Monday, May 25, 2009

WNU #990: Colombian Banana Workers End Strike

Weekly News Update on the Americas
Issue #990, May 24, 2009

1. Colombia: Banana Workers End Strike
2. Venezuela: Economic Growth Stalls
3. Mexico: “Disaster” Shrinks Economy 8.2%
4. Panama: Trouble for FTA in US Congress?
5. Links to alternative sources on: Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala, Mexico, Vía Campesina

ISSN#: 1084‑922X. Weekly News Update on the Americas covers news from Latin America and the Caribbean, compiled and written from a progressive perspective. It has been published weekly by the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York since 1990. For a subscription, write to . It is archived at

*1. Colombia: Banana Workers End Strike
On May 20 some 17,500 banana workers in Colombia’s northwestern Urabá region ended a strike they began on May 8 over pay and benefits. The workers won an 8% wage hike for the first year of the two-year contract and a cost-of-living adjustment for the next year; this is based on the Consumer Price Index (IPC in Spanish), which is expected to rise by 5% or less this year. The strikers also won benefits including funds for housing, recreation and culture, a bonus, and pay for the days lost to the strike. The banana workers were seeking a 9.2% wage increase the first year and the IPC adjustment plus 2% for the second year, along with other benefits and the creation of a fund to pay reparations to relatives of the victims of violence in Urabá. The owners had originally sought a five-year contract. Gilberto Torres, a spokesperson for the National Union of Agricultural Industry Workers (SINTRAINAGRO), said the union’s members “received the agreement very well.”

The owners lost about $30 million during the 12-day strike; normally they would have shipped some 3.7 million cases during the period. Colombia is the world’s third largest banana exporter, after Ecuador and Costa Rica, with most exports going to Europe and the US. About 75% of Urabá’s economy depends on the industry, which employs some 19,500 workers at 296 plantations.

SINTRAINAGRO officials say more than 800 farmworkers have been killed in Urabá over the past 13 years, mostly by rightwing paramilitaries hired by growers to stop labor organizing. During the job action the union charged that the owners tried to bring in strikebreakers even though the strike was recognized by the Social Protection Ministry. Union officials also said strikers had received threatening messages. (El Tiempo (Colombia) 5/18/09; El Espectador (Colombia) 5/20/09; Reuters 5/20/09; Latin American Herald Tribune 5/21/09 from EFE)

*2. Venezuela: Economic Growth Stalls
Venezuela’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by just 0.3% in the first quarter of 2009 compared to the same period the year before, the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) reported on May 19. Miguel Carpio, an economist at Banco Federal CA in Caracas, projected a zero growth rate for the year. Finance Minister Ali Rodríguez attributed the situation to the global economic downturn, which has cut the price of Venezuelan oil from an average of $87 per barrel last year to an average $42 per barrel so far in 2009; oil accounts for more than 90% of the country’s exports. The last time the GDP failed to grow was in 2003 during a shutdown of the oil sector by the political opposition to President Hugo Chávez Frías. The economy grew by 18.6% in 2004, 10.3% in 2005 and 2006, 8.4% in 2007, and 4.8% in 2008, according to the BCV. In March the government announced a 6.7% reduction in the national budget. (Bloomberg 5/19/09; Venezuelanalysis 5/21/09)

As growth stalls, Chávez’s leftist government seems to be tightening its control over the economy. On May 22 the government announced a deal to pay the Spanish banking multinational Banco Santander $1.05 billion for the nationalization of its local subsidiary, Banco de Venezuela. "We are working in all areas related to economic development," Vice President Ramón Carrizalez explained. Plans for the nationalization were announced in July, but negotiations dragged on for months over the purchase price. (AP 5/22/09 via Forbes) On May 21 President Chávez announced plans to nationalize several steel and iron companies. This was the beginning of "a process of nationalization to create an industrial complex," he said in a televised address. "Venezuelan workers are going to give a lesson to the world on how the working class has been resuscitated to make a revolution." (AFP 5/21/09)

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government is seeking up to $4.3 billion in loans from Brazil’s state development bank, according to the Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo. Some of the loans would be used to pay for work by Brazilian companies in Venezuela. The companies include Braskem (BRKM5.SA), Andrade Gutierrez and Odebrecht SA, Brazil's largest construction group, which is expanding the Caracas subway system. The loans may be announced when Chavez visits Brazil on May 26. (Reuters 5/22/09)

*3. Mexico: “Disaster” Shrinks Economy 8.2%
On May 20 the Mexican government’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) announced that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 8.2% in the first quarter of 2009 compared to the same period the year before. The next day Salomon Presburger, president of the Concamin business organization, told a Mexico City press conference that the country had already lost 300,000 jobs in 2009 and would probably lose a total of 600,000 during the year, half of them from the industrial sector, in which he expected a 12-13% contraction. He predicted that the numbers would be even worse when statistics come in on the effect of the H1N1 influenza (“swine flu”), which has caused at least 74 deaths to date, has reduced tourism and led many companies to shut down for a week in late April and early May [see Update #988].

