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Two-day strike shuts down
Unionists demand jobs, moratorium on foreign debt payments
Government deploys army, police; troops kill seven people
Dominican army troops, top, patrol the streets of Santo Domingo January 28. Most of the country's economic activity was paralyzed during two-day strike, called to protest rising unemployment and inflation. Demonstrators in working-class district, bottom, set up barricades and burned tires the same day.|
BY MICHAEL ITALIE
AND LUIS MADRID
A two-day strike against the government of President Hipólito Mejía effectively shut down most economic activity in the Dominican Republic January 28-29. It took place two months after a similar one-day walkout. The Coordinating Committee of Popular and Labor Organizations called the work stoppage, according to reports in the New York daily Hoy and the Dominican press, as well as telephone interviews by Militant reporters with union leaders in the Dominican Republic. Strikers demanded jobs and protested rising unemployment and skyrocketing inflation. Protest organizers also condemned the countrys plunder by international finance capital through debt slavery, which, they said, is resulting in deteriorating living standards, including frequent, hours-long electricity blackouts. One of the main demands of strike leaders was for a moratorium on foreign debt payments.
Mejía answered the workers with a massive display of force, sending thousands of soldiers and police into the streets. Tanks were stationed at major intersections. Government forces killed at least seven people during the 48-hour period, wounded dozens more, and arrested about 500 others. Disregarding the impact of the walkout, Mejía said hypocritically that he lamented the situation, because those injured most by strikes are those most in need.
According to reports by union leaders interviewed by the Militant and others quoted by Associated Press and Hoy, 97 percent of businesses were shut down by the strike. Factories halted production, most business districts were empty, schools closed, and public transportation did not operate in this Caribbean nation of nearly 9 million people.
In a January 30 telephone interview with Militant reporters, Juan Manuel Salas, Secretary General of the National Union of Health Workers, said that in addition to trade unions, one employers association issued a statement telling workers to stay home. Another business group also backed the walkout unofficially, Salas said. He also stated that during the 48 hours of the strike, no major labor mobilizations were organized.
This de-facto front of businesses and trade unions indicated that the top union officialdom and many leftist groups that function in the Dominican workers movement left the countrys capitalist class effectively off the hook by focusing their fire on Mejía and his backers in Washington.
The general strike started a day early when nurses, doctors, and other health workers walked off the job to demand pay increases and improvements in medical care.
Salas reported that over the last two years real wages of hospital workers have dropped from $400 per month to $150. During the same two years the government has cut the health-care budget by 20 percent, he said. Patients can no longer be guaranteed the most minimal care, nor the most basic food. Funding from the government is now delayed as much as six months. It is not just health workers who are facing this chaos that Hipólito Mejía has sunk the country in, but every single sector of the population.
Over the last year working people in the Dominican Republic have faced a sharpening economic crisis. Joblessness has almost doubled to 17 percent in 12 months. The buying power of workers wages and pensions has plummeted under rising inflation that has exceeded 40 percent. In just one week in January, for example, gas prices rose by 18 percent, and the government is considering the institution of rationing of gasoline and diesel. Rice, which was sold at 13 cents per pound, now stands at 48 cents per pound. The breakdown of the electricity industry has resulted in regular blackouts across the country of as much as 20 hours per day.
Last year one of the countrys largest banks, Baninter, went belly-up, and two others followed suit. The government responded by pumping $2.2 billion to bail out the banks creditors. Protests against the social consequences of this government action have included rallies by Dominican immigrants in the United States.
Since the year 2000 the Caribbean nations foreign debt has more than doubled to $7.6 billion.
Faced with the stepped-up strikes and protests against its policies over the last year, the government has turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for financial succor, and the use of brute force against working people who fight to reverse the attacks on their conditions. Mejía is seeking an additional $600 million in loans from the IMF, which is demanding as a condition further cuts in social programs. Mejía is also preparing to sign on to Washingtons Central American Free Trade Agreement, which will further strengthen imperialist domination of the country.
During the January 28-29 walkout, unionists leading the strike demanded a moratorium on payments for the foreign debt, according to the French Press Agency (AFP).
Among the thousands of police and soldiers who patrolled working-class neighborhoods of Santo Domingo, the capital, were many troops who had recently returned from the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. They were still wearing their peacekeeping patches on their uniforms. The Dominican government joined Washingtons coalition of the willing after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.
The majority of those killed during the 48-hour strike died of gunshot wounds. Among the dead was José Vásquez Castro, a union leader shot in the head by police in the capital.
Salas said that at one point the military seized offices of the Coordinating Committee of Popular and Labor Organizations and tried to kidnap some of the leaders. When they resisted, five were wounded and are now hospitalized.
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