Banging on drums, playing music, and chanting in Spanish, a group of around twenty to thirty artists and activists protested last Tuesday in front of the Colombian Consulate in Montreal in solidarity with the ongoing farmers’ strike in the South American country.
The organizers had two large banners, in Spanish and in French, asking for solidarity for the campesinos (farmers), and denouncing police repression against Colombian strikers.
As the protest went on, private security asked the organizers to refrain from tying their banners to the building and adjacent property at the corner of Sherbrooke and Metcalfe.
Some of the demonstrators handed out flyers, written in English, explaining the purpose of the strike in Colombia, while others chanted, in Spanish, about sovereignty, freedom, and national products.
Camilo Olarte, one of the organizers, told The Daily, in Spanish, that they were “gathered here, to show our support and solidarity with the farmers.”
He also showed The Daily a letter the group intended to give to the Colombian Consul, which details the farmers’ demands. These demands include access to formal ownership of the land, autonomy in their territory, the right to political participation, and the right to social welfare.
Others present at the protest declared that their underlying concern was the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) recently signed with the United States, and its potential for American colonialism.
Jorge Parra told The Daily, in Spanish, that the government was not paying attention to the problems the FTA could cause. “The government is prioritizing the profits of multinationals, like Monsanto,” the world’s largest seed company currently embroiled in a debate about genetically modified food.
Daniel Sánchez had similar concerns, and told The Daily, in Spanish, that the FTA negatively affected “those who grow our food.” He then added that the government’s actions had been deficient, “but we shouldn’t forget that [former president] Álvaro Uribe was the one who actually signed the agreement.”
The farmers’ strike began in central Colombia on August 19, a holiday at the end of a long weekend, and involved protests that blocked several of the main roads in the region. The protests grew throughout the day, and ended with a large cacerolazo – a march where people banged pots and pans – in the city of Tunja, an economic centre for agrarian products.
Protests reached their peak last Thursday, when the student movement, along with other groups, decided to join the farmers in a massive protest in Bogotá, the capital city. Classes were cancelled in all public schools and universities, with most private institutions acting similarly.
Santiago Garcés, a sociology student at Universidad Nacional, Colombia’s largest public university, told The Daily, in Spanish, “This protest had been planned by the student movement for a long time, but given the circumstances we decided to join the farmers in solidarity.”
The protesters gathered in Bogotá’s Bolivar Square for a few hours until city officials declared that unacceptable acts of violence and vandalism had been committed, and called in the police to disperse the protesters. Instead of breaking up the protest, the demonstrators spread throughout the city.
As the Universidad de los Andes, one of the largest private universities in the country, didn’t cancel classes, many students were close to the protests during the day. According to María Medellín, an economics student, as the protests spread throughout downtown Bogotá, the city emptied of its usual frenzy.
“The strike had to serve as a wake up call for the government, but also as a demonstration of solidarity towards the long-forsaken countryside,” Medellín said. “Instead, it was a demonstration of fear, which turned Bogotá into a ghost town.”
Throughout the afternoon, public order deteriorated in Bogotá as protests became increasingly violent and by the end of the evening, the downtown core of Bogotá was completely empty. According to Colombian news source El Espectador, journalists and protesters made accusations of police brutality.
In response to the violence, President Juan Manuel Santos sent the military into Bogotá, and the mayor of Bogotá enacted a curfew in different areas of the city, affecting over 2 million people.
The protests also spread to different regions of the country, as reported to The Daily by María Camila Valencia, an architecture student, who was stuck at a roadblock between the cities of Cali and Popayán in southwestern Colombia.
“We were travelling to Popayán to attend a family member’s funeral and we have been parked by the side of the road for over four hours. We would have taken a flight, but there were no tickets left due to the lack of land transportation. The protesters let two ambulances go through, but everyone else has had to wait,” Valencia told The Daily, in Spanish.
By the morning of August 30, public order had been restored in Bogotá. In a statement made on Twitter that day, Santos stood by his decision to deploy the military in Bogotá, and asserted his ability to deploy it in other areas of the country if deemed necessary.
Later that morning, the farmers’ movement decided to lift all roadblocks, a precondition to negotiations with the government.