Monday, May 7, 2012

WNU #1128: Latin American May 1 Demos Focus on Minimum Wage

Weekly News Update on the Americas
Issue #1128, May 6, 2012

1. Latin America: May 1 Demonstrations Focus on Minimum Wage
2. Mexico: Unions Hold “Last May Day of the PAN Era”
3. Haiti: Sweatshops Raise Wages on May 1--for One Day
4. Nicaragua: Last of the FSLN’s Founders Dies
5. Links to alternative sources on: South America, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, Immigration

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. It is archived at  For a subscription, write to Follow us on Twitter at

*1. Latin America: May 1 Demonstrations Focus on Minimum Wage
Many of the traditional celebrations of International Workers Day on May 1 this year had the minimum wage as a central theme—in some cases because governments marked the occasion by increasing wages, in other cases because the governments refused to do so.

Between 40,000 and 100,000 Chileans marched in Santiago on May 1 in a demonstration organized by the Unified Workers Confederation (CUT) and bringing together unionists and protesters from the student movement [see Update #1127]. CUT president Arturo Martínez called for “a real minimum wage, which this year should reach 250,000 pesos” a month (about $520). According to Labor Minister Evelyn Matthei this “isn’t possible”; she claimed it would cause an increase in unemployment. As frequently happens in Chile, violence broke out at the end of the peaceful protest: some 200 hooded youths threw rocks at police agents, journalists and other demonstrators. Six agents from the carabineros militarized police were reportedly injured and some 20 people were arrested.

In Sao Paulo, Brazil’s industrial center, unionists marched for a 40-hour week and for lower rates of interest on loans; labor leaders claimed a victory in center-left president Dilma Rousseff’s call the day before for banks to make credit more accessible. The Força Sindical labor confederation claimed that one million people participated in the day’s events. In Sao Luís in the northeastern state of Maranhao, unionists protested the murder of journalist Décio Sa, the fourth reporter to be killed in Brazil this year. (EFE 5/1/12 via Diario Libre (Dominican Republic); La Jornada (Mexico) 5/2/12 from AFP, DPA, PL, Xinhua, Notimex, correspondent)

In Bolivia President Evo Morales marked May 1 by renationalizing the country’s main electric grid, which was privatized in 1997. Morales promised to work out a compensation arrangement within 180 days with the current owner, Empresa Transportadora de Electricidad, a subsidiary of the Spanish company Red Eléctrica de España, S.A. The Spanish government was clearly upset by the takeover, which followed just two weeks after the Argentine government announced its plan to renationalize the oil company YPF SA from Spain’s Repsol [see Update #1126]. Morales’ move “is sending a negative message that generates distrust,” Spanish ambassador Ramon Santos told reporters. Ironically, the power grid was already partially nationalized—to the Spanish government, which owns 20% of Red Eléctrica de España.

Morales has used May Day for similar announcements in the past: he started the process of nationalizing the oil and gas sector on May 1 in 2006, and in 2008 he chose May 1 to announce that the nationalization of the main phone company, Empresa Nacional de Telecomunicaciones (Entel), had been completed. (AP 5/1/12 via El Paso (Texas) Times; Adital (Brazil) 5/2/12)

Peruvian president Ollanta Humala and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez both announced raises in the monthly minimum wage on May 1—from 675 soles ($253.70) to 750 soles ($281.90) in Peru and from 1,548.22 bolívares ($360) to 2,047 bolívares ($476) in Venezuela. Chávez’s government also reduced the work week from 44 hours to 40 hours, while Humala promised to fight against child labor and the disparity in wages between men and women.

In Colombia, Tarsicio Mora, president of the Unitary Workers Central (CUT), charged that six unionists have been murdered so far this year and that the number has reached 3,000 for the past 15 years, making “Colombia the most dangerous country for carrying out union activities.” Some 64 people were arrested in Bogotá for carrying objects that the authorities said might be used to disrupt the official ceremony, at which President Juan Manuel Santos signed a decree regulating teletrabajo (work outside the office via telecommunications) and expressed sorrow that the killing of unionists was continuing. (EFE 5/1/12 via Diario Libre; LJ 5/2/12 from AFP, DPA, PL, Xinhua, Notimex, correspondent)

Hundreds of thousands of Cuban workers marched in Havana on May 1, along with a total of 1,700 unionists from 117 other countries, but the demonstration was unusually short, just one hour. The ceremony included an announcement by Salvador Valdés, head of the Cuban Workers’ Confederation (CTC), that there will be no increase in wages until the country has managed to eliminate subsidies and reduce public sector employment. Until now the trend has been to link wages to productivity. In 2010 the government reported a a 4.2% increase in productivity and a 4.4% increase in the median wage; in 2011, the increase in productivity was 2.8% and the wage increase was 2.7%.

