Colombia lurches toward coffee confrontation
Colombia’s coffee workers and military spent Sunday digging in, preparing for what seems an unfortunate, ugly confrontation.
The picturesque, colonial city I am staying in, Popayán was quiet, the sort of quiet which causes people to worry about what’s going to happen next.
Buses were few and far between. Gas stations closed for a lack of fuel. Many store shelves bare of produce. Even bars and clubs in this compulsively festive land were closed by government order over the weekend.
Popayán has been sandwiched between blockades – in Piendamó to the north, and Timbio to the south as the week-long blockade by coffee producers took hold.
There are more than a half dozen blockades in Colombia’s coffee confrontation, but nowhere has the impact been felt as severely as Popayán, a city connected to the north and south only by the Pan-American Highway.
A reported deal to increase subsidies by about 50 per cent failed to convince growers to remove the blockades. They said they will still pay more to produce coffee than they can earn in sales.
In Piendamó, coffee growers stood shoulder-to-shoulder as buses and trucks lined up along the highway. A short walk away, police occupied Piendamó´s outdoor theatre, normally a place for dancing, singing and drinking. Nearby soldiers readied themselves behind bulletproof barricades and armoured vehicles jockeyed for position.
I walked the 40 kilometres between the barricades, south through Popayán. Gas stations were closed all along the route. Normally the Pan-American Highway is chaotic, with buses passing transport trucks along the winding road, while low-powered motorcycles with two passengers or more fight for position on the side of the treacherous mountain highway.
For the past week, however, it has been a cyclists´and pedestrians’ paradise. Traffic is sparse. The road is quiet.Business people sit, looking lonely in often empty restaurants and normally popular recreation areas.
South of Popayán, on Sunday, it was tense.
Some residents who found a muddy route around the blockade sold gasoline in plastic pop bottles for wildly inflated prizes.
Coffee growers hacked large trees down across the highway, adding to the barricades that block lines of transport trucks and buses.
A woman pushing a baby in a carriage with one hand, pulling a piece of luggage with the other made her way up the steep highway. A man dragging his crutches in one hand crawled beneath a tree laid across the highway, while military helicopters buzzed overhead.
Down the road, less than a kilometre away, the military was stockpiling equipment. Trucks were pulling into a restaurant where vacationers normally while away the weekends. Communications equipment and weapons were being organized.
Monday businesses are organizing a march to pressure the government to clear the roads. Former president Álvaro Uribe posted on Twitter that the problem is caused by too much leniency towards people he characterizes as “terrorists.”.
Another tweet said hundreds of natives and campesinos were gathering in another town along the way.
It seems something will happen soon, something unpleasant.
- Colombia coffee growers go on strike (bbc.co.uk)