General Strike hits Colombia

Jay Moore research at
Fri Aug 4 06:33:53 MDT 2000

Clashes in Colombia during general strike

August 3, 2000
Web posted at: 9:24 p.m. EDT (0124 GMT)

BOGOTA, Colombia -- A national 24-hour strike Thursday to protest Colombia's
unpopular austerity measures and record unemployment saw 700,000 workers
walk off their jobs, street battles with police, and a heavy presence of
riot police and tanks in Colombia's captial of Bogota.

Police confronted workers in four cities around the country, firing water
cannon and tear gas. One worker in the southwestern city of Cali suffered a
bullet wound, labor leaders said

Oil workers, teachers, medical staff, telecommunications workers and
government administrative workers were among those backing the strike.

It was the sixth strike against President Andres Pastrana's deeply unpopular
economic policies, blamed by critics for causing the highest unemployment
rate in Latin America.

The strike also represented the first challenge for new Finance Minister
Juan Manuel Santos, who has pledged a 2001 budget of "sweat and tears,"
including 5,000 public-sector job cuts and wage increases below the
inflation rate.

There were no reports that strikers had disrupted key economic sectors in
the war-torn nation, nor that warring Marxist rebel factions had timed
attacks to coincide with the strike, which militant Communist Party union
chiefs had organized. Interior Minister Humberto de la Calle downplayed the
strike's impact, saying daily activity was "close to what is normal

Most public schools were closed for the day but production in Colombia's oil
fields and refineries was reported to be normal, as were telephone services.

Preparing for the worst, however, security forces were out in force in
Bogota, utilizing tanks and riot police to guard key routes.

In Colombia's central coffee-growing region, Indian and peasant protesters
blocked a highway, and Marxist rebels bombed a high-voltage power pylon in
the northwestern industrial hub of Medellin, a police spokesman said.

Wilson Borja, leader of the main public-sector union FENALTRASE said union
leaders were sending a message to President Pastrana that they were not
ready to let workers suffer the worst of Colombia's economic crisis.

Indefinite strike threatened
"The government has been warned (with this strike)," Borja said. "What's
coming now is an indefinite, nationwide state workers'strike."

Next week union leaders are likely to set a date for an indefinite strike,
Borja said. "We will not allow them to fire any more workers," he declared.

Colombia's traditionally buoyant economy shrank 4.5 percent in 1999 -- the
worst year since records began in 1905.

The economy grew in the first quarter this year thanks partly to sweeping
public spending cuts imposed as a result of a loan deal with the
Washington-based International Monetary Fund (IMF). But urban unemployment
was 20.4 percent, the highest in the hemisphere.

Tanks patrolling street
In Bogota, the impact of Thursday's strike was most visible in working-class
neighborhoods in the south. In the southern Soacha neighborhood, four tanks
patrolled the main highway -- a key entry point to the capital from the
nearby mountain region of Sumapaz, a Marxist rebel stronghold.

Public transportation ground to a halt, forcing citizens to pile aboard
pickup trucks, cycle or walk to work.
Some 15,000 workers marched through downtown Bogota and massed in the
central Plaza Bolivar square outside Congress waving banners and chanting
anti-government slogans.

The strike is the first since the Soviet-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces
of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group launched its clandestine political
movement, the Bolivarian Movement For a New Colombia.

The movement, which military top brass has described as a "party for war,"
is designed to forge closer ties between the armed revolutionary "vanguard"
and civilian mass organizations such as unions, student groups and
neighborhood committees.

There was no indication that the FARC, Latin America's largest surviving
rebel army, was helping coordinate Thursday's protest. Since the U.S.
Congress approved a record $1.3 billion package of mostly military aid to
help Colombia fight drugs and guerrillas, the FARC repeatedly has attacked
police outposts around the country.

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