San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Truckers Block Nation’s Highways, Week of Protests Against Vehicle Inspection Firm

Blockaded highways and border crossings,economic losses in the millions, gas stationsrun dry and daily protest marchesdefined a week of public unrest that continuedat press time.The chaos caused by the truck roadblocksstarted Monday, intensified Tuesday and beganto return to normal Wednesday. However,protests continued yesterday as various unionsdeclared work stoppages and students took tothe streets.Discontent over the mandatory vehicle inspectionmonopoly, Riteve SyC, the rising cost of livingand salaries that aren’t keeping up, and the administrationof President Abel Pacheco appears to be at theheart of the various movements.WHILE workers from the Costa Rica ElectricityInstitute (ICE) said they would continue their striketoday, the truck drivers who caused much of the turmoil were close to negotiating a solutionyesterday, according to Hernán Araya,treasurer of the Costa Rican Chamber ofTransport Drivers.Truckers will remove the remainingtrucks from partial blockades once thegovernment releases trucks detained earlierin the week, Araya said. Talks will thenbegin, for the truckers at least.Union leaders said protests could continueinto next week, depending on thereaction of the government.Earlier in the week, officials said theirhands were tied on the major demands ofthe protestors, such as opening Riteve tocompetition and increasing public salaries.However, President Pacheco did concedeWednesday night the governmentwould review Riteve’s contract and fees,as well as requirements to pass inspections– except those related to vehicle lights andbrakes. He also said he hoped talks wouldremain open.The week’s events have created disorderunseen in the country since the “ICECombo” bill roadblocks and public unrestof early 2000. The pre-Pacheco protestswere against the opening of Costa Rica’selectricity and telecommunicationsmonopolies (TT, March 24, 31, 2000).ON Monday, semi-truck drivers beganusing their trucks to block major roads andhighways throughout the country. ByTuesday afternoon, blockades as long as15-kilometers closed southeastern andnorthwestern access to the San José metropolitanarea on the Inter-AmericanHighway.Points of entry into the country werealso blockaded, including the PeñasBlancas border crossing to Nicaragua, thePaso Canoas border crossing to Panama,the central Pacific port of Caldera and theCaribbean ports of Limón and Moín.PRESS reports indicated as many as19 areas were blocked by as many as to1,000 trucks by Tuesday evening. Thedemonstrations also caused the closure ofthree of the 16 Riteve offices Tuesday.Semis on the road to Cartago, east ofSan José, surrounded National OilRefinery (RECOPE) facilities atOchomogo, effectively blocking petroleum distribution to the greater metropolitanarea.This sparked panic among commutersleaving work, who waited in long lines atgas stations Tuesday evening to fill theirtanks, bleeding some of them dry beforethe night ended.Some commuters were not able tomake it to their homes outside the city.While some blockades allowed cars topass, no buses were allowed through.Truckers did leave lanes open for emergencyvehicles, which brought food andwater to some stuck travelers and transportedothers through the blockades.TOURISTS and goods were also leftstranded, costing exporters in Costa Ricaand Nicaragua millions of dollars in losses(see separate story).By Wednesday afternoon, policecleared most of the blockades and RECOPEvowed to keep its facilities open extra hoursto ensure all gas stations were fully supplied.Shipping resumed on both coasts.The evasion of a further crisis cameafter a nationally televised pledge byPacheco Tuesday night to face the “stubbornminority.” Police broke up most of themajor blockades late that night and earlyWednesday morning, sometimes using teargas and breaking truck windows to wakesleeping drivers (see separate story).The Inter-American Highwayremained blocked on Wednesday severalkilometers west of Palmares near SanRamón, west of San José. Trucks wereparked along the highway nearly all theway to the Pacific port of Puntarenas,according to evening news reports.ALTHOUGH many truck drivers leftvoluntarily from various blockades at therequest of police, more than 75 were arrested.They face charges of impeding publicservices and obstruction of public ways,and up to two years in prison. Union leadersused the arrests to mount support.“The words of Pacheco last night andthe actions of the police today havechanged altogether the panorama of thisfight. The people are unified more thanever. It is better than during the ‘Combo,’”said union leader Floribel López, secretarygeneral of the Costa Rican EducationWorkers Syndicate (SEC), on Wednesday.“Today there are no more organizations.There are not separate movements.There is one single body, one soul, onespirit that is defending the sovereignty ofthis country,” she continued.A march yesterday to the LegislativeAssembly drew representatives of severaldifferent unions, including teachers, publichospital and ICE employees, farmers andenvironmentalists. However the protestwas less than 5,000 strong. High schooland university students in various parts ofSan José, Heredia and Alajuela also carriedout scattered protests, although their goalswere unclear.OFFICIAL marches Monday andWednesday drew even smaller attendances,but union leaders have pledged to continueto fight. The ICE work stoppage that startedyesterday may continue into next week,according to union leader Fabio Chávez.Truck and taxi drivers are demandingthe opening to competition of Riteve,which they say is allowed to charge unfairprices under unjust conditions as a monopoly(see separate article). The company“says a truck doesn’t pass and doesn’t givean explanation,” according to truck driverGerardo Moya.Union leaders and public employeeshave capitalized on the uproar created bythe single issue, and are also calling for thereopening of negotiations on a publicsalary increase, the rejection of the CentralAmerican Free-Trade Agreement with theUnited States (CAFTA) and a halt to theincreasing cost of living.THE strategic amalgamation of interestshas been successful at arousing the public,but unsuccessful at the negotiating table.“We haven’t come to this table trickinganyone, from the beginning we havebeen very clear the executive branch doesn’thave the legal power to ignore the contractwith Riteve. Equally, we do not havemore resources to make a salary increase,and CAFTA is currently before theLegislative Assembly,” said RandallQuirós, Vice-Minister of the Presidency.“However, we are open to discussion.”Negotiations so far have involved onlythe subject of Riteve, whose managershave been noticeably silent this week.Ombudsman José Manuel Echandi hasproposed dividing strike negotiations intothree separate discussions – Riteve, publicsalaries and CAFTA.However, Albino Vargas, secretarygeneral of the National Association ofPublic and Private Employees (ANEP),declined the offer Wednesday night, sayingeach demand should be resolved beforemoving to the next.EARLIER this month governmentofficials closed public salary negotiations,finally deciding upon a 4.5% increase.Union leaders are still calling for a6.26% increase, responding to first semesterinflation at this rate. Officials say this isimpossible unless legislators approve the permanentfiscal reform package (TT, Aug. 20).Meanwhile, workers are facing risingcosts of water, gas, electricity, bus faresand other expenses. Union leaders aredemanding the government take action toresolve this situation as well.“We as Costa Ricans for too long haveaccepted too much. The people are totallydisgusted with the state. This is thePresident, our President, the President weelected, inviting all of these problems,” saidSan José taxi driver Ernesto Rodríguez.(Tico Times reporters Steven J. Barry,Fabián Borges and Robert Goodier contributedto this report.)

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