Tens of thousands march in Bogota in support of farmers' strike

State workers and students march in support of strike, as Colombian president acknowledges agriculture is in crisis

About 30,000 people marched in the Colombian capital, Bogota, Thursday to support a strike by small farmers who are protesting the government's agricultural policies, which they say are driving them into bankruptcy.

The largely peaceful protests have involved teachers, students and health workers.

Demonstrators chanted, "Long live the farmers' strike." Some clashed with riot police, who responded with tear gas to disperse them.

President Juan Manuel Santos said the estimated 45,000 farmers, coffee growers and truck drivers who have blocked highways and battled riot police since last week had justified complaints resulting from years of government neglect. He announced corrective measures including the removal of import tariffs on some fertilizers, but he did not say when they would take effect.

The farmers have demanded lower fertilizer prices, and have complained of being undercut by cheap imports of products including potatoes, onions and milk. They say their sector is being hurt by free trade and other agreements promoted by the government.

At least two people have been killed in the protests and at least 175 arrested, according to human rights groups, which have accused police of brutality. The government has reported 72 road blockades being removed across the country during the strike, and at least 29 vehicles destroyed.

By Thursday, relative calm was reported in the countryside.

Santos, an economist and former defense and foreign trade minister, has been buffeted by protests since taking office in August 2010.

University students took to the streets the following year to demand reforms. Truck drivers have protested high gasoline prices, and indigenous groups have demanded that security forces and guerrillas quit their territory. This year, coca growers have blocked highways in a turbulent northeastern region to demand an end to aerial spraying with herbicides.

While analysts don’t believe the unrest poses a serious threat to the Santos government, they say it could certainly cost him votes in the May 2014 presidential election.

Santos has not yet announced whether he will seek re-election, and the far bigger issue for voters is his management of peace talks with Colombia’s largest rebel group to end a half-century conflict that has claimed more than 200,000 lives.

Political scientist Sandra Borda of the Universidad de los Andes said that Santos may have failed to anticipate the unrest, but that it cannot be compared with the protests that recently rocked Brazil.

“While in Brazil it was the middle class, these protests originate in the farming sector, which does generate solidarity (from other) sectors who feel neglected,” she said. Those include university students, some of whom marched Thursday in the woolen ponchos typically worn by highlands farmers.

The students are demanding t5hat the government pay off a $5.7 billion higher education deficit that has accumulated over more than two decades.

For safety reasons, Bogota’s city government suspended classes Thursday for public school students.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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