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EL SALVADOR: Nine-Month Health Strike to End, Privatisation Blocked

Néfer Muñoz

SAN JOSE, Jun 13 2003 (IPS) - Doctors and other public health employees in El Salvador will return Monday to their jobs, after signing an agreement Friday which put an end to a nine-month strike.
   Although the walkout had a dire impact on health care in the country, it successfully blocked the partial privatisation of the social security system, and dealt the government a harsh blow.

Doctors and other public health employees in El Salvador will return Monday to their jobs, after signing an agreement Friday which put an end to a nine-month strike.

Although the walkout had a dire impact on health care in the country, it successfully blocked the partial privatisation of the social security system, and dealt the government a harsh blow.

The pact between the government of Francisco Flores and the trade union representing Salvadoran Social Security Institute (ISSS) health workers will enable over one million Salvadorans to regain access to free health care, thanks to a special plan involving unpaid extra hours and special visits to rural communities.

Since the strike began on Sep. 18, public hospitals have only attended health emergencies.

Although neither side was entirely satisfied with the terms of the agreement, that was especially true for the government, which Salvadorans hold responsible for the conflict, according to opinion polls.

”The greatest achievement of this strike is that we reactivated the social movement, and were able to block the privatisation” of the ISSS, surgeon Isaías Cordero del Cid, the secretary-general of the ISSS doctors’ union, commented to IPS.

The document signed by the trade union and government delegates was drafted by a group of mediators, and stipulates that the striking workers, as well as 125 employees who had been dismissed, must be reinstated, and that half of the salaries that were not drawn over the space of nine months are to be paid.

Although the agreement does not include a written promise by the government not to privatise the ISSS, which the striking workers had demanded, the freeze on hospital activity and the massive protests had already forced the executive to withdraw three draft laws it had submitted to Congress, aimed at partial privatisation of the ISSS.

”We acknowledge that we did not achieve everything we wanted,” said Cordero del Cid. ”But this is a good start, because we have awakened a public that was sleeping, and that will now oppose the privatisation of the water services, education and public works.”

El Salvador, one of the countries with greatest population density in Latin America – 6.2 million people in a territory of 21,000 square kms – was hit hard by the nine-month strike.

The 11,500 public health employees of the ISSS, which runs most of the country’s public hospitals, skipped thousands of appointments and elective surgeries.

Cordero del Cid said that in order to make up for lost time, ISSS doctors and other employees would work extra hours without pay, and would set up health brigades to visit towns and villages in rural areas.

The unions representing doctors and other public health employees have held a number of demonstrations since September, in which they drew as many as 250,000 people out onto the streets in solidarity with their demands and to protest privatisation plans.

”It’s a relief that the walkout is over,” ISSS director of communications, Marvin Quinteros, told IPS. ”Although we in the government say this agreement is not in our best interests, we accept it in order to bring all this to an end.”

He said the draft laws that the government had sent to the legislature were not aimed at privatising the ISSS, but at maintaining the public social security system, while opening it up to private companies.

”The aim was to eliminate the monopoly…but the unions have cast the situation in a political light, and, well, their strategy worked. However, we reiterate that we don’t want to privatise,” he added.

Quinteros said there were no winners or losers, and that the real losers were those affiliated with the ISSS system.

The hope now is that the ISSS will expand its coverage from the current one million people it attends. In addition, the government has pledged to invest more money in infrastructure and equipment.

With this strike, ”we are sending a message to all of Latin America, to show that it IS possible to fight neo-liberalism,” the secretary-general of the ISSS employees, Ricardo Monge, said in an interview.

The workers who took part in the stoppage have paid a high cost, he underlined, because they were unable to attend thousands of patients, and earned no wages for over eight months.

”However, we have the great satisfaction that Congress has shelved the privatisation plans, which means private national and transnational companies which welcomed the sale of the ISSS will no longer benefit,” said Monge.

Analysts say one of the main political victims of the strike was the governing National Republican Alliance (ARENA), as demonstrated by the outcome of the March legislative and municipal elections.

The seats held by the right-wing ARENA in the 84-member single- chamber Congress shrunk from 29 to 27, and the party lost its ability to form alliances that gave it an absolute majority.

On the other hand, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which publicly supported the strike from the start, has 31 seats now, compared to 25 prior to the March elections, and is the poll favourite with a view to the 2004 presidential elections.

The Flores administration accused the FMLN of helping to create a climate of anxiety about the proposed partial privatisation of the ISSS, to gain political leverage, and complained that the leaders of the strike belonged to that leftist party.

Lawyer Rubén Zamora, who headed the group of mediators that drafted the pact that put an end to the walkout, said he was convinced that the strike could have been lifted months ago.

”The problem is that in El Salvador, conflicts tend to become over-politicised,” he told IPS. ”Summing up, we could say that the country lost a great deal, because thousands of patients saw their health care compromised, but that the country also won, because a plan to privatise was blocked.”

The reinsertion of the doctors and other public health workers will cost the state around 1.5 million dollars, he pointed out, adding that the strike in the ISSS was an illustration of the polarisation of the country.

 
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EL SALVADOR: Nine-Month Health Strike to End, Privatisation Blocked

Néfer Muñoz

SAN JOSE, Jun 13 2003 (IPS) - Doctors and other public health employees in El Salvador will return Monday to their jobs, after signing an agreement Friday which put an end to a nine-month strike.
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