Colombia: students, workers join peasant strike

Tens of thousands took to the streets across Colombia last week, as workers and students joined the strike launched by campesinos in the north of the country. Violent clashes were reported Aug. 29, primarily from Bogotá, where police fired tear gas into a crowd of some 10,000 assembled in the city’s main square, Plaza Bolívar. Witnesses report that despite a strong police presence, the demonstrators remained calm for several hours, with speakers encouraging peaceful protest—until a group arrived (possibly agents provocateurs) who began throwing firecrackers and debris at the police line, sparking the melee. Within 15 minutes, the square had been cleared, though clashes with the ESMAD riot squad continued in the streets surrounding the plaza. Some 20 were injured in the street fighting. Riots were also reported in Soacha, a working-class city on the outskirts of Bogotá, where dozens of masked men clashed with riot police, prompting local authorities to order a curfew.

Medellín also saw street clashes, with most shops in the city center shut down. Police used tear gas as a 25,000-strong student march arrived from the National University in the city’s downtown Parque de las Luces. Some 1,000 students also marched in Cali, where no violence was reported.

While dialogue between Colombian givernment and striking campesinos is underway in Boyaca, Nariño and Cundinamarca departments, the peasant strike has now spread to another 16 departments of the country, with roads blocked and clashes with security forces ongoing. Peasants continue to block roads even in those departments where the dialogue in progress, with Boyaca, the most widely affected, essentially shut down. A bus driver was reportedly killed Spet. 1 when hit in the face by a rock hurled by a protester at a road block near La Siderúrgica, Boyoca. The government was forced to back down from initial demands that the protests be called off before talks commence.

At issue in the dialogue are reforming certain provisions of Colombia’s Free Trade Agreement with the US, to protect domestic production of staple food crops. Fuel prices and other economic demands are also being brought to the table. Last week, the strike was joined by the Broad National Sudent Table (MANE), and oil workers from the USO trade union have declared they will join as well. (EFE, Sept. 1; Colombia Reports, Aug. 29; Prensa Latina, Aug. 28; BBC News, Aug. 24)

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