Strikes, Blockades, Marches Got Results
COSTA Ricans took to the streets thisyear in levels not seen in years, with civilunrest in late August paralyzing parts ofthe country for more than a week.While throughout 2004 most demandson the state were made in marches alongAvenida Segunda, in downtown San José,protests also were held around the country,and included strikes and work stoppages –often with successful results as governmentofficials surrendered to public pressure.Demands for higher wages, disgustwith government support for the U.S.-ledwar in Iraq, horror at results of high-schoolgraduation exams – the reasons behind thisyear’s protests were varied, although nearlyevery demonstration included at least afew picket signs against the proposedCentral American Free-Trade agreementwith the United States (CAFTA).IN fact, labor union leaders managedto tie CAFTA to every social ill.Headed up by unions, particularly ofthe government institutions that will beopened up under CAFTA– the Costa RicanElectricity Institute (ICE) and the NationalInsurance Institute (INS) – power in numberswere brought to the year’s protests bythe employees of these institutions.A segment of the teaching populationalso maintained a strong presence.The season of large marches waskicked off with the anti-CAFTA message atits heart on May 1 – International LaborDay. Thousands filled the streets, chanting“No to CAFTA” in what was the most visiblemarch against the trade agreementsince negotiations concluded in January.ALONG with burning effigies ofCosta Rican President Abel Pacheco andstreet theater of the United States stompingthe Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE),protestors expressed their objection to theU.S.-led war in Iraq and overall “U.S.imperialism.”Marchers appeared particularly disgustedwith the news of Iraqi prisoner torture atthe hands of U.S. soldiers. Smaller vigils andprotests were held throughout the year toshow Costa Ricans’ disagreement with theircountry’s name on the “Coalition of theWilling” – a list of countries that supportedthe U.S. invasion of Iraq.May came in like a lion and went outlike a lion as 10,000-20,000 protestersclosed out the month in what organizersclaimed was the first march to “reallyfocus on CAFTA.”Signs and voices called out “no to commercialterrorism.”SHARING in this sentiment againstthe presumed threat of U.S. corporationswere the so-called “Bambuzal campesinos,”who had a presence at protests fromMay through August – the time duringwhich they camped out in the MetropolitanCathedral in San José.The 120 campesinos came to the capitalseeking help in their land dispute withStandard Fruit Company, a subsidiary ofDole.IN late June, Costa Rica’s nearly 100air-traffic controllers went on strike andleft the country’s airports in the hands of aninterim force of 28 foreign controllers. Thesituation made the skies over Costa Ricaless safe, according to the controllers, whowere demanding higher salaries. Governmentofficials, however, denied air safetywas affected.The 47-day strike finally ended inAugust when the government conceded totheir demands.THOUSANDS of public-sector workers,led by teachers, took to the streets in Julyalso demanding higher salaries, althoughleaders gave “labor rights in general” as thereason for the strike, allowing them to – onceagain – throw CAFTA into the mix.One month later, in August, thesedemands for a public-sector salary increaseand against CAFTA, merged with protestsagainst the rising cost of living and thegovernment’s contract with Riteve SyC toproduce a nationwide protest that paralyzedparts of the country for days.At the heart of the matter was the Ritevecontract to perform mandatory vehicleinspections, a private monopoly in violationof the Constitution, according to protestors.THE issue drew to the protest hundredsof semi-truck drivers, who shut down thenation’s highways, borders and ports, andcaused millions of dollars in losses.To end the eight days of civil unrest, officialsagreed to an additional salary increasefor public employees, a move that in theweeks that followed prompted the frustratedresignation of nine high-level governmentofficials, including four Cabinet members.Under the strike-ending agreement,officials also agreed to study ways toreduce the cost of living and explore renegotiatingthe Riteve contract.Despite this promise, and the formationof a commission to study the issue, theRiteve contract remains unchanged at year’send, to the disgust of union leaders, whohave threatened more strikes next year.TAKING a hint from the Bambuzalcampesinos, beginning in mid-Septembermore than 100 former gold panners whowere evicted from Corcovado and PiedrasBlancas national parks when they becamepublic land decades ago began campingout in front of the Casa Presidencial in SanJosé to pressure the government to payreparations they say they are due.They have vowed to stay in their tentvillage until they are promised paymentand were still there at year’s end.Government officials – and nearlyevery other sector of society – joined theusual unions, students and teachers on thestreets in October in a massive marchagainst government corruption.Although the severity of the scandals,which implicated three former Presidents,put Costa Rica in the international spotlight,optimism pervaded at the march,which featured flags waving aboveAvenida Segunda and proud voices singingthe Himno Patriótico Costarricense.THE year closed with citizens againpitted against government with a crowd ofangry high-school students, parents andteachers marching to the Ministry of PublicEducation last week to protest of the failureof 50% of students in the state graduationexam (see separate story).
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