San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

CAFTA Controversy Continues

THE day after thousands of protestors voicedtheir opposition to the Central American Free-TradeAgreement with the United States (CAFTA) on thestreets of San José, President Abel Pachecoannounced he will visit Washington, D.C., next weekto discuss the pact with U.S. President George W.Bush and the presidents of the other signatory countries.The meeting, which U.S. sources say marks thebeginning of increased pro-CAFTA lobbying on thepart of the Bush administration, comes at a time whenPacheco appears more doubtful than ever about thepact. His ambivalence and the increasingly bitter conflictit has prompted have garnered international attentionfor the CAFTA debate here.Pacheco has said he will present to President Bushthe same position that has infuriated Costa Rican businessleaders who favor CAFTA: he will not send theagreement to the Legislative Assembly until he is convincedit will benefit all Costa Ricans. This certaintycan come only with the passage of controversial taxreforms, he says, if at all.ACCORDING to those who marched downAve. 2 in San José May 1, denouncing CAFTA andcelebrating International Workers’ Day, the free tradeagreement would be disastrous for the workingclass – primarily because it requires that state runmonopolies on electricity, telecommunicationsand insurance be gradually phased out to allow forprivate competition.School teacher Ricardo Ramírez, one of themany educators’ union members present at themarch, said he fears such privatization might extend to public education, damaging one of theinstitutions Costa Rica prizes most highly.A crowd of approximately 4,000 protestors,undaunted by the scorching heat,waved banners and placards to the rhythmof familiar chants, protest songs and amarching band or two.“Our country’s not for sale,” someshouted; “What would our grandmotherssay?” read a banner from a women’s league;students burned a U.S. flag.UNION organizers said they arepleased with the turnout.“There were more people than weexpected,” said Sergio Saborío, coordinatorof the Internal Workers’ Front of the CostaRican Electricity Institute (ICE). “There areso many distractions (on a Sunday).”Albino Vargas, secretary general of theNational Association of Public and PrivateEmployees (ANEP), agreed.“We had to compete with soccer, withreunions in the home, with rest from theworking week,” he said.According to Saborío, marchers weremore united in their message than in previousyears. Participants generally express avariety of concerns during May 1 events –this year, signs criticized corrupt politicians,the closure of evangelical churches becauseof noise violations, and the high cost of living,among other problems – but anti-CAFTA sentiment was by far the dominanttheme in the 2005 march, he said.WEEKS of controversy, finger-pointingand fear of civil unrest preceded theevent, but the activities on the streets ofthe capital went off without a hitch –although conflict over other protestsplanned for this month, and union leaders’recent statements about next year’selections, continued long after the lastprotestor headed home.Anti-CAFTA activists planted theseeds of the conflict at an April 14 SocialSummit held in downtown San José (TT,April 22). Speakers at the summitpromised to resist if Pacheco sendsCAFTA to the assembly, and said theywould not consider legitimate the governmentof presidential candidate and ex-President Óscar Árias (1988-1992), astaunch CAFTA supporter, should he bere-elected in 2006.Both statements have provoked ashower of criticism from leaders such asNational Tourism Chamber (CANATUR)president William Rodríguez, who wrote acolumn in the daily La Nación this week,arguing that tourists, hearing about the possibilitythat unions might reject the resultsof the next election, may choose to travelelsewhere.Voices on both sides of the argumenthave accused their opponents of beingundemocratic – either by inciting violence,or by attempting to suppress dissentingopinions (TT, April 29).THE debate is unlikely to disappear incoming weeks, since CAFTA opponentsplan additional protests for May 16, as wellas a Central America-wide summit in SanJosé May 27-29. The latter event will uniteCosta Rican CAFTA opponents with theprotestors who echoed their slogans andchants in similar marches throughoutCentral America on Sunday.Protests took place in Guatemala, ElSalvador and Honduras – where the countries’legislatures have already ratifiedCAFTA – as well as in Nicaragua.Not to be outdone, a group of CAFTAproponents here have taken matters intotheir own hands.Leaders including former TradeMinister Alberto Trejos and lead CAFTAnegotiator Anabel González recentlyannounced the formation of For CostaRica, an organization that seeks to promoteCAFTA.In the past week, the group took out afull-page ad in the daily La Nación, as wellas TV ads touting the agreement’s benefits.HOURS after the protestors endedtheir march outside the LegislativeAssembly building in San José, Pachecovisited the assembly to deliver his annualMay 1 speech, in which he made scarcemention of CAFTA.While the speech emphasized theimportance of modernization projects toallow Costa Rica to be competitive inexports and attracting foreign investment(see separate story), his words on CAFTAitself were limited to a brief statement thatits consideration should take place “at theopportune moment and when we are sure itwill benefit the whole population.”After his weekly Cabinet meetingTuesday, Pacheco said he plans to maintainthis stance at the May 12 meeting with Bush,which will also include Presidents LeonelFernández (Dominican Republic), EliasAntonio Saca (El Salvador), Oscar Berger(Guatemala), Ricardo Maduro (Honduras)and Enrique Bolaños (Nicaragua).“CAFTA isn’t the marvel some say itis, nor is it the disaster others say it is,” hesaid. “I’ll tell Mr. Bush; I told the U.S.Congressmen (who visited Costa Rica lastweek).”ASKED if he has decided who willmake up the “council of notables” he plansto appoint to reexamine the agreement – adecision he announced last week (TT, April29) – Pacheco said choosing council membersis “a difficult task,” and he cannot sayhow long it might take.The President’s U.S. trip, which beginsMay 10, will include a visit to Cincinnati,Ohio, where he will meet with that city’sChamber of Commerce and representativesof Proctor & Gamble, who recentlyexpanded their Costa Rican operations, inefforts to attract more foreign investment,according to Casa Presidencial.Pacheco also will meet with theWashington D.C. Chamber of Commercebefore his return to Costa Rica May 13.According to Tuesday’s edition ofThe Wall Street Journal, a U.S. daily, analystsand sources in the U.S. Congresssay Pacheco’s ambivalence underminesthe Bush administration’s argument thatCentral American countries are eager forCAFTA. This may have the potential todissuade undecided voters on Capitol Hillfrom voting in favor of the agreement,the daily reported.The legislatures of the United Statesand at least one other signatory countrymust ratify the agreement for it to takeeffect between those nations.(Tico Times reporter Rebecca Kimitch contributedto this report.)

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