Colombia: teachers and students in national mobilization

Tens of thousands of Colombian teachers and students and their supporters held marches on May 30 to protest a proposed Law of Transferences and a National Development Project (PND) that they say will cut funding for education and teachers’ pensions. The marchers also opposed a “free trade” agreement (FTA, or TLC in Spanish) with the US. Contingents came from around the country for a march in Bogota that the government said drew 100,000 participants; organizers put the number at 250,000. Observers said the demonstration, which brought unprecedented disruptions to traffic, was the largest in at least two decades. This was the third march against the cutbacks in two weeks.

There were also marches in other cities, including Barranquilla, Cali, Cartagena, Cucuta and Medellin, where students and parents painted walls with slogans against the TLC and right-wing president Alvaro Uribe. In Copacabana municipality in the northwestern department of Antioquia, some 30 people were injured in a clash between police and protesters, according to RCN television. Aside from this and some isolated incidents in a few other cities, the giant protests were peaceful. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos gave police credit for the absence of violence, but protesters rejected his claim. “This was always our intention,” two students from the public National Pedagogical University told the Inter Press Service (IPS) in Bogota, “and we reject any violent option; with music and art we’re going to keep up the protest until we’re heard.”

The 280,000-member Colombian Teachers Federation (FECODE) started an open-ended strike on May 23 to press their demands for an increase in funding for health and education. Some 8.5 million students missed classes because of the strike; many joined demonstrations to support the teachers’ demands. A major issue is Article 38 of the PND, which would transfer some of the responsibility for pensions and other employee benefits from the government budget into the public universities’ budgets. The universities say they would have to cut back programs to pay the pensions. President Uribe, who supported a similar plan when he was a senator in 1993, has given different figures for how much of the funding for pensions the national government would provide under the new plan. On one occasion he said 90%, and on another 98%.

FECODE suspended the strike on May 31, the day after the mass demonstrations, and began talks with the government. Protesters say they will stay “on alert.” Currently they plan another protest on June 13, the day when Congress is scheduled to vote on the Law of Transferences. (Prensa Latina, June 2; Argentina Noticias June 1; IPS, May 31; EFE, May 31)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 3

See our last post on Colombia.

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