Colombia`s president, Juan Manuel Santos, has sent 50,000 troops to patrol the streets in a crackdown on violence amid growing protests and hostility to his handling of countrywide rural strikes now into their third week.
Reacting to rioting in Bogota Thursday, in which vandals staged pitched battles against the police in the historic centre and in outlying barrios including Soacha, and Facatativa, Santos took to the airwaves Friday morning to announce the “militarization” of the capital. 8,500 soldiers now marshal Bogota, while the remaining 41,500 guard other hotspots across the country.
Santos claimed the events of Thursday, originally intended as a peaceful march in support of farmers` strikes, had been infiltrated by the FARC through leftist Piedad Cordoba`s Marcha Patriotica movement.
In language reminiscent of hardline former president Alvaro Uribe, Santos promised to stand up to the Marcha Patriotica, and prevent it “from imposing its will on the country “. The president’s pose seemed more appropriate to an attempted coup de etat than a day of violent protest.
The commander in chief also used the occasion to quit the negotiating table set up with potato farmers in Boyaca; again blaming the FARC for the breakdown in talks.
So what of a solution to the rural crisis? Gestures have so far been made; with a freeze in petrol prices for a month and promises of tax exemptions on products – like fertilizers – vital to the agriculture industry. But with 60% of Colombia`s work force dependent on agro-industry, however, this – and previous – governments have been inexplicably negligent in their search for the reforms to make farmers` work profitable.
As Vice President Angelino Garzon admits, “the rural strike hasn`t lasted just 12 days, but instead has lasted 50 years”.
Since the time of La Violencia when Conservatives and Liberals brutally exterminated each other, the rich and fertile Colombian countryside has been more the nation´s battlefield than its larder. Infrastructure, education, and in some cases even the most basic of needs have gone ignored as Bogota has turned a blind eye to those who put food on her table.
And the protests, do they continue? On Friday night Colombians repeated the “cacerolazo” of the previous days, but this time from the safety of their own homes. Yes, farmers too maintain their strikes, but Santos has managed – for the time being at least – to put a lid on what threatened to explode into a citizens` revolt.
But longer term it will not be as easy to ignore the contempt Colombians have for a political class that appears not only out of touch with the nation, but uninterested in it.
Few disagree with journalist Maria Jimena Duzman´s claim that Colombia`s political parties have failed in their duty to represent the citizens, instead focusing on their own interests.
A country cannot be successfully run this way. President Santos might be able to put a break on protests, but he cannot stop them from emerging again, next month or the month after or the month after that.
In Santos` first year students forced his government to drop elements of a controversial education reform. In his second, a social media campaign humiliated his justice reform bill, and now, three years into his mandate he faces civil unrest.
Santos and the entire political class must wake up and smell the coffee Colombia`s farmers are bankrupting themselves to make.
If Santos wants to be re-elected, he must promise major reform of Colombia`s discredited political class. Do that and he might just win. Fail to do so and he risks being swept off by the turning tide.
Kevin is a political consultant and lobbyist who cut his teeth working in the UK Parliament. He is a regular panelist on Colombian television, a political communication strategist and a university lecturer. Kevin is the founder and editor of Colombia Politics.