Colombians protest Free Trade Agreement with United States, 2006

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Time Period:  
15 May
22 November
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
La Maria, Cauca
Location Description: 
Country-wide campaign, but this is the location of the focus protest
For Colombia to reject the Free Trade Agreement with the United States

The United States proposed the enactment of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia in 2004. The United States said that, by lowering the tariffs in a few markets and by making the majority of the other markets entirely duty-free, it could become more competitive. While the Colombian Government responded positively to such a contract, significant groups declared their opposition.

Indigenous groups, campesinos (small farmers), and Afro-Cuban Colombians were concerned that the FTA would ultimately hurt farmers and increase of the number of farmers raising coca. Further, they expressed concern that their resources, including their seeds, would become patented and inaccessible. The cost of medicine would likely rise, and domestic food sovereignty would be exchanged for incentives for foreign investors. Finally, there was worry that farmers would be forced to eradicate their crops without receiving any form of subsidy, should the FTA pass.

The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) summarized its grievances by stating that the FTA would “turn everything that exists into merchandise and commodities.” ONIC called for general opposition toward the FTA.

By the 25th of February 2006, the agreement was on its last steps to becoming finalized.

The first major protest took place on the 15th of May 2006, in the city of La Maria, Cauca. For many indigenous Colombians, the city holds symbolic significance as a sacred place. In addition to indigenous, poor agricultural workers and sympathizers from a number of different backgrounds participated.

Indigenous groups did, however, have a few additional goals for the protest that were specific to them and were related to—if not brought to the forefront by—the FTA. These goals included a request that the government return the land it had taken and had promised to return twenty years before, as well as the discontinuation of the agricultural fumigations that destroyed crops and caused serious health problems.

On the 15th of May 8,000 peaceful protestors occupied the Pan American Highway, which links Cauca and Narino and runs southward into Ecuador.

Police responded with violence. One protestor was shot to death and approximately 70 others were wounded.

Thousands of protesters returned for the following two days, again to be met by violence. Three more protestors were fatally wounded, and still more sustained serious injuries. Police sprayed pepper gas—a prohibited chemical—at protesters from helicopters. Homes and stores were raided. Water lines running to rural communities were intentionally broken, and water sources on indigenous land were poisoned with herbicide.

Nineteen people became “disappeared,” and the Colombian government refused to release any information on their whereabouts. Some estimates suggest that up to 10,000 protestors received some form of humanitarian aid in those few days.

Indigenous radio stations were destroyed, and the mainstream media largely ignored the protests. The Non-Governmental Committee for the Defense of Human Rights was able to report about the human rights abuses that occurred during the protests, when other media outlets did not. Other allies began to mobilize. Some governmental officials came to the sites of protests to mediate discussions. Many of these officials, however, experienced violence at the hands of the military.

The Colombian Government decided to blame the protests on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Indigenous leaders declared this to be a false accusation to justify the violent repression. Prominent Indigenous leader, Floro Tunubala pointed out that the indigenous had themselves for many years been rejecting, condemning, and resisting the FARC.

The protests in La Maria were the largest of a string of protests throughout the country. Other regions that witnessed opposition to the FTA included Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo, and Meta. During the week of the 15th of May, and in a few small-scale protests during the subsequent weeks, it is estimated that 50,000 people took part in the campaign to halt the signing of the FTA.

Between May 2006 and November 2006, the date for decision whether to sign the FTA, protesters acted in fourteen of Colombia’s thirty-two departments.

On the 22nd of November 2006, the Colombian Government passed the FTA. The agreement was renewed in 2011. Despite the agreement, human rights, religious, community, student, and worker opposition toward the FTA continues to exist both in Colombia and among allies of the Colombian opposition abroad.

Research Notes

It is possible that this campaign both influenced and was influenced by, similar Free Trade Agreements that occurred in nearby countries (Guatemala, Ecuador) during the same year.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Dominic Castro-Wehr 27/10/2013