Thousands march against small pay raise without success

A.M. Costa Rica/Sahahrazad Encinias Vela Monserrath Chacón, 10, appears bewildered as she is caught between a crowd of protests and a police barricade.

A protest by public employees filled main streets in San José Wednesday, produced a shoving match when police closed off a street in Zapote and ended with negotiations that protesters described as unfruitful.

Union workers at the public docks in Limón also walked out and that facility was closed for about eight hours. About 70 percent of teachers joined the protest and did not attend school Wednesday, according to the Ministerio de Educación Pública.

President Laura Chinchilla Miranda, the focus of the protest, said she didn’t understand why the people have come out to protest and accuse the government. She spoke at Casa Presidencial, just several hundred yards from where protesters tangled with a police blockade. She was the person who issued the decree that gave all public workers a 5,000-colon monthly salary raise, something the protesters call insulting.

There were thousands of protesters on the streets. The Asociación Nacional de Empleados Públicos y Privados, which promoted the protest and march, said there were tens of thousands.

The marchers gathered on Avenida Secunda in front of the Ministerio de Hacienda and then marched the estimated three kilometers toward Casa Presidencial in Zapote. There yards from Casa Presidencial police stood behind orange plastic barriers in full uniform, wearing bulletproof vests and riot helmets., They blocked traffic and the marchers from continuing down the street. Fuerza Pública’s protocol is for officers not to carry firearms when they act as security for a strike, according to Pablo Bertossi, deputy director of the Fuerza Pública.

There was pushing, shoving, and verbal exchanges between the marchers and the police at one point. One woman, Rosio Layton Vergosa, was pushed by Fuerza Pública officers as she tried to walk through the barrier. She was let go after a few seconds When she did pass through the barrier later, she was shaking and upset. Ms. Layton said it was the first time she had experienced such brutality by the police in all her years of participating in protests. She was part of the Asociación Nacional de Empleados Públicos y Privados.

Another protestor and her 10-year-old daughter were pushed into the barrier by the crowd and shoved back by police officers. The protester, Nidia Acuño Quiros, said she is a teacher and that she took her daughter, Monserrath Chacón, to participate in the march. She said she was very scared and nervous when they were caught in the middle.

“I have always come out to the streets to speak my mind in a protest and this was . . . very sad,” said Ms. Acuño. “We only ask for social justice. We come unarmed with no machetes, knives, or guns. We came with our hands clean.”

This was the second protest of the year against the 5,000-colons salary increase to all government employees. That is approximately $10. The protest was organized by the public teachers union, the Asociación Nacional de Educadores, and joined by several other unions from Costa Rica for public employees.

According to the Ministerio de Educación Pública 70 percent of teachers in the country were absent from their classroom with the exception of the teachers in Liberia, Guanacaste, where 100 percent were absent for the day. At Buena Ventura Corrales public school in San José only six teachers showed up to their classroom, a reporter found. The missing teachers were at the strike. The students who had no teachers were sent home for the day.

José Luis Castillo, who represented Limón dock workers, said that if President Chinchilla didn’t change the economic situation quickly “then we will take to the streets. “This is only the beginning,” said Castillo. “We will meet again in the streets because that is where they are taking us.” He is with the Sindicato de Trabajadores de Junta de Administración Portuaria y. Desarrollo Económica de la Vertiente Atlántica.

The protesters also were against President Chinchilla’s proposed tax increases.Viria Solís, a member of Asociación de Profesores de Segunda Enseñanza, said she thought the raise in salary didn’t correspond with the cost of living in the country.

She also said it wasn’t correct for the lawmakers to get an increase in their salary that was greater than the public sector. Lawmakers are supposed to receive a 150,000 -colon increase to their salary May 1. That is approximately $300.

José María Villalta Florez-Estrada was the only lawmaker to participate in the protest from the beginning. He said to the crowds that he had officially declined salary increase. Organizers also said they have the right to negotiate salaries.

The government broke of negotiations that were stalled, and that is when Ms. Chinchilla issued the salary decree.

The first protest against the decreed salary increase was in January at the Ministro de Trabajo.

A few representatives of different unions eventually were allowed Wednesday to enter the Casa Presidencial and to talk with central government officials. The dialogue wasn’t fruitful, according to the Asociación Nacional de Empleados Públicos y Privados Web site.

The president had scheduled a press conference on an unrelated topic Wednesday morning, so she was at Casa Presidencial when the marchers eventually plowed through police lines and then were allowed to approach the building.

Although the Policía de Tránsito was under instructions to keep the roads open, marchers blocked traffic on the route. At one point they closed down the San Pedro traffic circle and caused detours and tie ups.

The crowd of protesters eventually overwhelms police officers who were attempting to block the way to Casa Presidencial. The Cruz Roja said there were no significant injuries during the march.

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