As strikes escalate in Columbia, so does government repression of unions

Authorities in Columbia on October 23 arrested another leader of FENSUAGRO, the farmworkers union, which led a national strike to protest government policies that have aggravated the already large gap between the country’s working people and the country’s upper class.

Strikers placed much of the blame for the deterioration of their living standards on the recently adopted US-Columbia trade agreement.

The arrest of Wilmer Madronero came about six weeks after the end of National Agrarian and Popular Strike, known locally as the “paro agrario nacional.” At the height of the strike in late August, the authorities arrested one of its main organizers and vice president of FENSUAGRO Huber Ballesteros.

According to Justice of Columbia, the Columbian government is currently holding 60 members of FENSUAGRO as political prisoners.

The paro agrario began August 19 as farmworkers and small and medium land owners set up barricades on highways connecting rural areas to Bogata, the nation’s capital.

The next day coal miners, coffee workers, health care workers, public school teachers, and other workers came out in support of the strike and made their own demands.

CUT, the country’s national labor federation, supported the strike and issued a statement blaming the strike on the worsening conditions of workers caused by President Juan Manuel Santos’ “terrible, anti-union and dissatisfactory policies.”

The widespread support of the strike was the result of a general sense that only a privileged few have benefited from the recent growth of Columbian economy.

“The economy has improved but the quality of jobs has gone down,” said Jehiz Castrillon, an evangelical pastor who works with striking coal miners in northern Columbia to Bloomberg. “We want a basic monthly salary, health and work security so we can buy a house and send our kids to college.”

The paro agrario was called by three organizations of rural workers. They coordinated their efforts, but each issued its own demands.

FENSUAGRO demands included more government infrastructure investment in rural areas, the creation of Peasant Reserve Zones to protect small farms from the encroachment of large-scale agribusiness farms, lower fuel and fertilizer prices, more government support for small and medium-sized farms, health care and pensions for farmworkers and farmers, and an end the enforcement of the US-Columbia trade pact.

FENSUAGRO also demanded more popular participation in the peace process now underway to end Columbia’s decades-long civil war.

The strike lasted for 18 days despite heavy government repression that included early morning raids in villages where strike leaders and activists lived.

During the strike 12 people were killed, 500 wounded, and 600 were detained.

The government refused to bargain with FENSUAGRO, but agreed to many of the demands raised by the union.

Among other things, the government agreed to give farmers easier access to credit, lower prices on supplies, and limit food imports. The government also agreed not to enforce a part of trade agreement with the US that prohibits farmers from using self-grown seeds.

The paro agrario was not an isolated event. Last spring farmers and farmworkers conducted a similar strike that forced concessions from the government.

The government’s failure to make good on the concessions was one of the reasons that the paro agrario was called.

Furthermore, strikes have become more frequent in other sectors.

Bloomberg reports that so far this year there have been there have been 283 strikes in Columbia making it likely that the number of strike’s this year will exceed last year’s record-breaking number of 290.

Bloomberg reports that the increased strike activity is the result of the government’s more tolerant attitude towards unions and collective action.

But the government’s heavy-handed repression during the paro agrario and the subsequent arrests and detention of labor leaders like Ballesteros, Madronero, and other FENSUAGRO leaders suggest that recent attempts by the government to portray itself as more tolerant of union activity is little more than an empty gesture.

Ballesteros said in video smuggled out of the prison where his now held said that he is “at the mercy of what they say is ‘the justice system’ in Colombia, but which in reality is nothing more than a tool used to repress, persecute and criminalize the work of trade union leaders.”

“To lose our freedom is one of the realities and probably one of the consequences which all of us as social leaders here know we may face,” added Ballesteros.”

But Ballesteros remained defiant. “We, here in our country, in whichever conditions we find ourselves, whether on the streets, whether on strike or in my case from a prison of the Colombian state, will continue to fight tirelessly with our heads held high because we believe that our struggle is not only just but also necessary,” said Ballesteros.


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