Day 12: No White Smoke!

Costa Rica, caught in the biggest strike in almost two decades. On this 12th day of the national strike, the public sector unions continue their strike against Government of Carlos Alvarado’s the Plan Fiscal (Tax Reform).

Labor Minister Steven Núñez (sitting) forms part of the Government negotiating team that includes Justice Minister Marcia González and Pilar Garrido, Minister of Planning (front row, left and right of Nuñez).

Today, Friday is also the third consecutive day of pre-dialogue talks with no clear end to the strike. A stalemate.

While government representatives and the unions leadership sit down in their third location, today in downtown San Jose, demonstrations and blockades in various parts of the country continue.

Though the government had stood firm it would not sit down to talks unless the strike was called off, the unions stood firm, they would agree to negotiate a settlement with the Catholic Church as mediator, but the strike would continue.

This the longest strike since the “ICE Combo” demonstrations against the Miguel Angel Rodriguez administration in 2000, with no signs of a solution in sight.

The effects of the strike has been felt in every sector of Costa Rican society: health services (hospitals and clinics), education (half the public schools closed), transportation (blockades of major routes and  the distribution of fuel) and the tourism industry, the engine of the Costa Rican economy and a major source of foreign currency.

The union leadership

“The most important thing is to restore channels of dialogue and communication,” said the Minister of Labor, Steven Nunez, following the first sit-down session on Wednesday, amid strong criticism from the private sector for the alleged tolerance of the Government.

The Alvarado administration has not yet quantified the overall economic effect of the strike. The tourism industry says the impact of the strike has caused losses in the “millions”. Travel agencies report up to 50% cancellations in hotel reservations and travel. On Monday, Celebrity Cruises with 3,500 passengers canceled a scheduled stop in Puntarenas.

President Carlos Alvarado continues to defend the need for the tax bill to meet the “fiscal emergency” facing the country. The President is staying firm that, if not approved, timely payment of salaries of officials, public investment and, therefore, the pace of the economy is in danger.

In difference to other strikes, this time there have been outbreaks of violence between protesters and police, including a tear gas intervention on Tuesday to reopen the passage to Caribbean ports, vital for the normal functioning of the Costa Rican economy.

There have also been attempts to sabotage the pipelines of the Recope in the La Garita (Alajuela) pipeline.

Last weekend, Costa Ricans suffered gas shortages in several points in the country, and lines at gasoline stations in many parts of San Jose due to the fear of fuel transporters being caught between the blockades.

There are high hopes that today’s talks, in the Caja de Ande building, in San José, could result in defining the base for formal negotiations.

“The idea of continuing this dialogue is indicating the willingness of the parties to continue on this path of consensus to build the social peace we need,” said Catholic Church mediator Edwin Aguiluz.

The priest said that this is a very complex situation, “but I am still optimistic and the fact that we continue in these conversations is a good sign that we continue working for this purpose (…) My hope and optimism are standing.”

Though they have agreed to the talks, the unions don’t share the same optimism. Yesterday, Mélida Cedeño, of the Association of Teachers of Secondary Education (APSE) and representative of the Union leadership, said that the unions are asking the government to scrap the tax reform that the legislators are currently discussing and ask for a new text offered by them, one they feel is a “just and voluntary reform” that could be approved through fast track.

Given the Government’s refusal to that text, there is “lack of political will of the government negotiating team (…) to raise an alternative option,” she said.

“As long as there is no political commitment to meet this proposal, the strike continues (…) The indefinite strike is still in our fight,” she said.

For his part, Minister Nuñez said they (the government) made a proposal to the union leadership, however “they (the unions) have maintained a position that they have maintained for months and they did not move one millimeter of that position,” he said.

“We reiterate that the strike must be stopped, in that we have been clear and specific, and we have reiterated our support for the advancement of the (tax reform) bill,” said Núñez.

“Their position is to create a new bill that is going to be done with multisectoral participation (…) That’s a position, not a proposal,” the minister added.

Nuñez insisted that they are never going to renounce dialogue and that they are not going to desist from the bill that is in the Legislative Assembly either. “In Costa Rica, the main problems have been resolved through consensus and agreement,” he added.

 

 

 

 

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