San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Strikes have common theme: time to change

As different as they are, anesthesiologists, taxi drivers, motorcycle owners, rice farmers, gas station owners, suburban residents, environmentalists, employees of state-run media and rural banana workers have something in common: discontent with the Costa Rican government. 

All of these groups have organized recent rallies, street protests and strikes, presenting the biggest challenge yet for President Laura Chinchilla’s administration.   

“We are clearly at a critical moment. Government officials have not made progress on their programs, they lack mechanisms to make decisions, and important programs are pushed to the side,” said Mario Redondo, a political analyst and former Legislative Assembly president. 

The State of the Nation report released last week showed that Costa Ricans have been losing faith in their political parties since as early as 1993. That year, almost 100 percent of Costa Ricans supported one of two mainstream political parties: the National Liberation Party or the Social Christian Unity Party. 

Today, that number has dropped to 42 percent, as most residents say they do not support a political party and are disappointed by officials in the legislative and executive branches of government. 

“We are in a new era; people have more access to information and the entire society is more aware of everything going on around us. People want to be able to participate more and be heard, even if it means that they have to take to the street,” Redondo said. 

Last week, four groups protested separately in downtown San José. According to Traffic Police Director Pablo Quirós, more than 150 traffic police officers were mobilized to respond to the protests.

Almost 7,000 taxi drivers blocked traffic to pressure traffic police to crack down on illegal taxi drivers. 

More than 500 bikers protested twice in a week, blocking the capital’s main streets in a measure aimed at pressuring the government to reduce a recently approved 43 percent fee hike in motorcycle circulation permits, or marchamos. On Tuesday, the National Insurance Institute caved to the bikers’ demands and dropped the permit fee increase to 15 percent. 

Anesthesiologists have been striking for two weeks, and were joined by hundreds of doctors working for the public health care system.

Added to that, 150 employees from the government-run National Press agency, which publishes all official government documents, including the official newspaper La Gaceta, went on strike. 

The number of protests in recent weeks seems to validate the conclusion that Costa Rica has reached a “turning point,” as noted in the State of the Nation report.

“In the government, we’re not worried that these protests may reflect a generalized feeling of political disappointment,” said Communications Minister Roberto Gallardo. “The protests have no common ground, and they respond to individual demands. We don’t want to dismiss the protests, but this is not an unusual situation.” 

Gallardo noted that the State of the Nation report said the number of protests had decreased in 2010. 

According to Redondo, the country has a strong need to modernize the legislative system in order to accelerate decision making processes and change public opinion.

“The protests are the result of years of general discontent that respond to government officials’ inability to approve urgent reforms,” Redondo said. “The system has serious structural problems. 

“There is an urgency to identify bottleneck situations where the Legislative Assembly needs change”, he said.

Redondo said the Executive Branch should lobby for a change in Congress, so that the process of lawmaking becomes more efficient and urgent issues are resolved more quickly.

“The government tried to promote change in the assembly and reduce the time it takes to discuss bills, but that proposal has been left behind,” Gallardo said.

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