The austerity measure is in line with a radical economic restructuring plan, announced in September 2010, to eliminate 500,000 jobs in state enterprises while building up the private sector [see Update #1057]. The CTC said that 140,000 public sector jobs were eliminated in 2011, somewhat short of the goal of 170,000 layoffs for the year. According to the Labor and Social Security Minister, as of February the country had 371,200 micro-enterprises; the government hopes they will absorb the laid-off state employees. (LJ 5/2/12 from correspondent)

*2. Mexico: Unions Hold “Last May Day of the PAN Era
Left-leaning independent unions dominated celebrations of International Workers Day in Mexico on May 1, while some centrist labor federations decided not to hold marches, reportedly because of concern over security. Tens of thousands of unionists, campesinos and other activists participated in the independent unions’ annual march to Mexico City’s main plaza, the Zócalo; the left-leaning daily La Jornada reported that more unions and more unionists took part than in previous years.

The demonstration was largely a repudiation of what participants called the “PRI-AN”: the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which controlled the national government and most state governments from 1929 to 2000, and the center-right National Action Party (PAN), which has held the presidency since 2000. Speakers called for a “punishment vote” against both parties in the presidential and national elections on July 1 and referred to this year’s demonstration as “the last Labor Day march of the PANista era.” Martín Esparza, secretary general of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) [see Update #1097], called for unionists to back center-left presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, “the only one who has made commitments to the working class.” Esparza denounced the National Electoral Institute, which controls the electoral process, and called for workers to prevent electoral fraud by forming a “parallel IFE.” López Obrador lost to current president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa in 2006 by very narrow margin in the official tally. (La Jornada 5/2/12; EFE 5/1/12 via Diario Libre (Dominican Republic))

The end of the PAN’s control of the presidency this year seems inevitable. According to a poll by the GEA-ISA group published in the daily Milenio, PRI presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto leads with 47.3% of the preferences of voters who have made up their minds. PAN candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota trailed with 27.3%, followed closely by López Obrador, running for a coalition that includes the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), with 24%. About 25.6% of voters remain undecided, according to the survey, based on face-to-face polling of 1,152 Mexicans from May 3 to May 5. (Milenio 5/5/12)

The “PANista era” may already be over on the labor front. During the past six years two successive PAN administrations have tried to remove Napoleón Gómez Urrutia from his post as the general secretary of the National Union of Mine and Metal Workers and the Like of the Mexican Republic (SNTMMSRM) see Update #1106]. In 2006 the government of then-president Vicente Fox Quesada (2000-2006) charged Gómez Urrutia in a $55 million corruption case involving union funds, and in 2008 Calderón’s administration overturned his reelection as SNTMMSRM general secretary. Gómez Urrutia has been living in exile in Vancouver since 2006.

But the fight against the union leader collapsed this spring. On Apr. 24 Mexicans learned that Judge Manuel Bárcena Villanueva in Mexico City had quashed the warrant for Gómez Urrutia’s arrest, and on May 2 a panel of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (SCJN) upheld a lower court ruling that the government exceeded its authority in nullifying the union’s elections. Gómez Urrutia will return to Mexico shortly, according to his lawyer. (Milenio 4/24/12; LJ 5/3/12, 5/4/12)

*3. Haiti: Sweatshops Raise Wages on May 1--for One Day
About 100 Haitian unionists and activists observed International Workers Day on May 1 with a march in Port-au-Prince to demand better wages and conditions for the country’s assembly workers, who mainly produce apparel for sale in North America. Groups organizing the march included the Textile and Garment Workers Union (SOTA), the leftist workers’ organization Batay Ouvriye (“Workers’ Struggle”), the Women’s Network of the Bureau of International Lawyers (BAI) and the Mobilization Collective for Compensation for Cholera Victims (Komodevik). SOTA and Batay Ouvriye have been working since the fall to organize assembly plant workers in the capital [see Update #1108].

The march started at the National Industrial Parks Company (Sonapi), a “free trade zone” (FTZ) for assembly plants near the airport in the north of Port-au-Prince; the protesters then proceeded to the Parliament downtown; the day’s slogan was “Work yes, slavery no.” Despite the small size of the demonstration, plant managers took measures to keep assembly workers from joining the march. The managers threatened the workers with firing if they left the plants, and paid them 500 gourdes (about $11.80) for staying on the job during the day. [In August 2009 thousands of Sonapi workers walked off the job to join marches for a daily minimum wage of 200 gourdes (about $2.95); see Update #1001.]

