Costa Rica: new strike closes major port

A longstanding dispute over the privatization of the port at Limón on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast led unionized dockworkers at the port's Limón and Moín terminals to walk off the job on Oct. 22 for the second time in two years. The open-ended strike left three ships stranded at the two terminals, which handle some 80% of Costa Rica's foreign trade. Facing his first major labor crisis since he took office on May 8, President Luis Guillermo Solís, of the center-left Citizen Action Party (PAC), responded quickly. He sent some 150 police officers to take control of the terminals late on Oct. 22; 68 people were arrested in the operation. The port was reopened the next morning, with foreign contract workers under police guard. Union officials denied that the port was operating normally, and as of Oct. 25 negotiations hadn't started between the union and the government.

Efforts to privatize the Limón port, which is managed by the Board of Port Administration and Economic Development of the Atlantic Shelf (JAPDEVA), began in 2006 under former president Oscar Arias (1986-1990, 2006-2010), and quickly met with opposition from the JAPDEVA Workers Union (SINTRAJAP), backed by the Frente Amplio ("Broad Front"), a leftist political party. In 2012 the government of former president Laura Chinchilla (2010-2014) granted a 30-year concession to a Netherlands-based container management multinational, APM Terminals, a subsidiary of the giant Danish shipping multinational A.P. Moller-Maersk Group, which also does business in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. A court challenge to the APM Terminals contract was rejected by the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) in October of this year, precipitating the current strike. However, the CSJ probably won't be able to give final approval to the contract until March 2015, since the National Environmental Technical Secretariat (Setena) hasn't completed its assessment of the project. Legal advisers close to the Setena say there were irregularities in the documents presented by APM Terminals, including corrections by hand and several pages in English.

The situation in Limón was still tense as of Oct. 25, as helicopters and small planes patrolled the skies over the city. Eight people were arrested the morning of Oct. 24 after two shipping containers were set on fire and a police agent was wounded in the foot. SINTRAJAP general secretary Ronaldo Blear said the union wasn't behind the vandalism but claimed that it showed "part of the dissatisfaction" of Limón's population. "What it says to us is that Limón's people hold JAPDEVA in their hearts, and so they're defending what the government is trying to take from us." According to Blear, the union's "struggle is against a contract that imposes unjust rates for the people, an illegal monopoly that impedes free participation and represents the death of JAPDEVA, and against immense damage to the environment which could turn out to be irreversible if we don't stop it. This isn't over wages or privileges." (Tico Times, Costa Rica, Oct. 23; Reuters, Oct. 23; Prensa Latina, Oct. 25; La Nación, Costa Rica, Oct. 25)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, October 26.