The Miami Herald
April 28, 1999
Holiday-happy Colombians in danger of losing days off

Herald Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia -- When it comes to holidays, Colombia is hard to beat.
The country takes 18 days off every year -- among the most in the world -- to
celebrate religious or patriotic dates.

That's just too much time off, says legislator Carlos Eduardo Enriquez Maya,
who has proposed a law that would cut official holidays from 18 to five.

``A nation with a severe economic crisis like ours can't enjoy the luxury of so
much free time,'' Enriquez Maya said.

Naturally, many chagrined workers in this nation of 39 million people feel that
a privilege is about to be stolen. Union leaders are up in arms. So is the
tourism industry.

``I don't agree with this. We're used to it. And I think it's beneficial for
workers,'' said Carlos Felipe Otalora, 25, who works at a lending agency.

Since 1984, Colombians have reveled in an extraordinary number of three-day
weekends, allowing them to flock out of the city or to the beach. It was then
that legislators mandated that weekend holidays be moved to following
Mondays. Nine to 11 of the national holidays now fall on a Monday most

Any business traveler who has visited Colombia knows it is smart to plan
ahead and avoid four-day work weeks, which occur virtually every month.

If Enriquez Maya gets his way, Colombia will celebrate only New Year's Day,
Holy Thursday and Good Friday, Labor Day on May 1, and Christmas Day.

Colombia shuts down entirely for its 18 holidays, unlike in the United States,
where some of the 10 federal holidays, like Presidents' Day or Veterans Day,
let federal employees take the day off but seem like normal work days for
those who toil in stores, restaurants, private offices and industry.

Puerto Rico, with its 22 federal and island holidays, surpasses Colombia. But
the rest of Latin America has far fewer. Venezuela has 13 official holidays,
Peru 11, Ecuador nine, Bolivia five and Cuba four, Enriquez Maya said. And
no other country mandates so many holidays to fall on Mondays.

``What nation on the planet has all of its holidays on a Monday?'' Enriquez
Maya asked. ``This law has caused more problems than benefits.''

He said frequent holidays shorten the school year for nearly 10 million students
and reduce income of workers in the informal economy, who cannot sell wares
on the streets when the nation is shut down. More holidays also slash
productivity in a nation suffering its first recession since 1931 and with soaring
19 percent unemployment.

Some workers see fewer holidays as a chance for more paid work days, a
welcome development amid Colombia's economic troubles.

``The nation needs to produce more,'' said insurance salesman Gabriel
Villegas. ``I like the idea.''

Like most employees, Villegas couldn't even begin to name all of Colombia's
federal holidays. Among those with a Roman Catholic motive are Epiphany,
St. Joseph's Day, Ascension, Corpus Christi, Feast of the Sacred Heart, St.
Peter & St. Paul Day, Assumption, All Saints' Day, and Feast of the
Immaculate Conception.

Nonreligious federal holidays include Independence Day, the Battle of Boyaca
Day, Columbus Day, and Independence of Cartagena Day.

Official holidays don't take into account that many Colombians skip work
during Holy Week before Easter or during the Christmas season.

Oscar Rueda, the head of the Colombian Association of Travel Agencies, told
El Espectador newspaper that the proposed law would be ``catastrophic'' to
the travel industry, noting that many city residents fill rural hotels during the
long weekends.

But Enriquez Maya is setting his sights further. He wants not only to slash
official holidays, but also the myriad of commemorative days that litter the
calendar and allow some professions to take additional days off.

``We have all kinds of days. There's Doctor's Day, Orthodontist's Day,
Nurse's Day, Lawyer's Day, Valentine's Day, Father's Day, Mother's Day,
Students Day, Tree Day, Children's Day, an endless list of days. And many of
them have the same weight as official holidays because of tradition,'' he said.

                     Copyright 1999 Miami Herald