* Truckers lift strike after government freezes diesel
* Coffee farmers continue weeklong stoppage
* Santos under pressure from social protests
By Luis Jaime Acosta and Jack Kimball
BOGOTA, March 5 Colombian truckers lifted a
three-day walkout on Tuesday that had disrupted exports and
aggravated fuel shortages in some provinces while coffee farmers
continued to block roads.
Protests, strikes and bombings across Colombia's commodity
sectors have bitten into economic growth and hurt President Juan
Manuel Santos' popularity, at a time when he is trying to end a
long war and mulls a re-election bid in 2014.
The majority of Colombian exports and imports move by road,
including coffee from the world's largest high-quality Arabica
producer. To get trucks moving again, the government scrapped a
recent hike in diesel prices.
"In the next three months, there won't be increases," Energy
Minister Federico Renjifo told journalists.
More than 300,000 truckers had joined a cacophony of
countrywide protests, adding to pressure on Santos from a
walkout by coffee growers that has paralyzed internal bean
sales, and a strike at the main coal producer.
Colombia's government has raised a subsidy for coffee
farmers, but protest leaders continued protesting and blocking
roads because they want buyers to pay a minimum price for beans.
"Until the government gives us a minimum price we won't lift
the strike. People are suffering from this strike because there
is no food," said Ermison Sterling, a coffee grower and promoter
of the strike in the Huila province.
On Tuesday, Santos called the blockages "absurd" and sent
his vice president, a seasoned former union leader, to mediate.
After four years of lower-than-expected production, growers
were hit in 2012 by feeble global coffee prices and a rise in
the peso currency, which hurts exporters because they receive
dollars for sales but pay costs in pesos.
LABOR PROTESTS AND THE LEFT
Meanwhile, workers at Cerrejon, the country's largest coal
exporter, have been on strike for nearly a month. Labor leaders
have been conferring with workers about a new Cerrejon proposal
to end the walkout since Monday.
Igor Diaz, the president of the Sintracarbon union, said on
Tuesday morning that the labor syndicate had talked about the
new proposal to workers in four of the tents outside the
facilities, with 11 tents left to go.
The shutdown at Cerrejon is the last major supply problem in
the coal sector in Colombia, the world's fourth-largest coal
exporter, after a regulator lifted suspensions on the No. 2
producer, Drummond Ltd, and on the main railway last week.
Lower exports of coffee and coal have dragged down economic
growth that had already shown signs of weakening in the
manufacturing and industrial sectors, forcing the central bank
to cut interest rates by 150 basis points since last year.
Attacks by Marxist guerrillas have also cut into the main
export earner, crude oil, with state-run Ecopetrol seeing its
2012 balance sheet lower in part due to rebel bombings.
A poll a week ago showed Santos' popularity is at its lowest
level since he took office in 2010 as many believe the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, are
gaining ground again.
The labor unrest has been blamed by the government and
others on the radical left and even the FARC.
The rhetoric raises doubts whether Colombia's extreme right
would allow a FARC political party if ongoing talks in Havana
yield a peace deal or if any future FARC political group would
fall victim to attacks, analysts say.
"Hopefully the Havana talks end with an agreement, but if
so, who will be blamed for future social protests?," leftist
Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo said in a message on Twitter.