While Costa Rica tries to pitch its Caribbean port of Limón as a modern operation with enormous potential, it faces forces that continue tugging it into the past.
Fifty-three unhappy workers paralyzed the city this week, causing an estimated $7 million in losses, spoiling shipments of fruit and sending a 1,896-passenger cruise ship to calmer waters.
The strike, which lasted two days, was conceived by the Union of Caribbean Port Workers (SINTRAJAP), who are looking to collect on an unpaid salary increase promised to them over two years ago by the Atlantic Port Authority (Japdeva).
“Because 53 people decided they wanted more money, exporters have lost an immeasurable amount of money,” said Marco Fidel, vice-president of the Chamber of Exporters (CADEXCO). “Most fruit shipments spoil if they are not moved within a strict time frame. For others, missing a shipment by even a day means a sale not made and a contract lost.
“And then there is the added cost of unused containers. For exporters, this seems ridiculous.”
Police forces, who took over port operations at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, have been able to get some shipments through. But, there is an additional delay for dry goods and nonperishables.
According to Japdeva, the Labor Ministry is in contact with union members to negotiate a resolution.
A Limón Rerun
The strike has not just drained profits from exporters and tour operators; it also is draining the patience of some Limoneses.
“We are tired of this,” said lifelong resident Abraham Goldgewicht, who owns a coffee shop in the city. “This has been going on a long time … There are a lot of independent contractors who can’t work because of what’s going on here … People are upset.”
Since President Oscar Arias announced plans to privatize the port in 2006, tensions have risen between his administration and local workers, who fear irreplaceable job loses under new management.
After the Pacific port of Caldera was privatized in 2006, workers reported nearly 900 job losses. Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias explained that 700 of those workers found jobs elsewhere.
One of the most damaging strikes since privatization was announced occurred in Sept. 2006. Protesting workers backed up trucks full of deteriorating fruit, turned away a 3,000-passenger cruise ship and caused an estimated $10 million in losses (TT, Oct. 2006).
“The harmful practices not only affect businesses by delaying exports … but they also put the labor security of thousands of Costa Ricans who work in the private sector at risk,” UCCAEP President Rafael Carrillo told The Tico Times at the time (TT, Sept. 2006).
According to the daily La Nación, the ports are closed an average of 10.5 days a year due to protests and strikes. Port operations have also been affected by a slowdown method of protest called tortuguismo, in which workers reduce their productivity by 25 or 50 percent.
Israel Oconitrillo, spokesman for Japdeva, stressed that the strike this week was small, as only 53 of 1,400 workers chose to demonstrate.
But it was large enough to turn away a cruise ship with more than 1,800 passengers, each of whom spends, on average, more than $100 a day when in port.
One passenger aboard the Zuiderdam was allowed to disembark in Limón due to a heart condition.
“It’s already a difficult time for Costa Rican tourism,” said Gonzalo Vargas, president of the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR), lamenting the lost business. “This not only creates large losses for the tourism industry, but it also leaves a bad impression for Costa Rica as a tourist destination …”
Despite being turned away at the port, the cruise operator – Holland America Line – expects to return.
“We certainly realize that all parties want to resolve the issues, and we are hopeful this will be done for future visits,” said Erik Elvejord, spokesman for the Seattlebased company.
Threat to Funding
Marco Vargas, minister of inter-institutional coordination in the Arias administration, said not all companies have the patience of HollandAmerica. Not only does Costa Rica risk losing business to other countries, he said, but it also puts the country behind in soliciting investments from foreign companies.
With a $72.5 million loan from the World Bank and close to $8 million of its own money, Costa Rica is undertaking a fullscale renovation of the Caribbean city, which includes adding new roads to divert container traffic, revitalizing cultural centers and improving drainage and sewage systems. But the investment Costa Rica is making needs $900 million in private investment in order to fulfill the full scope of the project. Yet, fundraising efforts are only stymied by negative headlines such as these, Vargas told reporters.
“With these actions our ports will be categorized, once again, among some of the most inefficient in the world,” he said.