Colombia’s farmer strike causes shortages

Watch farmers and police clash in central Colombia via Al Jazeera.

Farmers say the government’s economic policies are ruining them by causing a flood of contraband and cheap imports in the market.

The footage here shows farmers who have thrown out huge amounts of fruits and other agricultural products in protest of their economic conditions.

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Anti-government protests in Colombia

Read at Colombia Reports

Tens of thousands have taken to the streets across Colombia in the biggest show of force from anti-government protests since agriculture workers went on strike last week. Violent clashes were reported, primarily from Bogota.

Protesters started arriving at the Plaza Bolivar in Bogota in the late morning, and by the early afternoon there were roughly 10,000 people assembled in the city’s main square. Caracol Radio, one of Colombia’s national media intensely following ongoing protests, reported that a total of 40,000 people were protesting around the city.

Despite a strong police presence, the protests remained calm for several hours, with speakers regularly encouraging peaceful demonstration.

However, at approximately 2:30PM, a new wave of protesters entered the Plaza, setting off non-lethal explosives, throwing debris and inciting general panic. This had been preceded by police attacking at least one group of demonstrators protesting peacefully while on their way to Bogota’s main square.

Speakers continued to urge the crowd to remain calm, but anti-riot police forces on hand got involved after a second round of explosives coming from within the protest, and from there the situation degenerated into chaos.

Explosions that may have come from live ammunition fire from public security forces were heard.

Police hurdled tear gas into the main crowd, with various violent clashes breaking out across the plaza, and protesters hurling bricks and other objects at police forces.

Within 15 minutes, the square had been cleared, though clashes with the ESMAD continued in the streets surrounding the plaza. According to Bogota newspaper El Tiempo, 20 people were injured in the violent outbreak.

Major riots were also reported in Soacha, a mostly poor city bordering Bogota in the south. Dozens of masked men clashed with riot police, forcing local authorities to decree an instant curfew and ban on liquor sales. More than 40 people were arrested.

In Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, a riot broke out in the downtown area ahead of the protest. According to the local authorities four suspected vandals were arrested. Most shops and supermarkets in the center of the city closed doors, fearing further disturbances.

Later in the day, sources told Colombia Reports that police released tear gas in the Parque de las Luces just after a student march comprised of an estimated 25,000 protesters arrived from the National University. The Alpujarra district, from which government personel had already been evacuated, is mostly clear, as protesters head back toward the university to demonstrate.

Violence was also reported on the outskirts of the city where thousands of rural protesters reportedly gathered and blocked roads leading to the capital of the Antioquia department, forcing clashes with riot police.

Cali newspaper El Pais reported that some 1,000 protesters took part in three peaceful marches through Colombia’s third largest city.

The protests were organized by Colombia’s largest student rights organization and coincided with widespread national anti-government protests that have been going on since Monday last week.

As peso weakens, Colombia manufacturers still hurt

Read this at Colombia Reports

As Colombia’s peso reaches the government’s target exchange rate against the dollar, the Andean country’s manufacturing contracted in output for the seventh time over an eight-month stretch.

According to the Colombian government’s economic reporting agency DANE, a 5.1% contraction hit Colombia’s manufacturing sector in June.

Fixing manufacturing is what Colombia’s Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas has said is his priority, and so it is hardly surprising that Colombia’s macroeconomic policies are geared toward making the country cheaper and more competitive abroad.

A dollar-buying program and holding the reins on an overseas bond sale were two measures Cardenas took to tame what he called Colombia’s “mother of all problems”: the peso.

Now that Colombia’s currency has weakened to between 1,900 and 1,950 pesos to the dollar, the range Cardenas has called his ‘ideal’ target, some, like Foreign Exchange Analyst Alexander Fletcher of Ultrabursatiles, believe Colombia’s industrials could bounce back by the end of the year.

But Julian Trujillo, a manufacturer who exports abroad, insists the industry is still far from recovering from a drop in output that coincided with the implementation of a free trade pact with the United States.

Trujillo is the Vice President of Trade at Fiber Glass, an arm of Paris-based multinational Saint-Gobain Group, which makes fiberglass products like insulation outside of Bogota. According to Trujillo, 40-50% of Fiber Glass’ products are exported abroad to 20 countries, including Europe and the US.

“It’s going to take a while for this industry to turn around,” Trujillo told Colombia Reports. “We’re looking at another three years of problems.”

Trujillo says that Fiber Glass suffers from Colombia’s high costs of transportation and logistics, rendering its goods far less competitive than other countries. As a result of infrastructure underdevelopment, the manufacturing industry is producing at 40-50% of its potential, says Trujillo.

“Companies,” he laments, “have lost their competitiveness.”

MORE: Business confidence falls in July

Alexander Riveros, Senior Economist at Bancolombia, agrees. Riveros told Colombia Reports that the peso is just one of Colombia’s problems when it comes to the industrial sector. The other one is competitiveness.

“Colombia isn’t as competitive as other countries in terms of costs – like the costs of transportation, logistics, and gasoline,” said Riveros.

