Colombians prepare general strike against foreign debt payment


BOGOTA, Aug 29 (AFP) - Colombian unions geared up Sunday for this week's planned general strike to demand a ban on foreign debt payments in a country facing its worst economic crisis in 70 years. The strike planned for Tuesday is organized labor's response to financial austerity measures announced by President Andres Pastrana in his 2000 budget in July.

Among the unions taking part in the nationwide protest are the Central Unit of the Workers and the General Confederation of Democratic Workers. In July, Colombia for the first time in its history asked the International Monetary Fund for a three-billion-dollar loan to help meet its foreign debt obligations estimated at 35 billion dollars. The general strike by some 20 million union workers and largely supported by the poverty-striken population is expected to paralyze the country unless both sides agree on economic measures outlined in the budget proposal.

The budget proposed decreases in government salaries, except those at the lowest pay levels, by not making cost-of-living adjustments based on the rate of inflation, which currently stands at nine percent a year. The proposal would also increase the retirement age for men, to 62 from the current 60, and for women to 57 from 55. The budget plan also would decrease the hourly wage.

The unions are also demanding greater workplace protection, in a country where 72 union leaders were murdered last year, according to the workers' groups.

The nation's growth, which dropped to its lowest level -- 0.6 percent -- in 70 years in 1998, is on track to be negative this year. And the crippled economy has already sent 3,675 into bankruptcy in the first seven months of the year.

Productivity continues to be weak, and gross domestic product fell 5.85 percent in the first quarter compared to the same period in 1998. During the first five months of the year, industrial production dropped 18.4 percent compared to last year and exports decreased 8.7 percent despite increased sales of coffee and oil, two of the country's main industries. The country's national debt, which also rose sharply as fewer taxes have been collected, comprises 20 of the 35 billion dollars of foreign debt. In a country where more than one-third of its 38 million people are already in poverty, the depressed economy has compounded their financial difficulties, driving unemployment to its highest level ever, 19.5 percent.

Colombia's currency, the peso, also has been hard hit by two devaluations of 10 and nine percent in September 1998 and June 1999, respectively.

And the country's troubles are not limited to the economy. Colombia's civil war between government forces, right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist guerrillas has raged on for more than 35 years and has killed some 120,000 people.

Recent efforts by President Pastrana to seal a peace accord with South America's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have been stalled.

The US government has reiterated its support for Pastrana, but has come under increasing congressional scrutiny for its Colombia policies. Violence continued early Sunday when three people were killed and nine injured in bombs in four cities, including Bogota. The police, who claimed leftist rebels were responsible, did not dismiss the idea that the bombs could be linked to the upcoming strike.