Colombia: workers, students protest FTA, privatization

In Colombia’s largest demonstration since President Juan Manuel Santos took office last August, tens of thousands of unionists, students and teachers demonstrated throughout the country on April 7 to protest a free trade agreement (FTA) with the US and proposed changes in the education system that they say will lead to privatization. The Unitary Workers Central (CUT), Colombia’s main labor federation, estimated turnout at 1.5 million. Demonstrations took place in Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, Bucaramanga, Santa Marta, Barranquilla and other cities.

The national day of action coincided with a visit by President Santos to Washington, DC, where he met with US president Barack Obama to push for the US Congress approve a trade accord that Colombia and the US signed in 2006, during the administration of George W. Bush (2001-2009). The FTA has never been approved by Congress, in part because of opposition from US unions and activists over Colombia’s record of human rights abuses and repression of unions. But Santos is looking for ratification now that the agreement has Obama’s support. “We’ve worked for five years seeking approval for this to go to Congress,” Santos said, “and today we received this green light.”

The CUT strongly opposes the FTA, which would threaten “labor rights, food sovereignty and the possibility for development,” according to Diógenes Orjuela, a CUT leader. The unionists were also protesting labor flexibility practices, such as the use of provisional contracts.

More than 100 student organizations oppose Santos’ proposal to allow private investment in public universities on a national level; in Bogotá there is already a system of concessions which lets private groups operate some public schools. The Education Ministry responded to the April 7 demonstrations by agreeing to review the policies with teachers and discuss their labor and wage demands within 20 days.

According to the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, 26 unionists and 11 educators were murdered in Colombia in 2010; the CUT says there were actually 51 murders. Just 800,000 people belong to unions in Colombia, out of a population of about 45 million, and only 70,000 have collective bargaining agreements, according to the CUT. (Agence France Presse, April 7, via Terra México; BBC, April 7; La Jornada, Mexico, April 8, from PL, DPA)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 10.

See our last post on Colombia and the FTA.