Colombian teachers protest, demanding better salaries and working conditions, in Bogota, Colombia, June 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga(reuters_tickers)
By Julia Symmes Cobb
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Promises by Colombia's government to improve public education after a peace deal with Marxist rebels are empty words, striking teachers said on Friday, as protests that have kept millions of children out of classes stretched into their 37th day.
Union members participating in the nationwide walkout have held near-daily marches, often blocking busy roads in the capital Bogota to demand more funding for school maintenance, supplies, student meals and salaries.
The government of President Juan Manuel Santos says it is focused on combating inequality and improving education that now a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an end of more than 52 years of war, is under way.
But educators say improvements are nowhere to be seen and their salaries, some as low as 1.8 million pesos per month (about $610), are not adequate compensation for work that requires extensive and expensive higher education.
"The president said the money that went to the war would go to education but now there's no FARC, no guns and we don't see the funds," said high school teacher Jose Escobar, 36, one of thousands gathered in Bogota's main square.
Places at his school, Colegio German Arciniegas in Bogota's poor Bosa neighbourhood, are in such high demand that it has been impossible to implement the government's goal of full-day classes, Escobar said. Instead, 4,800 students in grades nine through 11 attend half-day, or six hours.
Leaders of the powerful Colombian Federation of Education Workers (Fecode) union, which represents more than 350,000 teachers, were meeting with Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas on Friday but protesters said they were willing to continue indefinitely.
"If the government truly is working for peace, they need to start here," said Adriana Tunjo, a fifth-grade teacher in southern Bogota. "Parents know we're fighting for them and their kids."
Up the block, a group of teachers carrying mock shields and giant pencils marched to the sound of horns and drums.
Other protesters said despite challenges, which included problems with electricity and sporadic provision of meals, urban educators were better off than teachers in rural areas where state presence can be close to non-existent.
"You can't even call them schools!" said Javier Quironez, 41, wearing a Fecode union baseball cap.
Santos, who has made recent deals to halt protests in the port city Buenaventura and a strike by public workers, has urged teachers to return to classrooms and said funds are limited.
(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy and Bill Trott)