Hundreds of thousands of small and medium scale farmers, miners, students, health workers, lorry drivers and teachers staged a national ‘agrarian and popular strike’ for almost 3 weeks, despite facing a military response by President Juan Manuel Santos’ government which left at least twelve protesters dead and over 200 injured.
The strike was the latest, and largest, in a wave of protests across different sectors which have engulfed the country this year. The unrest is only set to get deeper as the country’s disastrous bilateral trade agreements increasingly impact upon a population already suffering two decades of neoliberal economic policies.
The latest uprising dominated the Colombian media, which carried footage of road blocks, mass marches, noisy protests and bloodied protestors in cities and rural areas across the country. In a symbolic demonstration, farmers poured thousands of litres of milk and other farm produce on to the road. The country’s free trade agreements (FTAs) with the US and European Union (EU) have been a common thread throughout this year’s protests which have united varied sectors.
Colombia and the US finally signed the FTA in May 2012, ignoring widespread predictions of the disastrous impact which it would have in the upon the Colombian population. In opening the Colombian economy up to US businesses selling anything from agricultural produce to university degrees, the deal forces Colombian businesses to compete with companies from the world’s most powerful economy (the EU quickly followed suit and tied up its own FTA which came into force last month despite not yet having passed through the necessary parliamentary hurdles on either side of the Atlantic).
The ostensible purpose of the pacts is to benefit both sides through varied measures which remove barriers to trade. However, in his 2012 State of the Nation address President Obama made clear the real remit of the US’s bilateral trade agreements when he stated ‘I will go anywhere in the world to open new markets for American products.’
The situation of Colombian farmers is emblematic of the growing unrest in the country. Having suffered two decades of growing economic hardship under governments which have gradually increased dependence upon imported produce and eaten away at any support which they previously had, the campesinos (peasant farmers) must now contend with the impact of the FTA and the raft of legislation which the government has enacted over recent years in anticipation of the agreement coming into force.
One leader told me ‘it’s like putting a straitjacket onto somebody who you’ve already beaten senseless’. Under the pact, Colombian producers must compete with agricultural imports from the US. However, whilst the US government continues to heavily subsidise its farmers, the FTA explicitly forbids the Colombian government from subsidising Colombian agriculture.
In order to end the strike the government agreed last week to freeze one of the most controversial laws which was passed in preparation for the implementation of the FTA. The law has been dubbed the ‘Monsanto law’ by the campesinos because it effectively prohibits them from using any seed which has not been ‘certified’ by the state, and thereby forces Colombian farmers to use the seeds of agribusiness multinationals such as US giant Monsanto.
The process of certifying a seed is expensive and very technical, and thus beyond the means of many small and medium scale producers. According to the recent documentary, ‘9.70’, only 8% of certified seeds were registered by Colombian companies.
Furthermore, because seeds are deemed to be the intellectual property of the company which registered them, the traditional practice of holding back some seeds to use as seeds for the following year’s crop is now a crime for which a farmer can be sent to jail for 4 years. It has been reported that more than 2.5m tonnes of ‘illegal’ food has been seized and destroyed by the Colombian authorities since the decree was passed in 2010, in a country where around 40% of the rural population live in extreme poverty. This is the twisted logic of the free trade agreement.
This isn’t how it was supposed to be for Colombia. Economic analysts have pointed to varied reasons for optimism for the country’s prospects: consistently strong economic growth, bilateral trade agreements with the US, EU and Japan, and talk of a boom in natural resource extraction-related foreign investment if and when a peace agreement is signed between the government and FARC guerrillas ending the decades-old internal conflict.
Colombia has for decades been the United States’ South American model pupil. From the implementation of the national security doctrine in waging war against its own civilian population, to the implementation of ‘Washington consensus’ neoliberal economic and Plan Colombia, Colombia’s rulers have obediently implemented policies concocted in Washington which have caused untold suffering for tens of millions of Colombians. However, for many of those involved in the protests over the past few weeks the free trade agreement with the US and the EU are the final straw.
The agrarian and popular strike may have ended but more protests are in the offing, with university students ready to begin a new wave of protests to defend higher education against the reforms which the FTA obliges the government to enact. And therein lies the problem.
Despite making positive noises about the need to create ‘defence mechanisms’, there is scant prospect of the US or EU permitting any meaningful alteration to their respective free trade agreements. And even less chance of the government moving away from the extractive-based neoliberal economic model. Hence its only answer to the protests is increased violence and repression of the social movement and those who defend them.
In the first 6 months of this year, 37 human rights defenders were assassinated in Colombia, the highest 6-month toll for a decade. The talk may be of peace, but stormy times lie ahead.
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
Greenwald speaks Trump, War on Terror, and citizen activism
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn