|Rising Fuel Costs Provoke Transportation Strike in Nicaragua|
|Written by Mneesha Gellman and Josh Dankoff|
|Monday, 12 May 2008 11:52|
Editor's note: This strike ended Saturday, May 19. The government agreed to subsidize gas by $1.30.
Within minutes of rescuing us from the blazing sun of downtown, Jose Briceño Perez, a driver in a Nicaraguan taxi cooperative in the capital of Managua, made it clear that he was less than content with current government policies concerning fuel prices. "The money we pay for gas, it just goes to corruption."
The focus of the strike centers on three unions' demands for government subsidization at the fuel pump. The Federation of Taxi Drivers, National Transportation Coordinator and the Interurban Transportation Directorate demand that gas prices, currently at about US$4.70 per gallon, be reduced by more than US$2.00 per gallon and frozen. However, the government remains firm that such a policy would bankrupt them, and the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure has offered to reduce the price of gasoline by only US$0.30 cents a gallon. (2)
In Managua, some urban buses continue to run - those that already receive heavy fuel subsidies from the government. However, travel in the city is both risky and tense, and taxis refuse to drive in neighborhoods where there are known blockades. This week informal reports told of several strike-breaking taxis which were stopped by strikers at blockades. Strikers dragged passengers out and then stoned the vehicle. On Wednesday, more than 100 people were arrested in the city of León over the strike, and at least 15 police officers have been injured in interactions with the strikers. (3) Reports trickle in of violent scuffles in most major cities throughout the country.
Latin America's New Left and the Petroleum Challenge
In the hour-long ride it took for us to circumvent the blockades and arrive home, Briceño Perez explained that underlying the strike were corrupt politicians were sucking up the profits from the petroleum trade. Much of Nicaragua's petroleum comes from Venezuela, which has been a consistent ally of President Daniel Ortega's leftist government, yet gas in Nicaragua is currently the most expensive in Central America.
Daniel Ortega's Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) came to power through elections in January 2007 after 17 years of right-wing, neo-liberal governments. People's expectations were high, though Ortega's popularity is not uniform. His allies are those who have consistently maintained allegiance to the FSLN, though now well into middle age they work for a more moderate and secure kind of change. Opponents see this as selling out and feel disillusioned with the unfulfilled promises from the revolution. The way Ortega's government handles this transport strike could have major implications for his legitimacy in the eyes of many constituents and could shape his political future.
Nicaraguan does not produce any oil itself and relies heavily on Venezuelan oil imports. On the Pacific coast, there is one oil refinery that refines 20,000 barrels per day of Venezuelan crude oil and construction continues on a larger US$4 billion plant financed by Venezuela. (5) Nicaraguans are especially upset at the largely held perception that the oil refined in Nicaragua gets exported to Honduras where it is sold at a lower price. To add to the already complicated situation, Esso (an Exxon subsidiary), the operator of the working refinery has refused to handle Venezuelan crude in response to that country's nationalization program. (6)
Local response blames the Government
We ask him how he feels about the strike, because clearly he is driving a taxi - against orders of the transport union. Vehemently, he declares, "I am participating in the strike, despite driving. I know it is needed to bring a change." While the spiritual solidarity Jose may feel with strikers is evident, his car is owned by the taxi cooperative, and if he stopped picking up fares he wouldn't be able to pay the company fees.
For many, navigating the daily routine has become increasing complex in the streets of Managua. A domestic worker we spoke with said she thought she could get home tonight, but her job tomorrow required traveling through several neighborhoods rumored to be blockaded. She will have to weigh the risk of traveling against the need for work.
Mneesha Gellman and Josh Dankoff are currently traveling in Central America. They are stuck in Managua until the strike is resolved.
(1) The Daily News, 10 May 2008. "Nicaragua taxis, buses try
(2) La Prensa, 8 May 2008. "MTI firmará acuerdos con transportistas que no se sumaron al paro." Accessed 9 May, 2008:
(3) La Prensa, 10 May 2008. "Paro golpea estómagos." Accessed 10 May 2008.
(4) Carribean Update, 1 June 1999. "Transport Strike Settled." Accessed 10 May 2008.
(5) Energy Information Administration Country Briefs: Central America. Accessed 10 May 2008.
(6) Green Left Weekly, 22 February 2008. "Nicaragua and ExxonMobil clash over oil." Accessed 10 May 2008.
(7) International Herald Tribune, 1 May 2008. "Exxon Mobil reports 17% rise in quarterly profit." Accessed 10 May 2008.