicly stated his efforts to not only contain the violence but to also work with the disaffected to change working conditions on the ground. He addressed the country Thursday to admit the government has neglected the farming sector, while pleading with protesters to end the lawless looting and violence.
At the same time Defense Minister Pinzon is accusing Colombia's FARC rebels of infiltrating the protests to stir up anti-government conflict, and Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas pessimistically stated it will be impossible to meet the demands of all parties involved, saying, "[But] if you add up everything they want, there's no way to give them it all. They are seeking significant resources. There isn't enough money to cover the demands of all the sectors."
Because of the increasing lawlessness of the protests the government has deployed troops to patrol the capital.
PolicyMic will keep its eyes peeled on the situation in Colombia, so long as Syria leaves some editorial space.
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