PUERTO LIMÓN – Many in this dilapidated port town fear the worst if the government opens up the nation’s Caribbean ports – Limón and Moín – to be managed by private concessionaires.
“This already happened – in Caldera,” said Marta Alfaro, a single mother who has worked at the larger Moín port as a secretary for seven years.
The recent privatization of the Pacific port of Caldera’s management, which resulted in layoffs of nearly 1,000 government workers in August (TT, Aug. 18), is fresh in this city’s memory.
“If I don’t have a job, who will feed my son? I have friends who lost their jobs and their kids had to drop out of school to start working,” Alfaro said, protest sign in hand, before heading out into Limón’s dingy streets in a protest march Sept. 29.
The march, which included about 100 union workers and their supporters, was the latest in a slew of protests against privatization that included a week of tortuguismo, during which port workers slowed productivity to a minimum. The slow-motion protest cost exporters an estimated $10 million in losses by backing up boats and trucks full of cargo and deteriorating fruit.
The Arias administration, in a hardnosed display of its plans to stick to its agenda, last week sent hundreds of National Police into Limón to break up those protests (TT, Sept. 29). Arias then appeared on national television to show he stands firm in his campaign promise to open the nation’s two largest ports to private concessionaires.
The protests are also the latest display of polarization and resistance to the administration’s neo-liberal agenda of privatization and the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
Marchers in Limón last Friday also wielded a broad banner that read “No to CAFTA.”
A Forgotten City?
Alfaro is one of nearly 2,000 full and part-time government employees at the two seaports in this Caribbean city. Many port workers and other Limonenses say they fear privatization could mean massive layoffs in a city that already struggles with one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates.
“There will be more prostitution, more crime… Only a few are going to have work, and only a few are going to get rich. This city depends on the ports.Most families in Limón depend on the paychecks port workers receive,” said Moín port worker Alberto Santana, coordinator for Del Monte banana company.
However, Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, the President’s brother, explained Wednesday at a press conference that privatization of the Pacific port hasn’t been as bad as Limón port workers make it out to be.
“Seven hundred (of the more than 900 workers laid off in Caldera) have been rehired with the concessionaires, cooperatives and private businesses operating the port,” Minister Arias said, adding that more than a third of the workers laid off were given pensions.
Officials also say they will be pouring millions of dollars into Limón as part of a development project that would offset job loss by creating thousands of new jobs.
Nonetheless, many here are skeptical. They’ve heard similar promises in the past. “The government doesn’t do anything here. Look at the roads, the highways. The government doesn’t think about anything but itself,” Santana said.
For decades, Limonenses have been told their decrepit buildings will be renovated, area schools will be improved, new jobs will be created, and the streets will be purged of garbage and homeless people.
Few of these promises have materialized. Limón is a city caught beachless between the sea and monotonous rows of banana plantations. Its streets are strewn with trash, stray dogs and beggars. The intense sun and rain beat down mercilessly on the concrete jungle’s thin canopy of rusty tin roofs.
Limón’s image has kept tourists away, leaving residents to battle with rising unemployment and a poverty rate of 27%, according to the National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC). Even most of the cruise ship passengers who arrive to Limón spend their day ashore elsewhere.
Past Presidents Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (1998-2002) and Abel Pacheco (2002-2006) both promised to renovate the city and revive the province’s ailing economy, but for the most part these pledges went unfulfilled (TT,May 22, 1998; Oct. 20, 2000; Nov. 19, 2004).
Now, the government is making more promises. Inter-Institutional Minister Marco Vargas has said he hopes the ports can be privatized within four years. He explained that most workers would be given severance pay, and 30% could get retirement benefits.
Vargas said the LimónPortCity project will “strengthen” the Atlantic Port Authority (JAPDEVA), which runs the two Caribbean ports, and the community by pouring $70 million into Limón with the goal of creating jobs and opportunities and renovating the city’s fraying infrastructure. The World Bank and the government of Japan would help fund the project.
Opponents to the administration’s plans wonder what will happen to JAPDEVA if port management is privatized. For years, the institution has taken money from tariffs and invested it in the community, footing the bills to construct schools, parks, baseball and soccer stadiums.
“No private company is going to spend money to develop the community,” said Rafael Raudes, vice-president of the port worker union SINTRAJAP.
A Waiting Game
Amid sweat-beading Caribbean humidity, police at the Moín port entrance checked trucks loaded with cargo coming into the port Sept. 29. The day before, protests starting at this port entrance had backed up trucks for kilometers.
The delays caused millions in damages for banana producers in Limón, the nation’s biggest banana-production sector.
“Bananas go bad faster than any other fruit,” Luis Umaña, vice-president of the National Chamber of Independent Banana Producers, told The Tico Times.
Umaña said some banana companies stopped sending loads to the port, and others had to use over-ripe bananas as fertilizer, or distributed them free in Limón.
“Fruit cut today has to be on a boat tomorrow, and in (Europe or the United States) in two weeks. In a hot port like Moín, without refrigeration, the fruit spoils and can’t be sold,” he said.
JAPDEVA workers’ tortuguismo tactics drew fire from some private workers in Limón. “JAPDEVA workers are parasites,” said truck driver Olman Delgado as he waited for his truck to be unloaded Sept. 29.
Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal says police will occupy the ports as needed, and has not given an exit date.More than 200 officers remained this week at the Moín port, which was operating relatively normally.
However, protests at the smaller Limón port, where there were about 15 police officers, continued to cause delays this week.
Ronaldo Blear, SINTRAJAP secretary, told the press union members would accept private administration of a new port to be constructed in Limón, only if the government accepts SINTRAJAP’s modernization plans for Limón and Moín.
The administration hasn’t responded to the union’s proposal, but tried instead to invite union workers to the table to discuss privatization. However, SINTRAJAP didn’t show up to a meeting this week with Labor Minister Francisco Morales. Arias said the Labor Ministry has begun to look into the legality of tortuguismo, and called transportation of cargo a “public service.”
The union “has been setting the agenda; it’s time for the government to set the agenda,” Minister Vargas added.
The Economy, Industry and Commerce Ministry (MEIC) released a study yesterday suggesting exporters are losing more than $20 million each year in delays because of the Caribbean ports’ outdated infrastructure and equipment, according to MEIC viceminister Jorge Woodbridge. Woodbridge said the Latin American Economic Commission (CEPAL) recently released a report saying Costa Rica’s Caribbean ports dropped five spots in the ranking of the region’s most competitive ports — from fifth to 10th place.