Just as Colombia’s government managed to start talks with the country’s striking agriculture sector, the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos will now have to contend with a shutdown of Colombia’s public school system.
After two weeks of unfruitful negotiations with the government, Colombia’s national teachers union FECODE has left on indefinite strike, effective Tuesday.
The deadline was announced weeks ago in what has been a steady, deliberate buildup to a national school closing on the part of FECODE leaders.
At stake is an estimated $40 billion dollars in unpaid wages and benefits owed to Colombia’s education workers by the local, regional, and national government authorities, an outstanding debt continuously compounded by ongoing irregularities in the distribution of teachers’ health benefits.
FECODE was originally asking for $1.7 billion of the debt to be accounted for in the upcoming national budget, but government officials waited until just two weeks before the announced strike date to start formal negotiations with the teachers, whose position has since hardened.
“The government has played around with us for years now,” FECODE Secretary General Rafael Cuello Ramirez told Colombia Reports, pointing out that some of the debt dates as far back as 2002. “Why they still want to play games with us now, I don’t know. But negotiations have gone absolutely nowhere, and now the government will have to deal with the consequences.”
According to estimates, those consequences include the closing of at least 17,000 public schools across Colombia, and with them, services to around twelve million students from five million Colombian families.
“We know this will be difficult for Colombian families,” said Cuello, “but this was not our choice. We were open to dialogue from the beginning, but the government delayed and delayed and we cannot wait any longer. We are not asking for anything special or complicated. We are demanding what’s owed us, what’s right, and we are confident that Colombians will support that.”
FECODE counts an estimated 350,000 teachers in its union, with several tens of thousands of additional education workers joining the teachers in strike efforts.
Manifestations are planned for Tuesday in each of the departmental capitals, even as negotiations with the government continue in Bogota.
- Interview with Rafael Cuello Ramirez