An underwhelming 3,000 protesters descended on Bogota’s central square on Tuesday to speak out against President Juan Manuel Santos’ economic policies and the conditions of the State’s public health programs.
The low turnout is in stark contrast with protests held throughout Colombia’s vast countryside where hundreds of thousands of people are taking parts in protests, demonstrations and strikes to protest the government’s socio-economic, mining and agrarian policies.
“Down with the free trade agreement! Down with neo-liberal economic policy that is ruining the countryside,” shouted spokespersons for the Colombia Workers Union (CUT) on Tuesday.
The CUT donned banners declaring their purpose: “For the defense of workers and national production.”
After a wave of strikes from the coffee sector to mining and other agricultural trades have torn through Colombia this year, Bogota workers groups and student groups came together to denounce the toll workers have taken in the wake of Colombia’s free trade agreements.
Winston Petro, a former teacher and representative for the Colombia Workers Union, told Colombia Reports that Colombia’s free trade agreements make it very hard for local industry to compete with subsidized industries abroad.
“Colombia’s industrial productivity has fallen severely in the last six months,” Petro said, adding that “it has diminished employment and labor activity significantly.”
Petro believes that the biggest effect of the FTAs “is the ruin of [Colombian] products.” He says, “We lose our power to use the domestic market to promote economic activity.”
One of the most specific demands that workers and students called for was a reform to an article of Colombia’s 1991 Constitution that guarantees that the State will support farmer’s health and social security.
The constitution states that, “it is a must that the State provides progressive ownership of land for agrarian workers, as individuals and in association, and for access to education, health, housing, social security, credit, communications, product commercialization, and technical and entrepreneurial assistance, for the end of improving incomes and quality of life for [Colombian] farmers.
Strikers denounced the constitution, saying that the workings of current health laws for workers across Colombia are “unconstitutional.”
Earlier this year Colombia’s coffee farmers demanded help from the State when their incomes were compromised by crop failure and slack in international prices. The government negotiated with farmers and promised to allocate subsidies for income support. The money is there, say representatives of Colombia’s coffee industry, but the access isn’t.
Workers and students in Bogota shared their indignation in the central plaza in Bogota over what they believe are Santos’ failed promises.
Leading up to August 19th, the day when protests were scheduled to start, Juan Manuel Santos said that there would be no negotiations in the midst of a strike.
Peaceful protest, he said, “is a fundamental part of any democracy.” But “strikes that block roadways and compromise the rights of other citizens are another thing entirely.”
One Bogota demonstrator, Juan Rodriguez, carried a chest-sized piece of cardboard with photographs of himself and his family with the only hand he has: his right one. When Juan Rodriguez was 8 years old, he lost his left arm in a farm accident involving a tractor, dooming him to a disabled life, he said in an interview with Colombia Reports.
Roughly 6.2% of the government’s approximately $97 billion dollar budget is set to go to public health spending in 2013. According to Colombia’s National Budget, $6 billion dollars are destined for “health spending and social protection.” But Rodriguez said that the Colombian government has given him no financial support to help cope with his disability.
“They say there are foundations, but… this is a lie. I haven’t received anything from the State,” he said.
When asked what he does for work, Rodriguez said proudly, “I sell candy on buses… but it’s really competitive.”