Presburger noted Mexico’s close economic ties with the US, now suffering its worst economic crisis since the 1930s. "The collapse of orders coming from the US and the sudden weakening of domestic demand, associated with the fall in household consumption and business investment, explains the accelerated decline of the industrial sector," he said. He compared the current crisis to the devastating recession that followed the financial collapse of December 1994. (Latin American Herald Tribune 5/21/09 from EFE)

“[I]n 2009 we have lost what we gained over many years,” José Ángel Gurría Treviño, a finance secretary during the administration of former president Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León (1994-2000), said in a press conference in Madrid on May 22, “so that this isn’t a cycle, it’s a disaster. This isn’t an evolution; it’s a demolition. And yes, we calculated it badly.” But he insisted that “we who created this problem…are the ones who have to fix it.” Gurría is now general secretary of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which includes 30 industrialized countries with a “free market” orientation; Mexico is the only Latin American member. (La Jornada (Mexico) 5/23/09)

On May 20, the US-based Moody's Investors Service called Mexico the "most vulnerable" among countries in the region. (Bloomberg 5/20/09)

*4. Panama: Trouble for FTA in US Congress?
On May 21 Assistant US Trade Representative Everett Eissenstat told a Senate Finance Committee hearing that the administration of US president Barack Obama won’t seek the approval of Congress for a free trade agreement (FTA) with Panama until the president has established a new "framework" for trade. "It's clear that trade agreements in the last few years have been much too divisive," Eissenstat said. "We want to make sure that Panama doesn't contribute to that divisiveness." This was a reversal from the administration’s plan in March to push for early approval of the pact; the change followed a statement by John Sweeney, president of the main US labor federation, the AFL-CIO, opposing the Panama FTA.

The Panama agreement was considered the least controversial and easiest to pass of three FTAs negotiated by the administration of former president George W. Bush (2001-2009) but still awaiting approval from Congress; the other two pacts are with Colombia and South Korea. The Panama accord is backed by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Illinois-based Caterpillar Inc., which is seeking to supply machinery for a planned expansion of the Panama Canal. Trade between Panama and the US was $5.5 billion in 2008. (Bloomberg 5/21/09)

The FTA is a foreign policy priority both for outgoing Panamanian president Martin Torrijos of the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and for the conservative president-elect, Ricardo Martinelli. Analysts in Panama think that to win US approval the Panamanian government will have to meet US demands on unionization, child labor, environmental issues and banking secrecy laws. (Prensa Latina 5/22/09)

*5. Links to alternative sources on: Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala, Mexico, Vía Campesina

Colombian sought in Buenos Aires Jewish center attack

Bolivia's ex-prez goes on trial in absentia on "genocide" charges

Bolivian Senate to hold impeachment trial for chief justice

Abraham’s Last Rap: Bolivian Hip-Hop Hero Dies in El Alto

Diplomacy Underground: Tunnel Proposed to Grant Bolivia Access to Sea

Bolivia Declassified: USAID Responds to Freedom of Information Act Request

Israel: Venezuela, Bolivia supply Iran with uranium

Cerro de Pasco, Peru: Mining, Red Lakes, and Piles of Waste

Ecuador's Future for Canadian Transnationals: An Exchange of Indigenous Perspectives

Obama Seeks $46 Million for Military Base in Colombia

Colombia scores blow against Valle Cartel

Colombia's senate approves referendum on extending presidential term limits

Lawsuit Accuses Dole of Funding Death Squads (Colombia)

Colombia: pyramid victims kidnap nine

Colombia: ELN appeals to FARC to end "fratricidal war"

Colombia: scandal-tainted Freddy Padilla is new defense chief

Venezuela: Chávez, media mogul trade accusations following police raid

Attorney's slaying polarizes Guatemala

Video Accusing Guatemalan President of Murder Unleashes Political Crisis, Deepens Social Divisions

Mexico: shake-up in wake of Zacatecas jailbreak

Mexico: crackdown in wake of Zacatecas jailbreak sparks protests

Megaprojects and Militarization: A Perfect Storm in Mexico

House and Senate Pass New Military Aid to Mexico

Building a Transnational Peasant Movement

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