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  • Volume Eight, Number Five: July 2003

    A Continental Victory Over Mass Privatization

    Health Care professionals Derail Mass Sell-off in El Salvador

    Doctors and other medical workers in El Salvador are striking to prevent public health care from being gobbled by private, for-profit interests, matching the anti-privatization struggles in BC and the rest of Canada.

    And the doctors – two of whom toured the province early June – are calling for support from Canadians to help their fight to defeat health care privatization.

    Dr. Armando Lucha, a gynaecologist, and Dr. Luz Estrella visited several centres in BC to inform Canadians of how the sell-out of public health care in their country and here is part of the agenda of several hemispheric free trade deals. The two are leaders of a strike involving more than 400 doctors and some 350 other health care workers now eight months old.

    Privatization will especially hard for El Salvador's poor residents since health care is already 50 years behind in the war-torn Central American nation, Lucha told a forum in Vancouver June 2. "In a situation like that, privatization would just mean death for many of the population."

    The strike affects five of the largest hospitals in the social security segment of the Central American country's health system. That segment provides health care for workers and comprises about 11 per cent of the system. The health ministry provides the national health segment -- 89 per cent -- while the small private sector accounts for the rest.

    The current battle aims to force the government to live up to an agreement struck three years ago, said Lucha in an interview. Then, a four-month medical strike wrung from the ruling right-wing ARENA government a written commitment "to stop the first steps of privatization." The agreement was signed also by several health care institutions, civil organizations, medical colleges, and the doctors and general health care workers' unions.

    The pact also contained a pledge to improve the health care system. Foreign private firms could participate, but only in clearly marked areas such as the provision of desperately needed medical equipment. Control of health care services would remain public.

    Despite being public, the national health system charges fees for some services and materials. "Poor people don't have enough money to obtain these services; some 50 per cent of Salvadorans live under the poverty line," Lucha related.

    The strike is dragging on because the government and employers hope to wear down the opposition, said Lucha. But the strike and its aims have found broad support, demonstrated by peaceful protest marches of up 350,000 in the nation's capital, San Salvador. There have been seven large "white" marches, so named because participants wear white to show their support for the health care workers.

    "White also represents peace. The marches are non-confrontational and involve no civil disobedience," Lucha said.

    El Salvador has suffered decades of violence through armed insurrection against repressive right-wing government's representing an oligarchy of the country's top wealthy families, who have ruled with the army, police and death squads. In the nineties the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front – FMLN – disarmed through an accord and now fights in elections. It has several representatives in congress.

    The FMLN made major gains in municipal and legislative elections in March. Dr. Estrella was elected mayor of Apopa, a large town on the outskirts of San Salvador. Lucha said the strike, which began over the firing of 10 health care workers, is having a strong effect on the fortunes of political parties. ARENA is predicted to lose next year's presidential race.

    Some of the protests have been broken up violently by police, despite the fact that many police officers don't relish their role and support the aims of the protests, said Lucha. "So far, no one has been killed – yet."

    Just as with Canada there are ties between the governing parties and those looking to profit from the privatization of public health care, Lucha observed. That's why it's important for Canadians to "help us attain the kind of health services you have here," he urged.

    The doctors' tour was sponsored by several BC groups, including the BC Health Coalition, the Christian Task Force on Central America and other support groups, several unions and the Vancouver & District Labour Council. VDLC president Bill Saunders cited the "incredibly positive example of taking up an issue that is current here and showing how much gain can be made on it, under incredibly repressive conditions.

    Canadians hear a lot about how corporations dominate the global agenda, said Saunders. "They don't get enough examples like Bolivia's successful struggle against privatization of water. Argentina is another example of the total failure of the World Bank prescription for countries and people are starting alternative economies. These examples need to be popularized here. It's not just us who can teach Latin America -- they can teach us some things. The fight they're fighting is our fight."

    The striking health care workers are calling on Canadians to write El Salvador's president Francisco Flores, Canada's foreign affairs minister Bill Graham and Canadian ambassador to El Salvador, James Lambert. More information can be obtained from the Christian Task Force on Central America, 604 875-9218, ctfca@telus.net.



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