Thousands hold 'national strike' in Colombia over budget cuts

Protesters march against government plans to decrease the education budget and change pension plans.

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    Protesters demonstrate at Bolivar Square during a march against the government of Colombian President Ivan Duque called by teachers'' and workers'' unions in Bogota [Daniel Munoz/AFP]
    Protesters demonstrate at Bolivar Square during a march against the government of Colombian President Ivan Duque called by teachers'' and workers'' unions in Bogota [Daniel Munoz/AFP]

    Bogota, Colombia - Thousands of Colombians filled the capital Bogota's main square on Thursday in a national strike against government plans to decrease the education budget and change pension plans, among other issues.

    In attendance were farmers, indigenous groups, women's groups, students, Afro-Colombian groups, LGBT organisations, unions and pensioners. Other civil society actors and members of the FARC political party also participated.

    The march was also against President Ivan Duque's National Development Plan (NDP), which has riled many Colombians over cuts made to education budgets and pension plans as more money is invested in national security.

    "The government's plan affects the education budget which takes a toll all areas of education," said Virginia Castro, 50, who has worked as a teacher for 30 years.

    "It's not only that, but other areas like health, culture and sport are also seeing huge cuts," she told Al Jazeera. "They're taking the money from these things and putting it into security."

    Some groups also protested against Bogota's flawed mass transport system, the TransMilenio.

    "Dignified transport for Usme," chanted one group holding posters with photographs of the swarms of daily commuters who pile on the TransMilenio transport system in the working class area of Usme.

    Other groups called for better conditions in Colombian prisons and the end to the killings of Colombian social leaders and human rights activists.

    Alexandra Castiblanco, 27, marched to support her retired mother who had worked as a teacher.

    "Their [teachers] pay is awful," she told Al Jazeera. "My mom is a pensioner now but she received hardly anything after working her whole life. It's really bad for teachers here." 

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    Some analysts believe Thursday's protest is likely to be the start of a long-term movement.

    "This is not going to be a one-day protest, this is a movement that's going to address some of the inequities and long-standing political feuds in Colombia," said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy firm.

    Guzman told Al Jazeera that the event was politically motivated, as it was taking place a week before Labour Day, six months before the local elections and at a time when the president's popularity ratings were losing steam.

    "This is a show of strength to tell the government 'hey, we matter', and it could escalate depending on how the government responds," he said. "If the government chooses to ignore the protesters and their main concerns, this is going to go on for a while, because it's essentially a battle of wills, and who has a stronger will. The government has been known to sit down and negotiate when things get bad enough. So the question is, how bad can it get?"

    Thursday's protests were largely peaceful by mid-afternoon with small clashes between police and demonstrators at times.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News