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Union workers’ vote will shape port politics

January 21, 2011

When members of the Atlantic Port Authority Workers’ Union (Sintrajap) cast their ballots today to elect new union leadership, their votes will have an incredible impact on the future of development in Costa Rica.

Beyond choosing who will lead the union, workers will ultimately decide who controls progress at Moín and Limón, Costa Rica’s two main Caribbean ports. That could also mean that a port workers union could in large part shape the economic fate of the entire Limón province, and perhaps the country itself.

The election pits against each other two opposing factions representing opposite visions for port development: those who support opening port management to private companies, and those who are fighting to maintain the current government-managed system.

Douglas Brenes is the pro-privatization candidate. He believes private concessions are the best way to make the ports competitive, and he would follow a plan that for years has sought to eliminate jobs at the Atlantic Port Authority (Japdeva), the agency that administers the ports (TT, Jan. 22, 2010).

Brenes is no stranger to the privatization crusade. He was part of the union leadership team that led port privatization efforts last year before being removed in August 2010 by a ruling from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) that also annulled a port privatization concession (TT, Aug. 27, 2010).

By the time he was ousted, Brenes was already working on a plan to change the terms of the union’s contract with workers, who were offered a $137 million buyout package in exchange for workers’ jobs and benefits payments.

For Brenes, private administration of Moín and Limón ports would be more efficient than under the government-run Japdeva, which he said would play a better role as a regulatory agency if port management was turned over to a private company.

“There’s a need to create opportunities through investment all around Limón,” said Brenes. “So far, we would be unable to compete if a new port administration were to appear. We really need to decrease the number of workers. That’s why employees would receive compensation as well as entrepreneurial training.”

If Brenes wins, it may not necessarily mean the end of the union, because workers would still have the right to organize as part of a new Japdeva.

Opponents say Brenes represents the economic vision espoused by former President Oscar Arias and his brother, Rodrigo Arias, who is already mentioned as a leading contender for a 2014 presidential bid. President Laura Chinchilla also supports privatization of port management.

A Brenes victory could also lead to the creation of new wealth in Limón, characterized by Arias-style “mini-millionaires,” or smalls groups of connected people cashing in on lucrative business opportunities. Costa Rica’s right-leaning business sector would certainly benefit from a steady downsizing of government regulatory agencies.

“Japdeva is not self-sufficient anymore, and its role should be to ensure correct port operations,” Brenes said. “Maybe in the past other regulatory agencies have failed to monitor private concessions, but Japdeva will not fail.”

Brenes’ opponent is Ronaldo Blear, an old-school union leader reinstalled by last-year’s Sala IV resolution.

Blear believes in a state-run model for ports, which he said could be made more efficient with better management.

“The ports can be improved with less money than the $137 million the government [and private investors] are willing to pay as compensation. So the truth is that the government just wants to make a profit from public institutions,” Blear said. 

“I offer workers a job and a tangible paycheck every two weeks. But my opponents offer nothing but speculation,” he said.

Blear said a government job buyout would cause considerable unemployment and other financial hardships for families in the region. Other labor groups agree.

“It is totally false that private management will imply more efficiency and development,” said Albino Vargas, secretary general of the National Association of Public and Private Employees, Costa Rica’s largest union. “Just look at the facts, look at what has happened with the Caldera Highway and with Alterra Partners. These are two examples that show public concessions do not work.”

Alterra was widely criticized for mismanaging the Juan Santamaría International Airport, and Spanish firm Autopistas del Sol caught flak for problems with the Caldera Highway (TT, Jan. 22, 2010; Feb. 15, 2008).

A Blear victory would mean port workers are strongly against privatization. It would also likely delay Moín and Limón development projects.

“As an employer, I can’t take sides, but I assure you that we will restructure Japdeva no matter what the result of the voting is,” said Allan Hidalgo, Japdeva’s executive president. “If Blear wins, the process might take longer because of negotiations, but important changes must happen for the greater good, not the benefit of a few people.”

When the last vote is tallied, either way, Limón’s port workers will have taken a major step toward defining the country’s future development path.

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