Guy Numa, a member of the Popular Democratic Movement (MODEP), which helped organize the march, noted that in 2009 the factory owners said they couldn’t afford an increased minimum wage. “These bosses, who did everything they could to block the vote on the 200 gourde minimum wage [back then], are proving on this May Day that they can pay as much as 500 gourdes,” he said. (AlterPresse (Haiti) 4/30/12, 5/2/12)

On May 3 Commerce and Industry Minister Wilson Laleau was working to interest Chinese, Dominican and US investors in a massive FTZ being built in the Northeast department, the Caracol Industrial Park (PIC) [see Update #1112]. The authorities say the plants at the new park will eventually create 65,000 jobs.

At a press conference that day Laleau admitted that there were problems with the project, which is being promoted by the US government and international agencies, but added that “the positive impacts should largely compensate for the negative impacts.” He was asked about plans for housing, since exaggerated promises of assembly plant jobs in the 1970s and 1980s had led job seekers to move into the Cité Soleil commune near the factories in the north of Port-au-Prince; the result was a huge, overcrowded neighborhood with substandard housing and virtually no public services. Laleau answered that the housing situation was being studied and the results would be released in June. “[I]t is out of the question that what happened around the Port-au-Prince industrial park should be reproduced at Caracol,” he promised. (AlterPresse 5/4/12)

*4. Nicaragua: Last of the FSLN’s Founders Dies
Nicaraguan revolutionary Tomás Borge Martínez died in a Managua military hospital on Apr. 30 at age 81 from pneumonia and other health problems. He was the last surviving member of the small group, including Carlos Fonseca Amador, that founded the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1961. At the time of his death he was serving as Nicaragua’s ambassador to Peru.

Born to a poor family in Matagalpa, Borge left university studies in the 1950s to fight against the Somoza family dictatorship. He was imprisoned in the 1970s but was freed as a result of the FSLN’s dramatic seizure of the National Palace in August 1978. After the triumph of the revolution in 1979, Borge served as interior minister, controlling various police agencies and the prison system. During those years he was accused of numerous human rights violations. Indigenous Miskitos charged that he engineered a policy of displacement and murders against rebels on the Atlantic Coast; others accused him of ordering the killing of 37 imprisoned opponents in Granada, a charge which Borge always denied. He was also accused of enriching himself from government funds after the FSLN was voted out of office in 1990.

“They only remember the errors we committed, like establishing press censorship, which at this point I think was an error,” he said in an interview that he gave many years later to the conservative daily La Prensa, which the FSLN government closed down temporarily in the 1980s. Nobody remembered the improvements he made in prison conditions, Borge said, adding that the policies he implemented as interior minister were collectively decided on by the FSLN’s nine-member National Directorate.

When the FSLN began to split in the 1990s, Borge sided with the faction headed by current Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega Saavedra, while many of his friends joined opposition factions and eventually left the party. Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli, who quit the FSLN, is widely quoted as saying that Borge “ended up as a tragicomic figure” during this period. But after his death Belli wrote: “What remains of Tomás for me is affection… I am sure that Tomás loved the idea of the Revolution as much as any of us who lived to make it and to see it triumph. Who of us who lived in that time can say that we managed to live and be the ideal person that we dreamed of?” (AP 5/1/12 via La Prensa (Nicaragua); El Nuevo Diario (Nicaragua) 5/1/12, 5/3/12)

*5. Links to alternative sources on: South America, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, Immigration

South American Fiber Optic Ring
The Washington Post’s Flimsy Critique of Argentina

The Right to Memory in Chile: An Interview with Erika Hennings, President of Londres 38

Chilean Supreme Court Red Lights Goldcorp Mine

Amazon Indians’ Fishing Ritual Brought to Halt in Brazil

Scientist Calls Peru Conga Mining Project an ‘Environmental Disaster:’ Interview with Reinhard Seifert

Venezuela's Inflation Falls for 5 Months in a Row

El Salvador: Court Deliberates on Constitutionality of Military Appointments

Drug Plane "Forced" to Land!? (Honduras)

Guatemala: Decriminalization? Don't Believe the Hype

Iron Fist Cracks Down on Guatemala

Mexico approves law to aid victims of narco violence

"Black Friday" in Nuevo Laredo: 23 dead

Mexico: Calderón Government Monitoring Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity Leaders

Haiti’s Hotel Boom: Progress or Trickledown Economics?

A Dangerously Slippery Slope: Drones and the Dream of Remote Control in the Borderlands

May Day heralds revived movement —but wingnuts (or provocateurs?) mar some marches (Argentina, Chile, Peru, Cuba, US)

For more Latin America news stories from mainstream and alternative sources:

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