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Unions March Against Privatization
Cerigua Weekly Briefs, No.11, 11 March 1997
Guatemala City, March 11. Thousands took to the streets March 7 in the first major protest against President Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen's unpopular economic measures. And today the Catholic Church added its voice to the growing clamor for the suspension of the government's ambitious privatization program.
When unions first called for a protest against privatization and skyrocketing consumer costs, representatives of the ruling National Advancement Party (PAN) dared labor to fill the central plaza with demonstrators.
With this demonstration "we'll be able to measure the real strength and power to mobilize of the labor organizations," said PAN legislator Jorge Mendez Herbruger prior to the march.
Most analysts here agree that the labor movement -- dormant for many months -- met the government's challenge.
The march, called by the Unity of Popular and Labor Action (UASP) and the newly created Guatemalan Workers Union (UGT), mobilized more than 10,000 unionists, students, housewives, campesinos and street vendors.
Labor leaders said even they were surprised by the size of the turnout.
But President Arzu dismissed the protesters as a small group of bureaucrats unhappy with recent reforms he says will force them to put in a full day's work. "It's not fair that people are denied access to services because the state has to maintain this troop of lazy bums," said the president.
Since the December 29 signing of peace accords to end the civil war here, the PAN has accelerated its program of neoliberal reforms. Critics blame these changes for the sharp jump in the consumer price index last month. Prices rose 2.33 percent in February, according to the National Statistics Institute, a 360 percent increase over February 1996.
The average urban wage of 890 quetzales (US$148) a month does not meet the minimum of 1,500 quetzales (US$250) needed for a family's basic living costs, according to a report released today by the Office of Guatemala City's Archbishop. The Church warns that the sharp deterioration of public services and growing unemployment and crime are generating "a dangerous climate of social ingovernability" in the country.
Opposition Fails to Block Privatization Law
Guatemala City, March 9. Statutes and decrees are putty in the hands of the ruling National Advancement Party (PAN). On March 5, the party's absolute majority in Congress gave unanimous support to controversial changes in the Sales and Contracts Law, removing the last legal obstacles to speedy privatization of state services.
The new amendments set out guidelines for the sale of state enterprises and the procedures for granting concessions. Under the reforms Congress' approval of the sale of state assets will no longer be required, nor will there be independent appraisals of the assets' market value. The use of intermediaries, such as international banks, to manage sales will now be permitted. Some enterprises may be sold as a package and the privatization process will be accelerated.
Critics charge that the revised law, dubbed by some the "pinata" or "pork barrel," does not include independent monitoring of the sale of state assets, and may result in backroom deals and the auctioning off of state assets well below their market value.
Five opposition parties in Congress fought hard to stop the bill. But PAN legislators rejected proposals to take the issue to a national referendum or to present the bill to the Constitutional Court for its legal opinion. Opposition legislators maintain the reforms are unconstitutional and have pledged to present a legal challenge to the amendments.