As one student of mine said yesterday, “Things in Colombia are crazy right now.” Today marks Day 12 of a national strike by the country’s farmers, los campesinos. They’ve been hurt by trade agreements with the US, Europe and Australia that are bringing milk and produce into the country at much lower prices than what they can offer. As well, they’ve been hurt by the high cost of fertilizers and fuel to transport their produce. The protests began in the country with farmers blockading the streets and destroying their produce. These road blockades continue and have mostly suspended travel throughout the country. Every day there have been marches in Bucaramanga led by the students of UIS, our large public university, which have by and large been peaceful.
UIS is known for its protesting students. There’s a joke that you know when you start your degree at UIS, but you never know when you’ll finish it because the campus often closes due to student protests. My impression is that many people often regard the student protests as nothing more than students wanting to get riled up about something, but in the case of los campesinos the protests are widely supported by the public. President Santos, however, is not doing anything to help the farmers. A few days ago he was famously quoted in the news as saying that the strike isn’t happening. You can imagine that he’s not a very popular figure in Colombia. Unfortunately there have also been problems with police using excessive force. Yesterday, for example, two protesters were killed in Bogota during clashes with police.
At the same time the motorcyclists of Bucaramanga are protesting new laws proposed by the mayor. First you must understand that the motorcyclists of Bucaramanga are a force to be reckoned with. Motorcycles are everywhere in Bucaramanga and many people depend on them for their livelihood, such as delivery men. The mayor has proposed two laws that would affect motorcyclists under the facade of improving the safety of Bucaramanga. The first law would prohibit motorcyclist from using their motorcycles from 11pm to 4am, with the pretense of preventing alcohol-related traffic accidents. The second law would prohibit motorcyclists from taking a second helmet with them to pick up a passenger. This law is supposedly aimed at the illegal mototaxis which operate in the city – motorcycle owners offer to give someone a ride for a few dollars. The real reason behind these laws though is the mayor’s interest in supporting his friends in the bus and taxi businesses. This morning the motorcyclists protested by completely blocking access to one of the major roads through Bucaramanga. Unfortunately some of the motorcyclists have also been committing acts of violence such as throwing stones through the windows of local businesses. This morning Bucaramanga’s major public transportation service, Metrolinea, suspended service for the day after some motorcyclists attacked a bus with rocks. Some people are erroneously blaming the farmers’ strike for this violence, but it’s indeed a separate issue altogether.
Lest my relatives should worry, the protests are isolated to a few parts of the city. My neighborhood bears no hint of chaos, save the graffiti that has suddenly appeared on numerous buildings and, unfortunately, the famous Botero statue. I remain in Bucaramanga perfectly safe and deeply moved by the solidarity of those who have united peacefully to support Colombia’s farmers.