When former President Oscar Arias drew his loopy signature on legislation that promised to revive the tired port town of Limón, longtime residents of the Caribbean city began dreaming.
They saw their buildings redressed and renovated, their streets cleaned of crime and trash, and new jobs created for the dozens of unemployed.
Arias told them, “Like many of you, I dream of a more developed Limón – a Limón with a human face, a Limón that is no longer the forgotten province of Costa Rica … a Limón in which the dreams of our sons and daughters don’t just remain on paper, but will be fulfilled with new and better opportunities for education, safety and employment” (TT, June 19, 2009).
Thirteen months later, the improvements are noticeably lacking. And a recent court decision has awakened fears among some that the changes promised by Arias will never come.
President Laura Chinchilla told local media that the Supreme Court ruling was “one more bump in the road” and “a blow to democracy.”
But she said, “My government will not back down in its quest of modernizing the ports of Limón. There are other ways and alternatives to continue with this modernization.”
Others, however, are cheering the decision by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) as a victory for workers’ rights.
The Arias government’s plan to revitalize the port city of Limón hinged on Costa Rica’s ability to attract $860 million in foreign investment. Yet, without greater efficiency in the operation of the port, Arias felt potential investors would never put the needed money down.
So as part of the initiative, he launched a plan to transfer the operation of the port into private hands. The biggest obstacle to this move was clearly the leadership of the Atlantic Port Authority’s Workers Union (Sintrajap), which was opposed to privatizing the port for fear that it would result in loss of jobs and benefits for union members, as well as constitute a threat to the nation’s sovereignty (TT, Oct. 23, 2009).
In January, the government promoted a meeting of Sintrajap members, during which new union leadership, more amenable to port privatization, was elected. Negotiations with Sintrajap’s new leadership led to an agreement whereby by the union agreed to the privatization of port management in return for payment from the government of $137 million for union members.
When Arias left office in May, the pieces of the project seemed to be lining up. The Legislative Assembly had approved a $72.5 million World Bank loan as seed money, and the path to port privatization seemed clear.
But the plan was shattered when the Sala IV ruled last week that the government’s interference in internal union affairs had been illegal, and that the election of the union’s new leadership in January had violated due process and the union’s own procedures.
As a result, the union’s former leadership was restored and the decisions taken by the union since January, including the privatization accord with the government, were annulled.
For union leaders and workers’ rights groups, both in Costa Rica and abroad, the ruling was cause for celebration.
“We are very satisfied,” said Leroy Pérez, spokesman for Sintrajap. “We believe that justice was delivered and the court’s decision revealed the questionable action of the government.”
The decision was praised from as far away as the U.S. Pacific coast, where an international workers’ rights group had earlier filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor in defense of Sintrajap.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Coast Longshore Division had condemned the Costa Rican government for disrupting democratic processes relating to leadership of Sintrajap, accusing the government of President Arias of breaking down windows and doors of areas in which workers were “assembling in peace” and of putting the social welfare of workers “behind the gains of transnational companies.”
“The return of the legitimate union leadership is a victory for hardworking people everywhere, who count on having the democratic right to join a union and improve their standard of living, ensure their safety and strengthen their communities,” said ILWU International President Robert McEllrath, who has been campaigning on behalf of the Limón dockworkers union since January.
Government officials remained somewhat bewildered this week as to how to move forward.
Labor Minister Sandra Pizsk met with the reinstated union leaders on Monday to begin negotiating a new plan, but she couldn’t say how long the process would take.
“We are looking for a quick solution, and a solution not just for workers’ rights, but fundamentally for the modernization of the port,” she said, as she left the first round of dialogue.
Union leaders say they are not interested in blocking modernization, but that they also don’t want to sacrifice the welfare of the workers.
Pérez said that private companies often assume control, lay off all the workers and only hire a fraction of them back. They point to the example of the port of Caldera, near Puntarenas on the central Pacific coast. Union leaders say Puntarenas is now suffering from high unemployment as a result of a similar effort to privatize.
We want progress for Limón, Pérez said. “But we also want (the government and business) to respect our rights.”
According to Eduardo Alvarado – spokesman for Presidency Minister Marco Vargas, who spearheaded the Limón initiative as Arias’ institutional coordination chief – much of the project is on hold until a new agreement can be made with Sintrajap.
“(We) still don’t know what effect this will have on the overall project,” Alvarado told The Tico Times. “The labor minister is currently meeting with union leaders to determine what they are going to do and the government hasn’t determined whether they are going to insist on concessions.”
Rising Tide of Port Privatization
Costa Rica appears to be climbing on the back of a growing trend in shipping, which is to transfer the management of ports from state hands to private companies.
According to Ron Brinson, former president of the American Association of Port Authorities and of the Port of New Orleans, privatization is linked to the need for capital. Often, government entities can’t raise money quickly enough to meet the growing needs of modern-day ports.
But what is more common – especially in Europe – is the government practice of leasing port operations to private companies and acting as the landlord, which is the