March 5, 2013 / 6:06 PM / 5 years ago

Colombian truckers end walkout, pressure still on for Santos

* Truckers lift strike after government freezes diesel prices

* Coffee farmers continue weeklong stoppage

* Santos under pressure from social protests

By Luis Jaime Acosta and Jack Kimball

BOGOTA, March 5 (Reuters) - 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.


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.

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