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Saturday, 24 August 2013 00:00

Farc is a useful scapegoat for neoliberal policy failures

by John Haylett

Free trade agreements with the US and the EU have created a deep economic crisis

Colombia's government reverted to type this week in accusing striking farmers and lorry drivers of having been "infiltrated" by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said on Thursday: "Everyone knows that the terrorist Farc ends up infiltrating these kinds of protests and cause disorder.

"There are sectors that infiltrate these situations because, let's be frank, potato farmers, valuable people, workers, are not really prepared to use explosives against the police or burn cars.

"There has to be evil minds behind that."

Pinzon's conspiracy theory perishes on the rocks of reality since Colombia's farmers are the victims of free trade agreements signed with the US and the European Union that have hung potato, maize, rice and milk producers out to dry, unable to compete with transnational corporations' cheap imports.

The government's recent agreement of another free trade pact with South Korea will open Colombian to a further wave of unfair competition.

Coffee growers, who have previously protested against neoliberal government policies, backed their fellow farmers in this week's mass action.

Lorry drivers walked out over the high cost of diesel while coal miners have been on strike since July 17 in protest at a decree authorising destruction of machinery used in the informal mining industry.

Colombia's coal industry is dominated by transnational corporations, especially US and Australian companies.

Sugar cane workers backed the nationwide protests too, demanding a return to direct labour, as existed prior to new legislation in 1990, rather than the current use of labour brokers that has impoverished the workforce.

University lecturers and health staff also joined the strike wave, outraged at job cuts, failure to pay severance packages and the imposition of an internal market in the public health system.

These public service workers are losing any idea of job security, being subject to employment contracts that last a few months only.

As well as widespread labour unrest, the government is haunted by an angry upsurge in the Catatumbo region that borders Venezuela, where the government has refused to recognise small farmers' property ownership rights based on years of living and working the land.

Farc has spoken out in support of the working people taking action to defend their living standards.

Top negotiator Ivan Marquez urged the government on Monday not to use force against protesters, insisting that "social protest should not be criminalised."

This Farc warning is well based since Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist, with over 2,500 targeted for assassination over the past two decades.

Although there has been some improvement, right-wing death squads are still active and the defence secretary's allegation of Farc "infiltration" puts strikers' lives in jeopardy.

The Farc peace delegation, which resumed talks with President Juan Manuel Santos's government in Havana on Monday, proposed that the free trade agreements be revised, on the grounds that it is impossible for Colombian small producers to compete effectively with imports from developed countries.

President Santos paid little heed to the Farc position, telling strikers that there would be no negotiations with their representatives, threatening legal action against public-sector unions and putting tens of thousands of extra state security forces on the streets.

Large numbers of workers were arrested, including 46 on the first day of the strike, and there were countless reports of abuses and human rights violations by the security forces.

Police were reported as threatening open-top truck drivers if they took people to protest destinations.

Two trade union leaders in Putumayo were taken to a police station, interrogated and, most dangerously in light of the death squad threat, photographed.

The president's intransigence towards workers' demands is matched by a stubborn refusal to accept the Farc proposal that next year's presidential election be postponed pending a constitutional convention to consult Colombians on what kind of society they wish to live.

Santos insists that he will hold a referendum on any peace agreement reached to coincide with next year's elections - either the parliamentary poll set for March or May's presidential.

His tone has always been autocratic, lecturing Farc like a victorious general negotiating an enemy's surrender, but this is clearly not the case, despite massive US military assistance.

Farc is not prepared to submit quietly to his bombast, making numerous proposals that have gained widespread backing among the people.

Negotiator Victoria Sandino proposed a national social welfare fund on Wednesday, funded by a new tax on the wealthiest sectors of society, to ease hunger, create jobs and give better access to education, health care, public services and free public connectivity to the internet.

"This fund would go to the poorest localities in the cities, the slums and other areas that register the highest rates of poverty and misery," she said.

The Farc peace delegation has also set up a new website (http://farc-epeace.org/) so that foreigners can "know the other side of the story."

The Colombian government, Washington and the EU all subscribe to the fiction that Farc is a terrorist body, but the more that people learn about the country's past and present the less they will accept this facile misjudgement.

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