San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

ICE workers strike against bill that could privatize electricity

More than 1000 Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) employees marched from the company’s main office in La Sabana Park, on the western edge of San José, to the Legislative Assembly on Monday. They chanted “We will not surrender” and sung along to ICE’s own anthem that blared from speakers perched atop trucks.

The objective of the one-day strike was to put pressure on the government in regards to the Energy Contingency Bill currently under discussion with a special commission in Congress.

“We are demonstrating against a bill to privatize energy in this country,” said Jorge Arguedas, the President of the National Association of Energy and Telecommunications Technicians and Workers (ANTTEC). “We cannot allow this to happen. This is a movement in defense of the community.”

During the second administration of former President Oscar Arias (2006-2010) and the current Chinchilla administration, government officials hoped to approve the Energy Contingency Bill, which seeks to create a power-generation market where private companies are able to sell energy to any interested client, not only ICE. In addition, small electricity producers would be able to sell power to other countries. Under the current regulations, private generators may only sell electricity to ICE. The plan would increase power-generation by 400 megawatts during the next six years. (TT, April 15)

Fabio Chaves, of the Employee Internal Front Union (FIT) and one of the main strike organizers, handed Congress President Juan Carlos Mendoza, a document containing criteria that the ICE unions want to be included in the energy contingency plan.

“We are demanding that the Electricity Contingency Bill currently under discussion be tossed,” said Chaves. “It is a plan that only seeks to open the electricity market to multinationals, where the electricity market becomes a business rather than a solidarity-based model like the one ICE has had for over 62 years.”

Chaves said Mendoza was open to the ideas expressed in the document. Chaves and other unionists say that multinational companies would benefit by entering the electricity market, and Costa Ricans would have to pay a considerable rise in their electricity bills.

“For the past four years we have been watching free trade agreements being made with international telecommunication companies,” said ICE employee Alejandro Brenas. “With respect to electricity, the private companies will raise the cost of electricity and charge more than we do.”

In a press release issued by the Costa Rican Chambers Union and Private Business Sector Associations (UCCAEP), the sector urges members of the Legislative Commission to discuss the bill to enable the country to produce more natural resource-based electricity without polluting the environment. Delays in approving legislation for two large hydroelectic plants have cost the country more than ₡85 billion ($166 million) between January and August of this year.  

Strike organizers spoke to the crowd assembled in front of the Legislative Assembly building. Broad Front Party President José Merino took the stage to a round of applause. He called the bill an “assault” on the country.

“Costa Rica, why do you want to break something that works? With solidarity. With effectiveness,” asked Merino. “Why do you want to break a model of electricity that has carried electricity into the homes of almost 100 percent of Costa Ricans?”

Alonso Araya, another ICE employee and strike organizer said that the strike had been a success. “ICE employees from around the country showed up to the march and we surpassed our expectations.”

According to Arguedas and Araya, there is talk of a general strike if the bill passes. Monday’s demonstration was only to get the attention of the government.

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