Latin America May Day round-up

Unionists and other activists marked International Workers Day with marches throughout Latin America on May 1 as rising food and fuel costs cut into workers’ standard of living. Demands included increases in the minimum wage, an end to violence against unionists and rejection of trade pacts with the US.

Some 15,000-20,000 Chileans marched in Santiago to demand an end to neoliberal policies and a new Constitution to eliminate all remaining traces of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. After the protest, which was organized by the Unified Workers Confederation (CUT), anarchist youths dressed in black reportedly threw paint bombs at a bank branch and then rocks and bottles. Police agents responded with massive amounts of tear gas, forcing hundreds of bystanders to flee. Authorities reported 96 arrests.

There were at least five different marches in Buenos Aires, Argentina, mostly by leftist unions and parties; total participation was reportedly in the hundreds. Participation was also low in Uruguay.

Paraguayan president-elect Fernando Lugo headed celebrations in Asunción, telling some 3,000 unionists that his government would be “with the poor, the indigenous, the unionists, the common people” despite “the oligarchs” waiting “with open maws to trap those of us who are coming to power.”

Hundreds of Peruvian workers gathered in Lima to protest President Alan Garcia’s policies, including a crackdown against human rights defenders in March and April. General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP) general secretary Mario Huaman denounced companies “that murder workers”; on Apr. 30 four workers were buried alive in an accident at a Lima construction site

Some 15,000 Ecuadoran unionists celebrated a decision by the Constituent Assembly to ban labor subcontracting; about 480,000 Ecuadorans are estimated to be working under contracts with third parties. The Assembly has been meeting since November to write a new Constitution.

Colombian union members marched in Bogota to protest an increase in the number of unionists murdered this year. According to the National Union School, 39 have been killed since the beginning of the year, a 71.4% increase over the same period in 2007. The marchers also demanded higher pay and rejected a Free Trade Agreement (FTA, or TLC in Spanish) signed with the US but not yet ratified by the US Congress. Several people were injured and others were arrested in confrontations with the police.

Thousands of members of Venezuela‘s National Workers Union (UNT) chanted “Chavez, homeland or death” as they marched through west and central Caracas in support of the leftist government of President Hugo Chávez Frias, while thousands of members of the opposition Confederation of Workers of Venezuela (CTV) marched through central Caracas to the National Assembly to demand higher wages. On April 30 Chavez signed a decree raising the minimum wage by 30% to $372 a month, which he said was the highest in Latin America. The CTV supported the increase but said it barely covered the rise in the cost of living. In 2007 Venezuela had a 22.5% annual inflation rate—also the highest in Latin America. So far this year the annual rate has been 19.5%.

In El Salvador, thousands of workers marched in the capital to demand “urgent changes” in President Tony Saca’s policies. “Saca’s government is responsible for the crisis we’re going through; he can’t fool us with his publicity stories about the international crisis being responsible,” construction worker Pedro Martinez told the Associated Press wire service.

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans marched before President Raúl Castro and union leaders in the traditional celebration in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución. (Univision, May 1 from AP; La Jornada, Mexico, May 2 from AFP, DPA, Reuters, Prensa Latina; El Diario-La Prensa, NY, May 2 from unidentified wire services, print edition)

Haitian grassroots and progressive organizations prepared for May 1 with a call for an increase of the minimum wage from 70 gourdes ($1.84) a day to 300 gourdes ($7.89). The call—dated April 29 and signed by the Popular Democratic Movement (MODEP), Tet Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen (“Small Haitian Peasants Unity”), Batay Ouvriye (“Workers Struggle”) and other groups—said the wage increase was a way to enable the working class to confront “Clorox hunger.” (This is a popular expression for hunger so painful it feels like swallowing bleach, frequently referring to the situation that led to violent protests over food in April.)

The call also demanded that Jean Paul Faubert, the owner of Societe Haitienne de Couture SA, an assembly plant in Port-au-Prince’s Sonapi industrial park, pay back wages and other benefits to the 800 workers who lost their jobs when he closed the plant. (AlterPresse, April 29, 30)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Sept. 25

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