Colombia hit by national strike

Protesters take to the streets in Bogota, Colombia. The national strike comes as President Santos’ approval ratings are hitting new lows.
Protesters take to the streets in Bogota, Colombia. The national strike comes as President Santos’ approval ratings are hitting new lows. Miami Herald

They marched for lower bus fares, higher pensions, world peace, saving the environment, better education and animal rights, and against privatization. But the one thing that the thousands of protesters had in common Thursday is a growing dissatisfaction with the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos.

In the largest protest of the year, 47 organizations nationwide took to the streets of Colombia, paralyzing large swaths of the capital and other major cities. The country’s largest labor union, CUT, put out a list of 15 demands, including minimum wage hikes and the repeal of free trade agreements.

The demonstrations come as the administration has been swamped by corruption scandals and tainted by the growing perception that Santos has dropped the ball at home as he pushes for a historic peace deal with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in Havana.

“The only thing he cares about is peace, but it will be peace in our graves because here in Colombia he’s not doing anything,” said Rafael Pulido, a 72-year-old retiree who took to the streets demanding a higher pension. After paying into the social security system for more than three decades, he said he receives about $200 a month — not enough to make ends meet.

Regional Malaise

The entire region seems to have hit a wall. Brazil has been wracked by massive marches demanding the resignation of President Dilma Rousseff. Ecuador’s opposition groups are also expected to take to the streets in coming days, and Venezuela seems to live in a perpetual state of civil unrest.

Falling oil and commodity prices bear much of the blame as government belt-tightening has soured the mood.

A poll by Ipsos Napoelón Franco earlier this month showed that Santos’ approval rating had plummeted to 25 percent, the lowest level since he took office in 2010. In addition, the survey found that the economy, for the first time, is seen as the country’s most pressing concern.

For many, the economic drift is encapsulated in the minimum wage battle. Earlier this year the government raised the base salary by 7 percent (to keep pace with last year’s 6.7 percent inflation). But critics point out that food prices and other elements that make up the basic basket of goods — or what an average family might need to survive — grew by 7.3 percent.

“When minimum wage isn’t keeping up with inflation it’s an issue that’s too sensitive to ignore,” Clara López, a former presidential candidate and the head of the Polo Democrático party, told the Miami Herald. “It’s generating a lot of disagreement and a lot of pain.”

Hague Headache

The administration got a fresh dose of pain Thursday. As the march was going on, the International Court of Justice in The Hague announced that it had the right to hear a case where Nicaragua is asking for its maritime borders with Colombia to be revised.

Colombia had been arguing that it withdrew from the court’s jurisdiction in 2012, shortly after it had ruled in Nicaragua’s favor in another maritime tussle. After Thursday’s announcement, Santos went on national television to say Colombia would not appear before the court.

If there is a chance for redemption in the short term, it could come next week in Havana. Although the administration has admitted it won’t meet a self-imposed Wednesday deadline to sign a definitive peace agreement, many are expecting some sort of announcement as President Barack Obama visits Cuba.