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Colombian Troops Cool National Strike : Hundreds Arrested During Leftist-Led Protest Against Betancur

Times Staff Writer

A massive display of government force Thursday dampened a national strike led by Communist unions and leftist guerrilla organizations to protest the economic and political policies of President Belisario Betancur.

The strike--and accompanying threats of violence against the city’s 3,000 buses--reduced the normal flow of passengers going to work in this national capital of 5 million people Thursday morning. Observers said that about half of the people stayed at home. But many walked miles to reach their offices and factories. By mid-morning, most stores and offices in the center of the city were open. The situation in other cities was reported to be similar to that in Bogota.

The government made good on its promise to protect the right to work, and the city was under virtual military occupation. Armed infantrymen patrolled the main streets. Armored personnel carriers and combat cars with heavy machine guns took positions in the Plaza Bolivar, in front of Congress and the city’s cathedral. Other motorized patrols climbed the hillsides just outside the city and moved through the big slum neighborhoods there.

Hundreds Arrested

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With this protection, many persons seemed to agree with Maria Elvira Rojas, who set up her sidewalk fruit stand, as she does every day. “If I go on strike,” she said as she polished her red apples, “I don’t sell. And I have a family to feed.”

Wherever crowds formed, as at the market area known as La Victoria, police arrested hundreds of people. Those detained were forced into city dump trucks under police guard and taken to detention centers. By noon, the city’s bullfighting ring was full of prisoners squatting in the sun under guard.

The national day of protest was called by the Communist-led labor union confederation--one of four labor confederations in Colombia--and was backed by the major guerrilla organizations that have signed a truce with the government designed to halt recurrent fighting with the military here.

The protest and strike had the support of the Communist-backed Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the M-19, both of which accepted the truce, and other more radical guerrilla groups, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), which rejected the truce.

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Sporadic Violence

The day brought sporadic acts of violence, including an ELN guerrilla attack on Caceres, a town in Antioquia department, where the mayor, two other town officials and three police officers were killed. Unidentified saboteurs placed explosive charges on electric towers south of Bogota, causing minor disruption of power supplies.

The strike forced the populist Betancur to employ a display of military security that he had tried to avoid. Betancur offered the guerrillas an amnesty and the truce as part of a policy of pacification that has been the main concern of his government since he took office in 1982.

Armed violence has continued in many rural areas as the military continued operations against guerrilla organizations that refused to give up their arms, even when they formally subscribed to the truce. More than 30 soldiers and guerrillas have been killed in fighting in the Cauca Valley this month.

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The unions backing the strike were protesting a 17% increase in the cost of living since January, which wiped out a 14% wage increase. The union leaders also demanded that Colombia suspend payments on its foreign debt.

Betancur has entered into an agreement with the International Monetary Fund under which the inflation rate this year was supposed to increase by only 22%. The agreement calls for reduction of budget deficits, and the austerity program has cut back many government programs in housing, hospital care and subsidies for food and fuel.

The IMF agreement was part of a financial package under which Colombia expects to receive new loans of $1 billion from a group of international banks to finance expansion of oil and coal production, as well as a $250-million loan from the World Bank to finance imports of raw materials and equipment needed to increase exports.


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