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Duarte Setting ‘Rules of the Game’ for Unions : Salvador Strikers March Unhindered After Police Rout Hospital Takeover

Times Staff Writer

Increased labor unrest here is prompting the government of President Jose Napoleon Duarte to establish limits on public protest in El Salvador.

Some boundaries were clearly established this week. On Tuesday, about 1,500 strikers, students and sympathizers marched without incident through the streets of San Salvador to protest the government’s labor policies.

No soldiers or policemen appeared along the route, although armed forces spokesmen had warned citizens not to join the march.

The tranquility of the demonstration contrasted sharply with the violence of a police raid on hospitals and clinics occupied by striking social service workers just two days before.

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In the most dramatic incident Sunday, police squads seized the General Hospital in San Salvador. During the assault, the troops shot and killed four plainclothes policemen who had first infiltrated the building.

‘Trying to Set Rules’

“We are trying to set the rules of the game for labor,” explained Julio Rey Prendes, the newly named minister of communications and a close aide to Duarte. “The government cannot negotiate with anyone who takes over a public building. If we let them take one building, they can continue taking buildings.”

At issue is the government’s tolerance of protest and political debate in the midst of civil war, a time when the government is particularly sensitive to law-and-order issues.

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Complicating Duarte’s relations with many trade unions are the ties some of the organizations have with rebel groups battling the government.

“In all these things, there are two sides of the coin,” Rey Prendes said. “There’s the real situation that motivates workers to ask for better wages and benefits. On the other side, there may be links with subversives. Sometimes in a strike, the left takes advantage of the situation.”

For example, rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front announced that in retaliation for the hospital takeover, its troops would block traffic on the country’s highways indefinitely.

Cautious Loosening

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In his first year in power, Duarte presided over a cautious loosening of the limits on political activity in El Salvador. Leftist voices, long frightened into silence by years of repression, made tentative efforts at criticism.

On May Day, unions marched peacefully in the streets. The National University, once a hotbed of political debate, reopened after a three-year shutdown. Spokesmen for leftist rebels were interviewed on radio and insurgent manifestoes appeared in local newspapers.

Duarte handled a long string of walkouts gingerly. Many strikes were called against government ministries and settled on the basis of wage increases. Police did not intervene, in contrast to the past.

But in recent weeks Duarte has appeared to lose patience. His ministers began to talk darkly of Communist infiltration of unions. In a speech Saturday on the first anniversary of his inauguration, Duarte warned labor that constant strikes violate the “social function” of unions.

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Rey Prendes admitted that the elaborate raid on the General Hospital in San Salvador was perhaps an overreaction. “It’s possible,” he said. “On the other hand, the security forces didn’t know what they would find inside; there were many rumors.”

In any case, Rey Prendes said, the government lacks the money to meet the workers’ incessant demands.

Labor Condemns Attack

Labor leaders condemned the police attack as a throwback to past dictatorships.

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“Duarte has been unmasked, and beneath the disguise is the face of Hitler,” said Cirilo Hueso, an official of the National Federation of Salvadoran Trade Unions, known as FENASTRAS. Federation members participated in the Tuesday march.

During the violence of 1979 and 1980, the federation was aligned with Marxist groups that formed the basis for armed rebellion in El Salvador. But the organization’s leaders now say only that their “interests” coincide with those of the rebels.

The National Assn. of Salvadoran Teachers, another leftist union, attacked Duarte’s assertions that unions are infiltrated by rebels. “When the government accuses us of being Communist, it scares us and cripples our movement,” association leader Saul Sanchez said.

The teachers’ union and other unions of government workers have been among the most active strikers. The walkouts began after a prohibition on wage increases was lifted at the end of 1983.

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The unrest has spilled over to Duarte’s relations with unions that support him. These unions, grouped under a large worker-farmer umbrella organization called Popular Democratic Unity, helped elect Duarte.

In return they expected jobs and the fulfillment of certain promises, including prosecution of death squad murderers, expanded land reform and political liberalization. The agreement is known as the “social pact.”

Might ‘Start Screaming’

But neither death squad investigations nor land reform have progressed under Duarte.

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“If things go as they are now, we might have to break the social pact and start screaming ‘demagogue’ at Duarte,” said Jose Maria Mendez, a Popular Democratic Unity official.

Leaders of the organization criticized the hospital seizure as excessive. “The government has been saying that everyone who doesn’t agree with it is a guerrilla,” one of them, Orlando Arevalo, added. “That doesn’t get at the problem of the workers.”

Traditionally, Latin American governments have resolved the problem of union pressure by enticing favored unions to ally themselves with the ruling party and repressing the rest. Duarte has his alliance with Popular Democratic Unity. It is not clear whether he is seeking to lure other unions to his side or is capable of doing so.


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