URGENT Striking Workers Paralyze the Government
MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) _ Thousands of striking workers paralyzed the government today and Vice President Virgilio Godoy said the opposition Sandinistas were ″trying to overthrow President Chamorro.″
It was the most serious threat to the 19-day-old government of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who defeated the leftist Sandinistas at the polls Feb. 25.
Riot police fired tear gas into the Foreign Ministry building to disperse workers who occupied the building, but state employees retook the premises immediately and pushed out the police. Strikers ignored threats of massive firings from the government.
It was just one of several government buildings occupied by strikers. Mrs. Chamorro’s whereabouts were not immedidately known. At most buildings, police merely stood outside. There was no sign of any army presence.
Telephone, telegraph and telex communications went dead, cutting off Nicaragua from the rest of the world. Workers threatened to cut off electricity to the city in the afternoon, to be followed by the water supply. Both electrical and water ministries were occupied by strikers.
An angry mob rushed Foreign Minister Enrique Dreyfus and a group of Nicaraguan ambassadors who were standing in the porch of a restaurant across the ministry parking lot. Police protected them from the mob.
The strike was for higher pay, but it became increasingly clear the stoppages were a political confrontation between the government and the Sandinistas. In addition to their economic demands, the strikers issued a new demand that the U.S.-backed Contra rebels immediately demobilize.
Tires were set ablaze in front of about six government buildings, while loudspeakers at the gate blared Sandinista revolutionary slogans against Mrs. Chamorro and her government.
″Violetta, start packing your bags 3/8″; ″The people own the government, not the beaugois 3/8″ and ″Not one step back 3/8″ were some of the slogans chanted by strikers at government buildings.
Public school teachers and communication workers joined the striking public employees pressing for a 200 wake hike to compensate for skyrocketing inflation, now estimated at 70 percent a month.
The government employees, a majority of them Sandinistas put there by the previous leftist government, were also demanding restoration of a public service law that provided them with job security.
A commentator on Radio Sandino, the Sandinista party broadcasting station, demanded that Mrs. Chamorro, who took office April 25 for a six-year term, step down. ″She should pack her bags and leave the country,″ the radio said.
Vice President Virgilio Godoy accused the Sandinistas of trying to overthrow Mrs. Chamorro’s government by encouraging a general strike.
The strike broke out last Wednesday when Mrs. Chamorro devalued the currency for the fourth time since taking office and ordered a 60 percent pay raise for government employees. The government workers rejected the raise, saying it was too little.
The government declared the strike illegal Monday and threatened to fire those who failed to return to work by today. Presidential spokesman Danilo Lacayo said about 10,000 public workers out of 150,000 nationwide were on strike.
Mrs. Chamorro appealed to President Bush for $40 million in emergency aid.
″My country is bankrupt,″ Mrs. Chamorro said in a cable to Bush. She said the Sandinista party of former president Daniel Ortega ″is taking advantage of the situation to create instability.″
Mrs. Chamorro said the emergency funds are needed to tide her country over until Congress enacts a $300 million aid package requested by the administration.
She said the money was needed ″to avoid a critical situation that may be looming in the very near future.″ A copy of the cable was obtained today.
″Today we face a general strike of the public sector. But we are determined to struggle on,″ she told Bush in the cable, dated May 11.
″We are looking into possibilities of doing something along the lines of what she requests,″ White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said today. ″If we can’t get something fairly quickly, we are taking a look to see if there are some kind of loans or something that can help her out in the short term.″
The Bush administration also said it would respond to an appeal by Mrs. Chamorro, who described a deteriorating situation in food supplies for thousands of Nicaraguan Contra rebels based at demobilization camps.
Sandinista labor union leaders said they are ready to paralyze the country with strikes if government does not back off its threat to dismiss strikers.
They said they would shut down telephone service, public transportation, schools and banks today.
Attempts to contact Managua today from New York and Mexico City were unsuccessful.
″There will be an escalation of the strikes, and we hope we don’t have to paralyze the country, because we have the capacity to do it,″ Lucio Jimenez of the Sandinista Workers Central told reporters Monday.
Jimenez said a lawyer was petitioning the Supreme Court asking that the Labor Ministry decree declaring the strikes illegal be revoked.
Workers are demanding either a 200 percent raise or a minimum monthly salary equivalent to $150. They also are demanding that a law guaranteeing their rights be reinstated, and that the government guarantee that there will be no retaliation against the strikers.
The average wage in Nicaragua is the equivalent of about $30 per month.
Unemployed Nicaraguans said they would be glad to take the jobs of the striking public workers. With Nicaragua’s high unemployment, it is unlikely the strikers could shut down the system for long. Estimates of the unemployment rate run as high as 45 percent.