In the largest
protest march in El Salvador's history, at least 200,000 Salvadorans, or
4% of the nation's population, completely shut down the country's capital,
San Salvador, on October 24 as they took to the streets in the second white
march of the 35-day-long healthcare workers' strike, which has closed
the country's 10 largest hospitals.
Doctors, nurses, patients, retirees, bus drivers, public-sector workers,
women informal-sector vendors, sugarcane and coffee labourers, farm workers
and peasants, students, teachers, Catholic priests and Evangelical preachers,
and even clowns on stilts came together to reject Salvadoran President
Francisco Flores' healthcare privatisation plan, and to demand that he
sign a legislative decree outlawing the privatization of health care.
Eighty per cent of classes at the University of El Salvador were cancelled
as students and professors marched as a unified bloc; satellite campuses
in the interior of the country could not rent enough buses to transport
all of the students who wanted to attend the march.
Entire hospitals emptied out as all of the personnel joined in the march.
At the same time, thousands of peasants protesting against privatisation,
the proposed US-Central America Free Trade Agreement, blocked three of
the major entrances into the city, and shut down the highway to the airport
for an hour before police threatened arrest.
In what STISSS hospital support staff union leader Ricardo Monge described
as a clear provocation, riot police prevented marchers from reaching
their final destination, Flores' residence in the wealthy Escalon neighbourhood.
Police armed with automatic weapons had closed off a traffic circle with
razor wire; two armoured cars and a water cannon, stood ready to attack.
An army helicopter circled overhead, and protesters at the front of the
march could smell the tear gas being prepared.
In other parts of the country, three police roadblocks detained bus
caravans; two caravans were eventually allowed to pass and incorporated
into the march near the end, but 12 buses at the Puente de Oro were turned
back and protesters took over the bridge in protest.
Seeking perhaps to starve the strikers back to work, the government
has withheld monthly salary payments from striking workers and doctors,
basing this action on a recent court decision declaring the strike to be
illegal. However, because many striking workers still clock in at their
work places but do not work, the healthcare administration decided to withhold
pay from every worker, including scabs who cross the picket lines.
According to one worker from Ilopango who had not previously honoured
the strike but in the end joined in the October 24 march, the measure had
the opposite effect: it motivated dozens of scab workers to walk out and
join their brothers and sisters in the march.
On October 25, the government illegally fired Alirio Romero, secretary-general
of the STSEL electricity workers' union, and four other union activists
without justification. The generation of electricity is yet another sector
that the Salvadoran government seeks to privatise.
The privatisation of electricity, and its subsequent regionalisation,
are key components of the Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), the infrastructural
mega-project meant to facilitate trade between Central America and the
STSEL has been on the forefront of opposing privatisation and the PPP.
A total of 29 STSEL union members have been fired since March. In response
to the firings, three union activists began an indefinite hunger strike.
They are camped out in front of a government building, with permanent support
from unions and organisations in the Salvadoran social movement, including
the STISSS and the SIMETRISSS, the doctors' union.
The STSEL demands that the government rehire all illegally fired workers
and end the sackings, end the privatisation of electricity generation and
sign a decree outlawing the privatisation of health care. Unless their
demands are met, they have threatened to call a nationwide electricity
strike, or in the words of Romero, shut off the lights in all of El Salvador.
From Green Left Weekly, November 6, 2002.
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