As union leaders played hardball politics and brushed off a planned meeting with President Oscar Arias this week, the Arias administration expressed concern over next week’s planned protests against the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
Still, the question remains: can Arias’ critics pull off the nationwide show of opposition they say is coming next week?
“The people are very, very motivated, very ready for anything,” Jesús Vásquez, who as president of the Association of Secondary Teachers (APSE) which leads 17,000 highschool teachers, told The Tico Times Wednesday.
“They’re ready to struggle or fight.” The protests planned for Monday and Tuesday, which leaders say will include strategic blockades and massive public worker strikes closing down public services and schools, are the latest installment in a long line of anti-CAFTA protests stretching back to 2003, when the pact was signed.
Recent attempts to rally anti-CAFTA sentiment have been lackluster, but the movement appears to be gathering steam. The pact is getting closer to the legislative floor for a vote – scheduled hearings on the controversial trade pact in the Foreign Affairs Committee ended last week (TT, Oct. 13) –and small protests last month got big press when Arias’ increased security detail drew criticism and some activists alleged police brutality (TT, Oct. 6).
The upcoming protests have been advertised heavily on the Internet, including an APSE posting telling participants to wear comfortable shoes – “no heels” – and to respond as necessary to any police attempts to repress the protest.
Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias said the number of police the government will deploy “will depend on the seriousness of the situation,” though he added police will not be armed to control protests.
“Strikes are unjust. They are disloyal to Costa Rica, interrupt basic services and cause a great harm to the citizenry,”Minister Arias said, adding public workers who strike will not be paid.
Albino Vargas, secretary general of the National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP) and the most visible union leader, drew additional attention to the upcoming protests when he cancelled a meeting with President Arias he had scheduled the week before.
He told The Tico Times a “bilateral” meeting with the President no longer seemed appropriate, given the number of groups opposed to CAFTA and calling for alternatives to Arias’ agenda.
“It was a few days before the (protest) –it wouldn’t be prudent to enter in dialogue, because it could be interpreted that (Arias) was trying to mitigate our protests,” said Fabio Chávez, who leads one of the worker unions of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) and who was also scheduled to meet with Vargas and Arias Tuesday.
The President’s initial response was measured – he wrote an open letter to the union leaders saying he regrets their decision, looks forward to future dialogue and shares many of their positions on social issues, with the clear exception of CAFTA – but he took off his gloves the next day, telling the daily Al Día Vargas allowed union members to “twist his ears” and get him to cancel the meeting.
Vargas declined to comment on this allegation, but Chávez told The Tico Times that “nobody twists my ear. I have very small ears. We can talk to whomever we want.”
Luis Chavarría, secretary general of the largest Social Security System (Caja) union, UNDECA, said the entire public health system will close down for protests Monday and Tuesday, though emergency rooms will stay open to tend to those in need of medical attention. He said the unions have encouraged emergency rooms to prepare themselves with extra personnel, and advised people to cancel non-emergency medical appointments Monday and Tuesday.“All protests have a cost,” he said.
The Ombudsman’s Office Wednesday called for all public institutions to continue to offer basic services such as electricity, telecommunications, potable water, health and Internet during the protests.
Rodrigo Arias estimated that two days of strikes will leave 89,000 patients in need of appointments unattended, 1,160 surgeries postponed, 307,000 prescriptions unfilled and 900,000 youths without teachers.
Vásquez said schools will indeed close down because of teachers’ absences. What should students do? “Join the struggle!” he said.
The Country’s Leading Unions
National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP)
Leader: Albino Vargas
Annual Budget: Vargas wouldn’t disclose the figure. “In this country, talking is something that’s always important,” Vargas says. “(But with Arias) there’s not much room for talking.”
Association of Secondary School Teachers (APSE)
Leader: Jesús Vásquez
Annual Budget: $1.6 million
Opposes CAFTA because, according to Vásquez, it would increase poverty and allow multinational corporations to have a negative impact on the school system.
The National Association of Educators (ANDE)
Leader: José Antonio Barquera
Annual Budget: $3.8 million
The country’s leading teachers’ union is holding its national congress this week and did not return phone calls from The Tico Times.
Association of Costa Rican Electricity and Telecom Institute Employees (ASDEICE)
Leader: Fabio Chávez
Annual Budget: $115,000
Opposes CAFTA because it mandates the gradual opening of the institute’s telecom monopoly (see separate story), a reform Chávez says will mean higher costs for consumers. Chávez said he takes pride in ASDEICE as “the most belligerent” union in Costa Rica.
Union of Social Security System (Caja) Workers
Leader: Luis Chavarría
Annual Budget: $161,000
Says CAFTA would boost costs for the Caja and clients by extending international patents that could inhibit production of cheaper generic drugs, and threaten the socialized health-care system by opening the insurance sector to private insurers.