Latin America: May Day marches focus on crisis

In Latin America, as in much of the world, the traditional International Workers Day marches this May 1 focused on the global economic crisis and especially on increases in the unemployment rate, which is approaching 10% in many areas.

Southern Cone
About 10,000 marched in Santiago, Chile, on May 1 in a protest organized by the Unified Workers Confederation (CUT), the country's largest labor confederation. CUT president Arturo Martínez demanded "a new law that distributes the wealth," a right to strike without the threat of firings and replacement workers, and an end to the practice of letting firms lay workers off "because of the company's needs." After the main demonstration had ended, small groups of people wearing masks attacked the police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons. Dozens of people were arrested. (La Opinión, Los Angeles, May 2 from AP)

Some 100,000 unionists gathered in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina, on April 30 for an early May Day event that was in effect a rally for President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her husband, former president Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007). Their supporters in the populist Justicialist Party (PJ, Peronist) face serious challenges in June congressional elections. "What is being debated is not the form of a model of government," said Hugo Morano, president of the General Workers Confederation (CGT). "What is being debated is the fundamental question, and it's [whether] to snatch away from us the victories we have reached in recent times. The choice is to support a national, people's model that has as its objective dignifying humans, or we go back to the decade of the '90s, where they robbed us and took everything from us."

Argentina experienced massive privatizations and corruption under the neoliberal policies of president Carlos Saúl Menem (1989-1999), which were followed by a financial collapse in 2001. Economic growth returned under Kirchner and Fernández but halted with the onset of the global crisis in 2008. Moyano has reportedly persuaded Kirchner to include union officials on the PJ ticket in June. (Latin American Herald Tribune, April 30 from EFE)

In Brazil, thousands of workers participated in celebrations in the main cities on May 1, with performances by musical groups and speeches by union leaders calling for lower interest rates to stimulate the economy in response to the crisis. (La Opinión 5/2/09 from AP)

The Andes
In Bolivia, President Evo Morales marked May 1 by signing a decree nationalizing the Bolivian subsidiary of British aviation fuel supplier AirBP in a ceremony before a massive crowd in La Paz's Plaza de Armas. Morales ordered the military and state oil company Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB) to take over AirBP, which owns 12 jet fuel service stations at airports in La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Tarija, Beni and Pando. Morales—who had previously nationalized oil and telecommunications companies—also extended workers' benefits, requiring employers to provide mandatory severance pay after 90 months of continuous work and to provide social security coverage for temporary employees. (AFP, May 1)

Thousands of workers marched in Ecuador's main cities carrying signs with slogans such as "Let the gringos pay for the capitalist crisis," and "Reject the government's labor policy." At the Quito march, Edwin Bedoya, vice president of the Unified Workers Front, praised some of the changes made by the government of leftist president Rafael Correa. "But we criticize others," Bedoya said, "like the layoffs of the compañeros at Petroecuador" (Empresa Estatal Petróleos del Ecuador, the state-owned oil company).

In Colombia, unions and retirees' organizations mobilized thousands of workers with slogans against unemployment, President Alvaro Uribe's bid for reelection and the ongoing violence against unionists. Marchers also called for a negotiated settlement to the armed conflict with leftist rebels such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). "We believe that peace with social justice has to be developed here," Unitary Workers Central (CUT) president Tarsicio Mora said in Bogotá, calling the government's neoliberal economic model a failure.

Unions supporting Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez held a massive march in Caracas, which also witnessed confrontations between police agents and opposition unionists at a separate march which the police dispersed with tear gas and water cannons.

Central America
Thousands of workers marched in 11 cities in Honduras with slogans against the US-sponsored Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). This was the fourth year in a row that the three main labor federations marched together despite their political differences.

