Massive march today may just be the beginning

Union graphic shows a man inundated by taxes. The artist uses the Spanish word impuestos. Photo: Asociación Nacional de Empleados Públicos y Privados

The massive march planned for this morning by public employees is more than just union members flexing their muscles. This event appears to be the start of a prolonged campaign against the central government.

The march today probably will not turn violent, and it will be great theater for expats. The public employees are forming at Parque Central at 9 a.m. to march to the Asamblea Legislativa.

For motorists that means Avenida 2 and adjacent streets will be closed at least through noon. But that also is the best location for pedestrians to watch the demonstration.

There is a different tone for today that rivals some of the anger that accompanied opposition to the Central American Free Trade Treaty. Many of the public employees see President Laura Chinchilla as a stand-in for Óscar Arias Sánchez or his brother Rodrigo.

In fact, a poll on the Web site of the Asociación Nacional de Empleados Públicos y Privados asks if the Arias brothers are the power behind the throne in Costa Rica. Óscar Arias was instrumental in gaining approval of the free trade treaty, a document that public employees correctly believe jeopardizes state monopolies where they work.

The more current complaints are salaries. The Asociación Nacional de Educadores seems to have a legitimate gripe. The organization asks that they be paid correctly every 15 days. The government has been behind on teacher salaries.

Every organization likely to march today opposed Ms. Chinchilla’s tax plan because they think that it takes from the working class for the benefit of the elite. Fernando Herrero Acosta, the finance minister, did not help matters when he suggested in a forum that some public employees might be fired and pay cuts ordered to help the central government’s financial predicament.

Albino Vargas Barrantes, secretary general of the Asociación Nacional de Empleados Públicos y Privados said in a published piece that Herrero provided the wick to blow up the barrel of powder. Vargas speaks of the reaction of workers in Greece and Ireland and other locations in the European Union.

The marchers also oppose the central government decrees that set salary raises. The decree was issued in January when collective bargaining failed to achieve accord. The teachers correctly note that the 2.33 percent wage hike just covered inflation.

The association headed by Vargas is clear that it wants no more taxes. “My heart tells me no!” says a slogan. And that contains echos of the no group that opposed the free trade treaty.

The Chinchilla government froze salaries and hiring of public employees. The president’s fiscal plan taxes many food items that are not taxed now, and it does so with a 14 percent value-added tax instead of the existing 13 percent sales tax.

The government’s financial advisers are deeply concerned by a budget that is supported nearly 50 percent by borrowing for current expenses. The unions are demanding better collection from tax evaders, although the government is taking steps in that direction.

The current financial situation is not sustainable, all involved agree. Aside from cracking down on tax evasion, the unions have other ideas to solve the basic problems and they see the extensive social system Costa Rica has constructed under threat. Vargas’ association has urged approval of a law to end bank secrecy, for example and to beef up the tax police.

Francisco Villalobos, who has directed the Tributación tax collecting department for nearly three months noted in an interview that he cannot hire more people to enforce the laws because of the hiring freeze.

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