San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Pacheco Clarifies CAFTA Position: Undecided

PRESIDENT Abel Pacheco this week confirmedwhat many supporters of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) havelong suspected: he is undecided about the agreement.During the press conference following his weeklyCabinet meeting Tuesday, he said that he neither supportsnor opposes CAFTA, and that his decision aboutthe trade-pact will likely depend on the recommendationof a “council of notables” he is in the process ofnaming and on the complementary agenda being consideredby the Legislative Assembly.The day before his comments, protestors stagedevents across the country in what appears to be a newanti-CAFTA strategy. After months and years of largemarches down Ave. 2 in downtown San José,Monday’s events featured smaller groups throughoutthe capital, as well as in other cities and towns acrossCosta Rica.HOWEVER, one result of the new strategy is thatthe central San José march was smaller than those inthe past, causing the government and the nationalmedia to dub the protests anticlimactic.While marchers say CAFTA would compromiseCosta Rican jobs, traditions and education, theonlookers who spoke with The Tico Times appearedto have opinions that mirrored the President’s.“The agreement could be good; it could be bad,”said Marco Rodríguez, 73, who sat in San José’sCentral Park with his back to the loudspeakers, banners,ox carts and motorcycle teams protestingCAFTA behind him.PACHECO’S ambiguous statements came lessthan a week after his meeting with the Presidents ofthe other signatory countries of CAFTA inWashington, D.C. While Pacheco did not stray fromhis message that he will send CAFTA to theLegislative Assembly only when he is sure it will benefitall Costa Ricans, he also praised the agreement inmeetings with legislators and business executives inboth Washington and Cincinnati, Ohio, during the trip(TT, May 13).On Tuesday, Pacheco dismissed critics’ claimsthat he has been delivering inconsistent messages athome and abroad.“My position has not changed,” he said. “It’s notthat I’m for or against CAFTA… I’m in favor of a good free-trade agreement, and againsta bad free-trade agreement.”He would not say which of thesetwo descriptions applies to CAFTA,despite pressure from reporters to clarifyhis statements.“I support a free-trade agreement thatdoes not damage the environment, thatdoesn’t cause the dismemberment of thecountry,” Pacheco added. “But a treaty thatimplies diminishing our sovereignty, thatimplies sacrificing our environment, thatimplies increasing the breach between richand poor… No, I do not support that free tradeagreement.”He said the “council of notables” – fivepeople he plans to appoint to re-examinethe treaty’s possible consequences forCosta Rica – is one of the steps that willhelp him decide whether CAFTA is “good”or “bad.”Last week, he announced thatrenowned astronaut Franklin Chang, a dualU.S.-Costa Rican citizen, will be one of thecouncil members (TT, May 13). No othernames have been released.ALSO at the press conference,Pacheco said he will not send CAFTA tothe assembly until the not-yet-formedcouncil has made its recommendations –even if the assembly passes the controversialtax reforms Pacheco set as a prerequisitefor submitting CAFTA in mid-2004.Legislators have been working to applya fast-track procedure to the proposedreforms to bring them to a vote after morethan three years of discussion, althoughsuch efforts suffered a setback Monday(see separate story). After being askedtwice whether he would send CAFTA tothe assembly if legislators approve thereforms this week, Pacheco admitted thathe would first present the agreement to the“council of notables,” adding that “it won’ttake very long.”“I don’t see what the hurry is. (Whatare) two months, three months, when thefuture of the country is being decided?”he said.UNIONS and social groups who feelthere is plenty to be questioned in theagreement took to the streets Monday, theday Pacheco returned from his trip abroad,which included a stop in the DominicanRepublic on his way back from the UnitedStates (see separate story).Organizers termed the events a success,since nationwide numbers compensatedfor the relatively low numbers in downtownSan José.“There are 100,000 people out there(across the country) today,” Danilo Rojas,president of the High-School Teachers’Association (APSE), told The Tico Timesas he made his way toward the LegislativeAssembly during the central San Josémarch.Labor Minister Fernando Trejos saidRojas’ estimate is “totally exaggerated.”“The march did not meet the expectationsmany unions had expressed,” Trejostold The Tico Times. “Almost all CostaRican state employees worked today, withsmall exceptions in areas such as the CostaRican Electricity Institute (ICE).”IT was likely more difficult to estimatetotal numbers than in the past, since eventhe downtown San José march was brokeninto several sections, with individual laborunions and other groups traversing differentparts of Ave. 2 at different times.The blue, white and gray uniforms ofprotesting high-school students dotted thecrowd. David Roda, 17, said he and hisLiceo de Costa Rica classmates receivedsupport from their teachers when theyexpressed their interest in skipping schoolto attend the march.Observers’ reactions were mixed.While all those who spoke with The TicoTimes said they support the right to freedomof expression, even at the cost of trafficproblems and other inconveniences,some expressed doubt as to marchers’ abilityto affect the government – or even theobservers themselves.Genoveva Villareal and ArgentinaEstrada sell newspapers on Ave. 2, thespinal column of many a Costa Ricanmarch. This one was sub-par, they said.“FOR me, this protest doesn’t seem sogood,” Estrada said. “It doesn’t have muchforce. We have seen various marches, butthey almost never resolve anything.”“They (the marchers) tell us CAFTA issupposedly not good, but I really couldn’ttell you,” Villareal said, adding the agreementcould generate more jobs for youngpeople.Supporters of the free-trade agreement– which Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras,El Salvador, Guatemala, the DominicanRepublic and the United States signed lastyear – have accused anti-CAFTA activistsof impeding other citizens’ right to freetransit by having marches.Protestor Bernardo Guzmán, a high schoolteacher at Monday’s Ave. 2 event,said this criticism is unfair.“We are protesting against institutionsthat are very strong economically, and thathave the media at their disposition,”Guzmán said. “We don’t have that, unfortunately.We have neither the resources,nor the access to the media (that they do).”

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