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Salvadorans March Against Privatization

Thousands of Salvadorans are gearing up for a march Thursday against the government's privatization policies. The protest comes as a group of doctors and other hospital workers in El Salvador continue their six month strike. The protests and strike are examples of a region-wide backlash against the sale to private companies of state operated services.

In the shade of a yellow tent, on a blocked off, downtown San Salvador street, a cardiologist takes Juan Alberto Cabreras's blood pressure. The 82-year-old is one of the more than 300 patients that striking doctors have been attending for free each day outside a strike-torn social security hospital. Mr. Cabrera said he supports the strike because he thinks that when it comes to the dangers of privatization, he says these doctors' diagnosis is accurate.

He said they privatized electricity, and it made it more expensive. He said the government has given the population an example of what privatization is like, and that example has been destructive.

Protesters plan to march in the streets, demanding that the government stop what they say are plans to privatize the social security medical system.

Privatizations were pushed in 1990s by the World Bank and other multilateral lenders. Across the region, the policies were adopted by governments eager to improve desperate economies and receive much-needed loans.

Critics say privatizations in Latin America have further concentrated wealth and driven up the costs of services without making them more efficient.

Violent protests in Bolivia in April 2000 and in Peru last June were able to suspend, at least temporarily, plans to privatize certain state-run utilities in those countries. In Costa Rica, protesters recently took to the streets, fearing that negotiations underway for a free trade agreement with the United States would result in a reversal of their country's unique resistance to privatization.

But Mauricio Ramos, the director of the Salvadoran Social Security Institute, said the strike and protests are merely a political ploy aimed at scaring voters away from the ruling party in Sunday's legislative and mayoral elections. "We have been very clear, there is no plans to privatize," said Mr. Ramos.

But doctors say that their fears are warranted. Laundry, food service and security have already been contracted to private companies. In late February, the doctors association revealed that medical services were also being privatized, and in a highly questionable manner.

A company owned by the nation's minister of health, Francisco Lopez Beltran, was one of three companies contracted late last year to perform social security patient eye surgeries.

Days after the news broke, Dr. Roberto German Tobar, a leader of the doctors association, was one of dozens of white-robed doctors, protesting outside the health ministers office, demanding his resignation.

He said the law is clear: no minister can compete for a government contract. He said the benefits of this contract are for the health minister and his company, for him to profit off of health services.

The doctors association has filed a criminal complaint over the contract.

Since the strike began in September, some 260 of the 600 striking doctors have gone back to work, and social security has made 350 new hires. Director Ramos said that the social security hospitals are now working at close to their full capacity.

But those still striking say they won't go back to work until there is a government commitment to reform social security without privatizing it. Meanwhile they say the situation is far from normal inside the hospitals.

Strikers say medical residents are doing the work of full-fledged doctors, that general practitioners are doing the work of specialists and that as a result deaths are on the rise.