Anti-CAFTA union leaders fight back against government firings and threats in Costa Rica

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An international campaign is building to defend eight Costa Rican trade union leaders. All have either been fired or threatened with firing for playing central, militant roles in the near-defeat of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in Costa Rica in a referendum on Oct. 7, 2007. The vote was fraught with irregularities and election law violations.

The eight are continuing to battle against CAFTA by opposing passage of legislation needed to actually carry out its privatization schemes. All of them are public employees in areas targeted for privatization: insurance, social security, telecommunications, electrical distribution, the ports, and healthcare.

Because of public pressure that these prominent labor activists have helped to organize, only a quarter of the required 13 laws have been passed so far. The deadline for implementation, which has been postponed once already, is Oct. 1. Failure to make the legislative changes in Costa Rica could invalidate CAFTA altogether.

Government fights dirty. The retaliatory persecution of the eight is part of a government drive to make sure that CAFTA is not killed through mass organizing against the laws required to make it work. Management’s flimsy pretexts for its harassment do nothing to hide this.

The National Insurance Institute’s stated reason for firing Alicia Vargas, Secretary of the Women Workers section of the institute’s staff union (UPINS), and Luis Salas, General Secretary of UPINS and of the Central Labor Council (CGT), is that on two occasions several years ago Salas authorized Vargas to spend a few days gathering information on the effects of free trade agreements elsewhere. Vargas used contractually guaranteed paid union leave for the project.

The alleged crime of Fabio Chavez, General Secretary of the Association of Employees of the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ASDEICE), along with Executive Board members Francisco Aguilar and Jorge Vega, is participating in a mass rally against privatization that temporarily blocked the entrance to the electrical institute last October.

San Juan de Dios Hospital employees David Morera and Marvin Marín are respectively the Financial Secretary of the Union of Health and Social Security (SISSS) and the union’s Secretary of International Affairs. In March, Morera was put on unpaid suspension pending termination for talking with security officers at the hospital back in January, when the guards were preventing delegations from the CGT labor council and the Federation of Students of the University of Costa Rica (FEUCR) from entering the hospital to deliver a solidarity statement to an employee assembly. The hospital has charged Marín with neglect of duty for time he spent in July 2007 negotiating with management over employee grievances — something he had done without repercussions as part of his union duties in the past.

José Luis Castillo is Financial Secretary of the port workers’ union in Limón and Moín (abbreviated SINTRAJAP). The excuse for terminating Castillo is a bogus allegation that he suddenly does not meet the educational requirements for his job. This claim arose after Castillo and his union conducted a series of strikes and work slowdowns against plans to privatize port management.

Pitching in for workers’ rights. The unions representing the eight workers have recently formed a joint committee to defend freedom of association and the right to organize. In a country with very weak labor laws, union-busting courts, and a decidedly anti-worker political regime, the committee sees international solidarity as key to defending the rights of these eight opponents of “free trade” and preventing the spread of a chilling effect on free speech.

The Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women are among those organizing support with the help of groups like the Latin American Solidarity Network in Australia. Thousands of organizations and individuals from the Americas, Europe and elsewhere, including the Washington State Labor Council and other U.S. labor organizations, have protested to Costa Rican authorities and signed petitions demanding that all disciplinary action against the eight be rescinded.

Readers are urged to join the call for freedom of speech and association by sending messages to Doctor Óscar Arias Sánchez, President of Costa Rica (fax 506-2253-9087 or email and to Francisco Morales Hernández Minister of Labor and Social Security (fax 506-2253-9087, Attn: F. Morales, or email Please send copies to Patricia Ramos (fax 506-2207-5253 or email and to this writer (fax 206-985-8965 or email

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