LIMÓN – Costa Rica’s Labor Minister Victor Morales announced that negotiations with the dockworkers union SINTRAJAP would be suspended until its leaders issued a public statement denouncing the burning of President Luis Guillermo Solís’ image outside union headquarters in the Caribbean port of Limón on Monday. Negotiations were originally scheduled to continue at the Labor Ministry on Wednesday in San José.
On Monday afternoon, unions representing teachers, and employees of the National Insurance Institute, the National Oil Refinery, and the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) announced solidarity with SINTRAJAP but stopped short of calling for additional strikes or demonstrations. SINTRAJAP has been on strike since Oct. 22, occasionally clashing with police.
“As long as the government continues to leave Limón and SINTRAJAP in this situation we will be here standing beside them,” said Fabio Chávez, representing the ICE union.
After the announcement, union members flooded the streets and formed a circle where they lit fire to a poster of President Solís. Once the photo had burned they dropped it to the ground, stomping on it and cheering. Earlier on Monday morning, protesters marched peacefully through the streets of Limón.
“We are calling on the people to rise up peacefully with us,” said SINTRAJAP Secretary Ronaldo Blear at the press conference.
SINTRAJAP claimed the government’s contract with APM Terminals granting the Dutch company a 33-year deal on handling containers at the docks is a “monopoly” that would eliminate public-sector jobs at the Atlantic Port Authority, JAPDEVA. Solís’ administration has argued that any attempt to re-negotiate the contract, signed in 2011, would threaten Costa Rica’s reputation with foreign investors.
Incensed by Solís’ refusal to put contract re-negotiations on the table, union leaders passed out pamphlets containing article 9.1 of the government contract with APM Terminals. The article states that the government can choose to re-negotiate the contract if it sees fit.
“No contract is written in stone. This contract is impeding the free market and the right to free competition. The government is lying to the whole country when they say they can’t re-negotiate it,” SINTRAJAP’s Blear told The Tico Times.
What do Limonenses think about the port project protests? Find out here.
Proponents of the $1 billion Moín Port expansion project say it would create jobs, not eliminate them. And Costa Rica’s port infrastructure has been ranked among the worst in Latin America, placing 115th out of 144 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum. They also argue that it is SINTRAJAP, not APM, that has the monopoly.
Ecoanálisis analyst Luis Mesalles told The Tico Times that problems with the Atlantic ports boil down to questions of efficiency and insufficient infrastructure. The bottleneck created by reduced work hours and a lack of docks means that cargo and cruise ships often must wait to be serviced. And that has resulted in a significant cost to shipping companies, exporters and importers who are forced to wait for the loading and unloading of their cargo.
“They [SINTRAJAP] say that they want competition, but they’ve never had to compete before. They used to do whatever they wanted and had benefits that were far outside what’s reasonable,” said Mesalles, adding that the union was sure to lose some of its perks when the new private terminal opens.
The latest attempt at negotiation between the government and SINTRAJAP and its supporters broke down Monday after union leaders walked out of a meeting with the labor minister. Morales was adamant that the contract should be respected as is, but he has offered additional improvements to JAPDEVA and investments in Limón as part of a possible compromise. The government offered $760 million in existing and new projects for Limón and its ports, including more than $500 million to improve Route 32 that connects San José and Limón. The deal included more than $97 million to fortify JAPDEVA’s operations, like new tugboats and cranes for JAPDEVA’s facilities in Moín.
As the project awaits its final environmental review sometime before March 2015, SINTRAJAP and Broad Front Party lawmaker Gerardo Vargas, representing Limón, called for an independent commission to review the concession, TV Channel 11 News reported.
Earlier that same day, Public Security Minister Celso Gamboa said he did not believe that violence last week had popular support. Gamboa confirmed that shots were fired during one confrontation between protesters and police in Limón, but would not confirm the shots were fired from an AK-47 assault rifle, as some had reported. There have been additional reports of burning tires and rocks thrown at police. More than 80 people have been arrested since the strike started, the minister said.
Lindsay Fendt contributed to this report from Limón.