Police met the protesters in the middle of the road, a couple hundred meters from Casa Presidencial, in the Zapote district in southeastern San José, hoping to eliminate even the slightest victory for the marchers.
In the Wednesday morning sun, thousands of strikers carried flags, parasols and signs mocking President Laura Chinchilla, whose office they were trying to reach.
The protesters were here because they felt cheated. In January, the government unilaterally set a salary increase for all public employees. The raise was ₡5,000 a month for the first quarter of the year – the equivalent of $10.
“The ₡5,000 [raise] is an embarrassment. It is not an increase in salary, it is a slight salary readjustment,” said Carlos Badilla, of the Private Business Workers Association, adding that for his line of work, ₡5,000 represents a 1.15 percent raise.
Finance Ministry officials said that under current conditions, “with a fiscal deficit of almost 5 percent of gross domestic product, it is not possible to provide a higher raise without causing a greater disparity in public finances.” The president would not budge.
Legions of public employees agreed with Badilla: 10 bucks a month was not enough to match rising inflation. So they marched.
The movement included government employees, teachers, public health officials, telecommunications workers and others. Government officials said the work stoppages only caused minor inconvenience.
Workers demanded a meeting with the country’s top officials about the issue. They swallowed up Avenida 2 in the capital, blocking traffic on the way to Zapote.
Among lawmakers, Claudio Monge of the Citizen Action Party joined the protest, calling the raise “an offense that undermined the country’s labor laws.”
By 10 a.m. the group closed in on the Casa Presidencial.
Police officers in riot gear stood in front of a vehicle blocking the path to where President Chinchilla works. The cops let small streams of people scuffle by, but the roadblock prevented the majority from moving through with their cars, megaphones and banners.
Chinchilla said she disapproved of workers’ attitudes toward a problem that “does not justify crippling essential services for the people.” Marchers said they just want a fair deal.
“I am retired and they want to boost my pension ₡5000,” Gerardo Rojas said, “We need a 4 percent increase [to offset the rise in cost of living].”
The signs signaled outrage: “Ni un paso atrás” (“Not one step back”) declared one poster. Another plastered a photo of Chinchilla on top of an oversized ₡5,000 bill. The protesters shouted, sang and snapped photos. And police officers stared them down.
Tensions elevated. But on this day, the marchers would score a small triumph. Chinchilla reiterated that although open to negotiations, no salary augments would be coming. But the police would back down. The officers, in riot gear, would remove the vehicle blocking the road.
Ex-lawmaker José Merino, of the Broad Front Party, and José María Villalta, a current Broad Front Party legislator, assisted in convincing the officers to step aside. The protesters completed their march, and brought in their cars, megaphones and banners.
The hordes tried to squeeze as many as they could into space in front of the Casa Presidencial. They chanted for change. A woman carried a large blue sign proclaiming: “A just salary is a right that is not respected in Costa Rica.”
On Thursday afternoon, in a short note to union organizers, President Chinchilla agreed to listen to the protesters’ demands Monday at 2 p.m.
Alberto Font and AFP contributed to this story.