Colombian police have clashed with protesters amid strikes by the country’s farmers protesting against free trade agreements with the United States and Europe.
Police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators after a group of protesters blocked a highway that connects the capital, Bogota, to Villavicencio in central Colombia. The demonstrators threw explosives at police personnel and vehicles. They said the highway would be closed until the Colombian government agrees to hold talks with agrarian companies. Reports say similar demonstrations were also held in the southwestern province of Cauca. The protests started on August 19 and spread across Colombia after President Juan Manuel Santos said the “supposed national farmers strike does not exist,” in an attempt to downplay the importance of the move. However, he later was forced to apologize for the statement and deployed high-level officials to hold talks separately with the different sectors. “We recognize that the farmers’ protests respond to real needs and problems. We are listening to them and offering solutions,” Santos said. The farmers are critical of the government’s agricultural policies, complaining that due to free trade accords with the United States and Europe, it is impossible for them to compete with imports, which they say are now less expensive. A recent poll has shown that that public approval rating of the Colombian president has fallen to its lowest level since he took office in 2010, because of the farmers’ strike and slight progress in peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). According to the Gallup survey, which was conducted amid a two-week strike by farmers, only 21 percent of those polled said they had a positive opinion of Santos.