MANAGUA – Old tensions between the Sandinista government and the opposition right-wing daily La Prensa flared again this week after Sandinista labor unions protested in front of the newspaper’s office, firing homemade mortars and blaring President Daniel Ortega’s campaign music from speakers mounted on truck beds.
The Sandinista labor unions were protesting on behalf of 23 ex-deliverymen for La Prensa, who were fired by the newspaper Aug. 12 for allegedly boycotting their paper routes and disrupting the circulation of 3,500 newspapers in the capital.
The Sandinista-led Ministry of Labor, which has dragged its feet on hundreds of complaints of labor abuse filed against the government in recent years, reacted swiftly to the complaint against the opposition daily, demanding that La Prensa immediately reincorporate the 23 ex-workers.
La Prensa denounced the Labor Ministry’s resolution as part of the Sandinista government’s sustained persecution of the newspaper and an attack on freedom of expression.
La Prensa’s management claims the 23 deliverymen were never full-time employees, rather temporary workers who offered a service to the newspaper for a few hours each morning. As such, the newspaper argues, the workers are not entitled to benefits or compensation for being fired.
The Sandinistas disagree. In recent weeks they have turned up the pressure against La Prensa by using official means – such as Labor Ministry resolution – and the unofficial means, including attacking the newspaper in Sandinista media outlets and protesting outside the La Prensa office.
The issue has further divided the country along political lines. Opposition politicians were quick to back La Prensa, as was the nongovernmental Movement for Nicaragua and the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM).
Even the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) weighed in on the situation, backing La Prensa and raising concerns about respect for freedom of expression here.
Vilma Núñez, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (Cenidh), lamented that any legitimate claim of labor violations was “contaminated” by the Sandinista “mob” that fired mortars outside La Prensa.
Stuck in the middle of the controversy are the ex-newspaper deliverymen, who insist their rights were violated.
A veteran deliveryman for La Prensa, who wished to remain unidentified for fear of reprisal, said newspaper executives came to his home three months ago and told him his contract was changing after more than seven years of working for the daily.
He said he was told he would no longer be on the payroll or receive insurance benefits. If he wanted to continue working for La Prensa, he would have to so as an uninsured contract worker. That’s when 23 of his co-workers started their delivery boycott.
“For seven years I worked as a salaried employee with benefits – I had life insurance and everything, even though they never gave me vacation days or an aguinaldo (legally mandated 13th month bonus),” he said.
The deliveryman, who wakes up before 4 a.m. each day to zip around the city on his motorcycle delivering the paper to the 280 subscribers on his route, said he feels his job is now “much more precarious.”
“We risk our lives everyday doing this job, driving around on the streets of Nicaragua, where there is lots of traffic and imprudence,” he said. “Before we had insurance to cover our accidents, but now they have take everything away. If there is an accident and I break my leg or destroy my motorcycle and can’t work, who is going to pay me to survive? The newspaper will look for someone else to fill my position while I remain at home out of work trying to figure out how to pay for medical bills.”
The deliveryman accused La Prensa of not valuing the job he and other deliverymen perform every day for the company.
Gonzálo Carrion, legal adviser for Cenidh, lamented that the situation of the fired newspaper workers has been politically contaminated. He said that if they had come to Cenidh first, the human rights organization would have built a case for them to fight for their benefits and labor rights – as the organization has done in the past for other employees of La Prensa.
However, he explained, when the Sandinista unions decided to “manipulate” the situation by using it as an excuse to attack La Prensa with mortars, Cenidh was asked by the newspaper executives to intervene on their behalf to protect the company’s right to physical security.
“They were firing mortars outside the office – which is illegal – and the police would not intervene,” Carrion said. “La Prensa called us and asked us to help, so we did. Just because they represent the oligarchy doesn’t mean they don’t have rights too.”
Carrion, however, said that Cenidh has “never denied” that the ex-deliverymen have a valid labor claim against La Prensa.
The problem, he said, is that none of them will talk to Cenidh, which the Sandinista government has accused of being its enemy for denouncing governmental corruption and abuses.