Demon­stra­tions, clashes dis­rupt bas­tion of calm

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - WORLD - By Javier Cor­doba Javier Cor­doba is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

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.

Eze­quiel Be­cerra / AFP / Getty Images

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.

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