Competitiveness, more so than the peso, is what Trujillo and Riveros both think needs to change, and according to Riveros, the current government’s economic policies are directed toward improving competitiveness.

“What’s going to happen in the future is that Colombia is going to advance in productivity,” said Riveros.

“All the government’s policies are directed toward improving productivity: infrastructure, transportation, logistics… and these sorts of things aim toward a reduction of real costs, not nominal costs… in other words, what we sell abroad will be cheaper, independent of any currency factors.”

Yet, have Colombia’s economic policies been successful at preparing manufacturers like Fiber Glass?

“Not yet,” says Trujillo. “For 8 years, the previous government didn’t advance at the rhythm of infrastructure development that it should have. The past government didn’t do anything.”

Colombia’s current administration, led by President Juan Manuel Santos has led reforms to push down taxes for companies. Riveros says that other reforms, like a law that will ease the tax burden on companies’ labor costs, have not come into effect yet.

Santos has plans for infrastructure too. Colombia’s Ruta del Sol aims to connect the country via multi-lane highways. Right now, major transit routes are clogged with slow-moving trucks and as a result, the price of moving goods from the interior to Colombia’s ports comes with painfully high costs.

‘Unecessary Syllables’

Not too long! Five paragraphs! Be formal! Be informal! Pitch the same story to multiple editors! Never call. Always email.

This is some of the ‘how to pitch’ advice I’ve received since starting to freelance as a foreign correspondent. Many times the advice I get about pitching to an editor is contradictory. So how do you do it?

Knowing how to pitch is crucial for a freelance foreign correspondent. It’s the way a correspondent sells his stories. A pitch is part of selling, not necessarily writing.

I like the way Emily Bobrow, The Economist‘s Book & Arts Editor, outlines her expectations for pitches. Here are some of her rules that I like to play by too:

It’s essential to follow up. With a backlog of pitches, new arrivals enter a no man’s land, with most editors thinking that if a writer was interested or hungry enough, they would follow up. Also, they’ve then shamed their editor, for not emailing back soon enough – and shame is a very useful currency.

How long should a pitch be? Short. She suggested two or three short paragraphs, and two is better than three. Perhaps “an awesome haiku”?. The art of writing for The Economist lies in stripping away not only unnecessary words, but also unnecessary syllables – and if writers can’t do that in an email, they can’t do it in filed copy.

Stay professional. Be a bit more formal than you may be used to. It “can be weird when writers presume a certain level of familiarity when really that’s just not the nature of the dynamic”.

Be a reader. You really need to know the magazine before you pitch. Editors find it irksome, in a media environment where everyone’s hustling, to get a pitch that indicates lack of knowledge of what the magazine does and where a story would fit in, or what its value would be to the magazine. Editors find it especially insulting to receive a pitch for something like a piece they’ve already run recently – or that just indicates a lack of familiarity with their product.

For me, Emily’s last suggestion is the most important: Be a reader. As a foreign correspondent, you straddle two very different worlds: the world of the story and the world of the reader.

When you sell, you have to be thinking about the reader, not the striker or the single mother you just interviewed. And yes, it might be painful when you realize that the story your editor wants is the one that could force you to cut out the single mother’s voice. She was so sweet, too.

If I had to add a piece to Emily’s list, it would be:

Build a conversation. Editors want to know what’s going on. And you as a foreign correspondent have the eyes that they don’t. So pitch. But also develop a conversation via email over what is happening, what you as the correspondent think is important, and what the editor’s readers think is important. You’ll find common ground this way. Don’t be stiff. Make it a conversation.

When you pitch you are a salesperson, not a writer. That means you have to build conversations with editors, not just dream up stories to tell.

Coal miner strike nears one month in Bogota

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On the edge of Bogota’s central plaza there are a row of tents covered by black tarps. This is where coal miners from Colombia’s Norte de Santander region have been striking in Bogota’s main plaza, Simon Bolivar, for nearly a month.

The men are protesting the failure of the state to provide them with compensation for accidents on the job.

Spokesperson for the strikers, Farley Rodriguez Ramirez, told me on Monday that when he went to the Administration for Work Risks in Bogota to seek help, he was treated violently and did not receive services.

“The police even stole my phone,” said Rodriguez.

Malpractice

Some of the miners have received treatment. One miner pulled up his shirt and showed me a long scar that ran down his spine, showing where he had received a surgery that corrected a work injury.

But the miners claim that the surgery was poorly done, and the miner will not be able to return to work.

Strikes cost a lot

On August 19th, coffee farmers, truck drivers and miners across Colombia executed strikes in an effort to press the Santos administration for more attention to what many workers believe are broken institutions behind big government promises for reform.

Coffee farmers, who negotiated funds to help subsidize their falling incomes, understand that the funds the government promised have enough money. But they claim they cannot access them.

A study published by Bogota-based think tank ANIF found that Colombia’s strikes cost the country’s economy around $470 million.