[Thousands of workers and campesinos also marched in El Salvador, celebrating the FMLN victory in the March 15 presidential elections—and also demanding that president-elect Mauricio Funes fulfill his campaign promises and provide ample space for workers and members of the social movements in the new government that will take office on June 1. One of the principle demands put forth by speakers, banners, and posters in the march is the creation of a Social and Economic Coordination Forum to provide a space for workers and members of the social movements to participate in drafting policies alongside government and the private sector. "President-elect Mauricio Funes must remember that it was the people that brought him to power," said Wilfredo Romero, secretary of the Water Workers Union (SETA). (CISPES, May 4)]

Mexico's three main labor federations—the centrist Congress of Labor (CT), the independent National Workers Union (UNT) and the more radical Mexican Union Front (FSM)—called off their planned May Day activities in Mexico City following recommendations from health officials trying to control the spread of the H1N1 influenza ("swine flu"). Health Secretary José Angel Córdova Villalobos ordered a suspension of all non-essential services from May 1 to May 5; the National Chamber of the Manufacturing Industry (CANACINTRA) said its members didn't have to pay wages to workers during the forced layoffs. (MRzine, May 1)

More than 30,000 Mexicans marched on May 1 despite the suspension of May Day activities in Mexico City. The largest march was in Puebla, capital of the eastern central state of Puebla. Some 25,000 people from 15 unions and campesino and activist groups participated in a UNT march to the city's zócalo (main plaza). "Face masks aren't enough to silence the conscience of the people" and "More harmful than the influenza--the government without shame" were among the chants. The largest contingent was made up of dissidents from sections 23 and 51 of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE). Teachers were also a major force in a march of about 3,000 workers in Tuxtla Gutiérrez in the southeastern state of Chiapas and in a protest by 1,000 workers in Cuernavaca in the central state of Morelos, where teachers fought the government's Alliance for Quality Education (ACE) program last fall. Smaller marches were held in other states, including Oaxaca, Guanajuato and Chihuahua. (La Jornada, Mexico, May 2)

The Caribbean
Thousands in Cuba took part in the traditional government-sponsored march, headed by President Raúl Castro, to Havana's Plaza de la Revolución. Slogans included calls for economic efficiency and support for the government, established by the 1959 Revolution. (La Opinión, May 2 from AP)

Riot police in Haiti used tear gas to disperse a march of several hundred students, teachers, unionist and others a few blocks from the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, causing panic and minor injuries. The marchers—organized by the Collective for Another May 1 around demands to raise the minimum wage—regrouped later in the Champ de Mars, the capital's main plaza, where the government of President René Préval was holding an agricultural and crafts fair around the theme: "solidarity between employers, workers, peasants and artisans to reinforce national production." "It's not normal for us to be unable to demonstrate peacefully and freely on May 1," said a member of the organizing committee of the collective, which is made up of the Popular Democratic Movement (MODEP), Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen ("Small Haitian Peasants Unity"), Batay Ouvriye ("Workers Struggle") and other groups. (AlterPresse, May 1)

In the French Caribbean department of Guadeloupe, some 20,000 people marked May 1 with a celebration of the 44-day general strike that won an increase in the minimum wage and price reductions for basic necessities earlier in the year. The demonstrators marched to Petit-Canal, the burial site of unionist Jacques Bino, who was killed on Feb. 17 in a night of violence during the generally peaceful strike. This was the first united May Day march for the island's leading labor organizations: the General Union of Guadeloupe Workers (UGTG), led by Elie Domota; the General Confederation of Labor of Guadeloupe (CGTG), led by Jean-Marie Nomertin; and the more radical Central of United Workers (CTU). But the march showed signs of tensions in the Collective Against Extreme Exploitation (LKP), the coalition that led the general strike: the CTU's Alex Lollia denounced the LKP as a "petit bourgeois movement." (Le Monde, France, May 2)

In Puerto Rico, the Broad Front of Solidarity and Struggle (FASyL), a coalition of 22 unions, held a one-day general strike and a march to protest what unionists said was a plan by Gov. Luis Fortuño to respond to the economic crisis by laying off 30,000-60,000 public employees and by "dismantling" the state through "the privatization of the country's essential public services." According to the police, 30,000 people participated in demonstrations in San Juan, during which Rafael Feliciano, leader of the militant Teachers' Federation of Puerto Rico (FMPR), shouted "murderer" at Police Superintendent José Figueroa Sancha. (Feliciano said later that Figueroa was involved in the killing of independence activist Filiberto Ojeda Ríos in September 2005.) Gov. Fortuño, of the conservative New Progressive Party (PNP), said he was studying alternatives for the workers to be laid off by the law he has proposed; he claimed that 40 states in the US have laid off public employees because of the crisis without giving any thought to situation of the workers. (TeleSUR, May 1; El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico, May 1).

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 3

See our last posts on the world May Day mobilization and the econocataclysm.

See also last year's May Day reports.