Demonstrations, clashes disrupt bastion of calm
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Thousands marching in the streets. Flaming barricades. Clashes between demonstrators and riot police in darkened streets. A semitruck hollowed out by fire.
Costa Rica was rocked last week by the kind of protests rarely seen in the country in comparison with its more tumultuous Central American neighbors. It comes during a labor strike that has no apparent end in sight.
Spurred by calls from public sector unions, demonstrators protested outside the presidential residence and blockaded roads in different parts of the country to demand President Carlos Alvarado scrap a proposed fiscal reform before congress that includes new taxes.
Costa Rica’s government is struggling with a deficit estimated at 7.1 percent of GDP this year, which has increased its need for revenue.
Alvarado is proposing to implement a value added tax to replace the existing sales tax and expand it to goods and services that are currently exempt. One of the most controversial measures is a 1 percent duty on basic foodstuffs.
Those and other changes that would limit unemployment assistance and the payment of some salary bonuses have met with vigorous opposition from public sector unions.
“Here are the people demanding no more taxes on the working class, no more burdens on workers,” said Melida Cedeno, president of the APSE teachers union.
“This strike is indefinite,” she added, “and will end only when the government has the will to sit down at the table to talk with all the workers ... and withdraw the proposed law.”
Ahead of the strike’s start Monday, Alvarado ordered police to reinforce ports and oil installations to keep protesters from disrupting commercial activity and fuel distribution.
In a televised address, he called the strike “illegal,” promised to guarantee public order and said the reforms are “the only way to avoid an imminent crisis . ... Today their approval is not only necessary but also urgent.”
Protests intensified Wednesday with a mass rally of public employees who filled a main avenue in the capital, San Jose. The march ended outside the Legislative Assembly with some clashes between protesters and police.
Universities and Roman Catholic authorities have offered to mediate.
The unrest followed a bitterly disputed presidential election in April that has left a polarized electorate in its wake.
A university student confronts police officers Thursday near the Presidential House in San Jose, Costa Rica. Public sector unions went on strike Monday over economic policies.