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Thursday, December 12, 2013
- Luisa Gutiérrez, 65, dances a frenzied mambo on an unusual dance floor: a street in the Nicaraguan capital. Dozens of cars line up behind her, honking their horns impatiently, while she, surrounded by elderly people with canes, walkers and protest signs, dances to demand a government pension.
The street dance performed by Gutiérrez, a former employee of a privately-owned footwear company that has since closed, is one of the diverse forms of protest staged by 20,000 retired workers who have come together in the non-governmental Older Adult Unit (UNAM).
The demonstrations will be stepped up in September, on the fifth anniversary of the start of the continuous protests.
UNAM is demanding the reinstatement of an old law requiring that the state pay the pensions of former workers who did not pay into the social security system long enough to qualify for a full pension.
Some 6,000 members of UNAM blocked the main streets of Managua last week and plan to continue demonstrating until their demands are met.
The president of UNAM, Porfirio García, told IPS that within the next few weeks, they will go on hunger strike in a public square outside the government building, to force the left-wing government of Daniel Ortega to support a bill that is stuck in parliament.
“We gave the best years of our youth to our country, and they took away our right to a reduced pension,” García said. “We don’t want to die without using our last strength to get that right reinstated and at least leave it as a legacy for our grandchildren.”
UNAM, which turns five years old on Sept. 23, was created by a group of around 100 retirees who assiduously visited the offices of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS) in Managua, to apply for a partial pension based on the number of years they paid into the system while working.
Under Nicaragua’s social security law, to be eligible for a pension and specialised healthcare at INSS clinics after the age of 60, workers must have paid into the system for at least 750 weeks (14.4 years).
But García explained that most retired workers in the country have not paid into the social security system for 14.4 years, largely because of the instability in this Central American country, caused by war, natural disasters and constant economic and political crises, which affected the private companies and public offices where today’s elderly protesters once worked.
A law that was repealed in early 1990 during the government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro (1990-1996), as a result of pressure from multilateral lending institutions, established a minimum reduced pension of approximately 50 dollars a month for those who did not qualify for a full pension.
Nicaragua, population 5.8 million, is the second poorest country in the Americas after Haiti.
In response to UNAM’s years of protests and demands, lawmaker Adolfo Martínez Cole of the Bancada Democrática Nicaragüense, a small opposition party, introduced a bill, called the “special law to grant reduced pensions to the elderly”, to cover workers who did not complete their payments.
Martínez Cole explained to IPS that the bill was aimed at making a fixed monthly stipend available to former workers of retirement age who made at least 250 weeks worth of payments, according to INSS records.
As of 2007, there were 65,000 people registered with the INSS, who had made payments for between 250 and 750 weeks. But a study is needed to determine who has died since then, who is living outside the country, and who is in need of a pension.
“We are not asking for anything extraordinary, only the humanitarian enforcement of a right established by the constitution, which stipulates that retired workers have the right to protection by the family, society and the state,” he said.
But the bill was immediately criticised by legislators of the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), who hold a majority – 63 of 91 seats – in the single-chamber parliament.
However, Sandinista lawmaker Gustavo Porras, a trade unionist in the public health sector, clarified to IPS that the bill had not been rejected and was under study.
“They (the authors of the bill) do not say where the funds would come from; they just say the former workers must be given money,” said Porras, chairman of the parliamentary health commission. “It cannot be done without a technical study about the population in retirement, the amount of their pensions, where they used to work, and their job history.”
Porras said the Ortega administration has created a special commission to study the demands of the group of elderly protesters, and that an INSS technical report is being drawn up to assess the number of people affected by the problem and the payments they have made to the system, and based on that information, to seek sources of financing.
After the last protest, as a result of which 20 of the demonstrators ended up in the hospital due to fatigue and symptoms associated with age-related ailments, the government, through Rosario Murillo, the president’s spokeswoman and wife, announced that a meeting would be held in the near future to inform the protesters about the study that is being carried out.
According to INSS figures, the government has paid 5,700 people monthly 45-dollar stipends since 2010, as well as providing them with food aid and medical care, and free eye glasses, prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs, and support to their families in case the retired worker dies.
Nevertheless, the government has admitted that it does not have a sustainable source of funds to cover the reduced pension payments, but says it is working on finding a permanent alternative.
Economist and social researcher Adolfo Acevedo Vogl, however, argues that the country does have the funds and economic structure for guaranteeing the elderly a partial pension.
“All that would have to be done is dedicate a portion of the taxes collected above the budgeted estimate to cover their demand,” he said.
According to an official household survey, there were 363,400 people over 60 in Nicaragua in 2010. Of that total, only 55,000 were drawing a retirement pension from the INSS. The remaining 85 percent received no social security benefits.
“In the rest of Central America, non-contributory pensions have been established for elderly persons living in extreme poverty, whether or not they had made social security payments. Nicaragua has the capacity and the humanitarian duty to do that,” Acevedo Vogl said.
According to his statistics, a minimum monthly pension for people over 70 would cost the state 52 million dollars a year. “In 2011, the taxes collected above budgeted expectations amounted to more than 147 million dollars, which means that establishing a scheme of this nature would cost the country just 35 percent of the extra taxes collected,” he said.
And while the debate continues, the retired workers, like Luisa Gutiérrez, threaten to move on from street dances and roadblocks to occupations of hospitals and hunger strikes, even if it means they will be putting their lives at risk.