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Teacher Strikes Proliferate to Several Latin-American Countries amidst Presidential Elections

By: Elisa Vásquez - @elisavasquez88 - May 16, 2014, 11:11 am

EspañolTeacher strikes have spread across several countries in Latin America during the last few weeks. In Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica, they have demanded salary increases and other benefits, precisely when their countries are going through electoral processes and the political classes are more conscious of the electorate.

In Colombia, the Colombian Federation of Educators (FECODE) claim they are the lowest paid government workers. They have three concrete demands towards the Ministry of Education: “Revision of the wage increase set this year for teachers … temporary suspension of skills assessment and the introduction of new criteria or alternatives … and compliance with the conditions contracted for regarding health care conditions,” according to the May-13 statement that called for a national strike.

Some of these demands were granted by the government of Juan Manuel Santos in September of last year, after an earlier national strike. But the union claims that the government still owes them millions that could be used to improve benefits, such as health care.

Since January of 2014, the sector had been warning about the necessity of further strike action to draw the attention of the government. And they carried it out at a strategic moment, just over a week before the presidential elections in which Santos seeks reelection. The narrow margin of popularity separating him from his main contender, Óscar Zuluaga, gives the 330,000 public school teachers a powerful position at the negotiation table.

On Tuesday, Education Minister María Fernanda Campo agreed with teachers to grant their requests, so she publicly expressed surprise when FECODE President Luis Grubert reiterated the call for protest under the excuse that they cannot end the strike until the union collectively approves the conditions agreed with the ministry. Meanwhile, at least half of the 8.7 million children and young students of the Colombian public education system haven’t been able to attend class since Wednesday.

On Thursday, Daniel Bogoya, education consultant and former director of the Colombian Institute for the Evaluation of Education (ICFES), told El Tiempo that there are other mechanisms through which teachers can demand working conditions without compromising the right to education.

“We cannot condition the quality of education to these demands; it is only when better results are observed in the quality of education our children receive that the country then must recognize the effectiveness of the teachers’ efforts,” he said.

Panama: Teachers on Strike for Three Weeks So Far

Juan Manuel Santos could find himself in the same situation as Panama’s. In that country, teacher protests began five days before the recent presidential election. José Domingo Arias, the candidate supported by former president Ricardo Martinelli, then surprisingly lost to his opponent Juan Carlos Varela, who promised greater social benefits.

Twenty-one days from the start of the strike, and teachers are still demanding payment of a monthly salary increase of US$900 over a period of three years. That means the waiving of the condition required by the Ministry of Education to implementing a previous quality assessment of schools.

The general secretary of the Association of Teachers of Veraguas [Panama Region] (AEVE), Yadira Pino, reiterated on May 7, during a march, that the salary increase for teachers cannot be selective, as currently proposed by the Ministry of Education (MEDUCA). She asked for a raise for the whole guild as a necessary step to conversations about the quality of the education system.

Education expert Francisco Cajiao, told El Tiempo that in Colombia the situation is quite similar: “Public employees, such as teachers, are subject to evaluations and can not elude them, nor can they demand higher wages without conceding anything in return.”


Second day of teachers’ protests along 50 Street #Panama

Given the refusal of the Panamanian Minister of Education Lucy Molinar to negotiate with the union due to their use of street closures as a protest tactic, four teachers began a hunger strike on Monday at the gates of the Ombudsman building. Apparently, Martinelli will not be able to elude the situation, since protesters are demanding that their requests be met before the change in administration, which will happen on July 1.

Speaking to the PanAm Post, Renato Pereira, a Panamanian analyst with a PhD in Political Science, said the protests have been declining. The chief main promoters intended to demonstrate the strength of progressives and “21st Century Socialism” during the elections. But they did not succeed, with the Wide Front for Democracy (FAD) — the party that some of them supported — disappearing after failing to reach the minimum percentage of votes needed to stay in office.

“They make exaggerated demands, because they want a raise without the ministry evaluating the quality of the service they provide. I think that in the end what they wanted was to show their weight to the rest of the political class and it didn’t work,” he said.

Pereira also said that there has been public rejection of the protests for the belligerent character of the teachers’ demands, and that students and other educators have asked those who remain on the streets to go back to the classrooms.

Costa Rica: Confusion Reigns During Power Transition

In Costa Rica, the political transition also appears to have had an impact on the actions carried out by teachers, who went on strike several days ago for non-payment of some salaries since February. All this comes at the start of a new term on office for Luis Guillermo Solís, opponent to the government of former-President Laura Chinchilla.

Wage problems started in February when the teacher payroll system was migrated to a new platform, which still does not process the wage payments correctly. The problem remained as a legacy for Solis to resolve, and he asked unsuccessfully for educators to end the strike so that students could resume classes.

Gilberto Cascante, president of the National Association of Educators of Costa Rica (ANDE), tells the PanAm Post that since February, 9,200 teachers have not been paid at all, and about 7,000 have not been paid overtime and bonuses. Cascante estimates that 50 percent of the 80,000 public school teachers in the country have had problems with the payment of their salaries.

“It is causing serious economic problems, because there are educators who now have conflicts with their banks, they cannot pay their credits, and many of their homes are at risk,” Cascante laments. He believes that the Ministry of Education must pay salaries immediately, without delay. He also believes that teachers are suffering the consequences of the government transition, given the inexperience of the new authorities.

Teacher strikes in the midst of election campaigns have generated criticized as an opportunist move to take advantage of a moment of weakness of political leaders. On the other hand, from the point of view of social movements seeking greater state involvement in public affairs, moments of political contest represent the best opportunity to negotiate effectively with government officials.

Translated by Alan Furth.

Elisa Vásquez Elisa Vásquez

Elisa Vásquez is a Venezuelan journalist with experience covering social and community topics. Her specialty is human rights education and international solidarity. She reports from Panama City. Follow her on Twitter @elisavasquez88.