San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

President Seeks Advice on U.S. Trade Pact

In an unexpected move that confoundedbusiness leaders and political observers thisweek, President Abel Pacheco unveiled a planapparently designed to help him reach a decisionon one of the most divisive issues facinghis administration: the Central AmericanFree-Trade Agreement with the United States(CAFTA).Surprising onlookers at a press conferencefollowing his weekly Cabinet meeting Tuesday,Pacheco announced he plans to form a “councilof notables,” made up of five people of hischoosing, to re-examine the agreement’s ramificationsfor Costa Rica.Analysts characterize the move as a delay tactic.“If you want to kill a topic in Costa Rican politics,you name a commission to deal with it,” said LuisGuillermo Solís, head of the political science program at the University of Costa Rica (UCR). “Myimpression is that Pacheco is very unhappywith CAFTA, and he’s very uneasy aboutthe consequences of presenting the treaty tothe assembly. It would create institutionalhavoc at a time when the government wouldlike to have an easy and peaceful conclusion,”Solís told The Tico Times.THE President’s announcement cameless than 24 hours after his meeting with thelargest U.S. congressional delegation ever tovisit Costa Rica, several of whose membersurged Pacheco to send CAFTAto the assemblyas soon as possible (see separate story).It also came in the wake of not-soveiledthreats from the newly formedNational Social Network, an organizationof unions and other anti-CAFTA groupsthat say they will bring Costa Rica to a haltwith strikes and protests if Pacheco sendsCAFTA to the assembly.While the unions accuse the governmentof having negotiated the agreement behindthe backs of the people, politicians and businesschambers have labeled the network’sthreats as undemocratic, with some comparingthe unrest to the beginnings of the currentpolitical instability in South Americancountries such as Ecuador.FOR months, Pacheco has maintainedthat he won’t send CAFTA to the assemblyuntil legislators reform the tax code to betterdistribute the wealth free trade mightprovide. This stance has enraged businessleaders, who say it could prevent the pact’spassage altogether – particularly since lawmakershave been discussing tax reformsfor more than three years without reachinga consensus.Now, it seems Pacheco’s doubts aboutCAFTA may go beyond financial equality.Asked whether, depending on the recommendationsof the “council of notables,”he might step back from CAFTA, thePresident did not discard the possibility,saying the agreement may pose problemsfor Costa Rica as a sovereign nation.HOWEVER, Pacheco preceded theannouncement with pro-CAFTA remarks.He delivered some derisive criticism of anti-CAFTA activists, saying they have “spunincredible legends” such as an argument thatthe pact would allow the United States toclaim Isla del Coco, Costa Rica’s legendary“Treasure Island,” located 365 miles west ofthe Pacific port of Puntarenas.The President then changed course,explaining his plans to consult “five CostaRicans, the best we have.” He added that hemay announce their names within the week.Asked why he allowed representativesof Costa Rica to sign CAFTA last year ifhe has doubts about the agreement, hesaid, “I trusted (the negotiators). I can’t beSuperman and do everything… I’m likethe conductor of an orchestra.”ALBERTO Trejos, Pacheco’s formerForeign Trade Minister, who oversawCosta Rica’s negotiation “dream team” –as they were dubbed by the press – andlater signed the agreement, discounted thisvision of Pacheco as a detached supervisor.“The interpretation that the President isexternal to CAFTA is not correct,” he toldThe Tico Times. “He was the one whomade the decision to start the negotiations;the big decisions during the negotiations;and the decision to sign the treaty.”Political analyst Solís agreed.“He has argued that he was misled bythe negotiators regarding the content of thetreaty, but he’s the highest political authorityin the country,” he said. “He’s thinking,‘If (former President and 2006 presidentialcandidate) Oscar Arias is elected, why nothave him take all the heat? Why should Ipay for the broken plates?’… But if that’sthe logic, he should come to the forefrontand recognize it.”Union leader and CAFTA opponentEdgar Morales, secretary general of theNational Association of Public and PrivateEmployees (ANEP), expressed a mixedreaction to Pacheco’s plan.“If the President’s intention is to havethe council lock itself into a room and takenotes, he’s wrong,” he said, but added that ifcouncil members make an effort to create anational dialogue about CAFTA, the idea“could yield important results.”THE most difficult aspect of formingthe new council may be finding the rightpeople for the task.Pacheco said his chosen five would beunbiased, not aligned with business orunion interests, but finding such a group iseasier said than done, according to Solís.“I have no idea where he’s going tofind them,” he said. “This is like finding ajury for the trial of a superstar. Anybodywith respectable (knowledge) of CAFTAhas to have an opinion on it.”According to Trejos, choosing new“notables” is superfluous.“The country already has a council ofnotables,” he said. “They are the 57 peoplethat Costa Ricans elect to the LegislativeAssembly.”DURING this new twist in the CAFTAsaga, the firm Unimer, commissioned bythe daily La Nación to interview CostaRicans on a wide variety of topics, releaseddata showing citizens’ opinions ofPacheco’s administration have taken a divein the past year.Of the 1,415 people Unimer interviewedthroughout the country early this month,56% said the Pacheco administration is notresolving the country’s problems, up from40% in November 2004. Only 19% qualifiedthe government’s performance as “good.”Nevertheless, opinions of Pachecohimself are more favorable than those ofhis government. In a popularity ranking of16 public figures, Pacheco came in secondwith a 67% favorable rating, behindCitizen Action Party (PAC) legislator EpsyCampbell and ahead of ex-President Arias(1988-1992).

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