San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

CAFTA Discussion Continues, Leaders Lobby For U.S. Votes

A few months ago, Costa Rican advocates ofthe Central American Free-Trade Agreementwith the United States (CAFTA) referred to thepassage of the pact in the United States as a surething, arguing that Costa Rica must approve theagreement or risk being left behind.Those days are over, at least for the time being.Although mock votes in the U.S. Congress thisweek showed cautious support for the agreement,the possible results of a real vote in Washington,D.C. remain uncertain. Prominent Costa Ricans,including several former and would-be occupants ofCasa Presidencial, have responded by taking theirarguments for and against CAFTA to U.S. citizens.“Anything can happen. CAFTAcould be approved (inthe United States) by a very few votes, or defeated by avery few votes,” presidential candidate Oscar Arias saidMonday after returning from a trip to Washington, lobby congressional Democrats opposed to the pact.THE CAFTAopposition Arias found on Capitol Hillapparently caused him to change his message aboutCosta Rica’s CAFTA strategy. The former President(1986-1990), who previously maintained CAFTA mustbe approved in Costa Rica as soon as possible, toldreporters this week that Costa Rica should wait to seewhether the United States approves theagreement before taking action.This appears to be likely, as PresidentAbel Pacheco, who says he neither supportsnor opposes CAFTA, has been slowto submit the agreement for ratification.The President announced Wednesday themembers of his “Council of Notables” – agroup of private citizens he has designatedto study CAFTA and make recommendationsregarding whether the pact will benefitCosta Rica.PRESIDENTIAL candidate OttónSolís, of the Citizen Action Party (PAC),maintains the agreement must be renegotiatedfor it to benefit Central America.Solís, who also made lobbying trips to theUnited States in recent months, stayed athome this week to bring his argument tomembers of Republicans Abroad CostaRica, many of whom are staunch CAFTAsupporters.Unlike Arias, who claimed anti-CAFTA Democrats “have changed theirposition in large part because they fear thethreats of union leaders in the UnitedStates,” Solís said opposition to the agreementin the U.S. House and Senate is well founded.“(U.S. Congressmen) are opposing itfor the right reasons. They are increasinglyrealizing the negative impact it could haveon our region,” Solís said.CAFTA support in Congress appearedto build throughout the week, however. OnMonday, a story in The Washington Postproclaimed that CAFTA was “in peril onCapitol Hill,” with U.S. President GeorgeW. Bush shelling out funds to states in anattempt to win votes and avoid an embarrassingdefeat for his administration. ButTuesday’s and Wednesday’s “mock votes”in the Senate Finance Committee and theHouse Ways & Means Committee – thetwo Congressional committees responsiblefor examining the pact – produced victoriesfor CAFTA, 11-9 and 25-16, respectively.While the votes are non-binding, theycould provide an impetus to the WhiteHouse to officially submit CAFTA toCongress, which would have 90 days toreview the agreement.“This week’s action is an importantstep forward in the effort to secure finalCongressional approval of this historicalfree-trade agreement,” said CAFTA supporterKevin Burke, president of theAmerican Apparel & Footwear Association(AAFA), in a statement. “We urgeCongress to quickly take up and pass theagreement before the end of the month.”CAFTA, signed in 2004 by Guatemala,El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, CostaRica, the Dominican Republic and theUnited States, awaits ratification in all butthe first three countries. If the U.S.Congress approves the pact, it will takeeffect between that country, Guatemala, ElSalvador, Honduras and any other signatorycountries that have ratified it by then.President Pacheco visited Washingtonhimself in May to speak in favor ofCAFTA(TT, May 13), but says he will notsend CAFTA to the Legislative Assemblyanytime soon. He insists not only that taxreforms must be approved first – thisweek, he said extra tax revenues areessential to deal with the debt Costa Ricawould incur should CAFTA take effect –but also that the agreement must be furtherstudied to determine how it willaffect the country.On Wednesday, Pacheco announcedthe names of the members of the council towhom he has assigned that task. Alongwith famed U.S.-Costa Rican astronautFranklin Chang, the council will be madeup of Rodrigo Gámez, head of the private,nonprofit National Biodiversity Institute(INBio); former University of Costa Rica(UCR) rector Gabriel Macaya; lawyer,diplomat and international treaty expertAlvar Antillón; and priest Guido Villalta,named by leaders of the Catholic Churchas their representative.Pacheco said the council will meet assoon as Chang, who lives in Texas, canvisit Costa Rica. He originally said hewould await the council’s recommendationsbefore sending CAFTA to theLegislative Assembly, but this week saidthe council’s function is not to tell thePresident whether or not to submit theagreement, but rather to make general recommendations.SOLÍS – along with fellow CAFTA criticssuch as ex-President Rodrigo Carazo(1978-1982), who visited Washington thisweek to attend a conference about the potentialconsequences of CAFTA for CentralAmerican countries – describes severalaspects of the pact as unfair to CentralAmerica. Among these: U.S. agriculturalsubsidies, which he says create an unevenplaying field; intellectual property-rightschapters that increase data protections forpharmaceutical companies; and conflict-resolutionprocedures Solís says interfere withCosta Rican sovereignty.“We are being told, ‘Your judicial system…is good for you third-class people,but not good enough for the first-classinvestors of the U.S.A.,’” he said.The presidential candidate alsoaccused the United States of disrespectingdemocracy by requiring the opening of thestate-owned monopoly on telecommunications,the Costa Rican Electricity Institute(ICE) – one of the most controversialaspects of the trade agreement.“If we are going to destroy one of thethings that allows social mobility in thiscountry… we should decide to do it ourselves;if it is opened, it should be donedemocratically, not through the back door,by the United States in a trade agreement,”he said.While audience members respondedwith complaints about how hard it is to getnew cell phone and land lines in CostaRica, Solís said stripping ICE of itsmonopoly in those areas would cut profitsthat currently allow it to bring electricityand phones to rural areas.His audience was not entirely convinced.“You have to have a lot of respect forOttón to come into this kind of group andspeak his mind. But… if you want to playin the United States, to some extent youhave to acquiesce to the fact that you are asmaller player and you are going to have tomake sacrifices as a result,” saidRepublicans Abroad member HowardSolomon, a U.S. businessman who haslived in Costa Rica for 30 years.“For the survival of Costa Rica,(CAFTA) must go through,” fellow memberChris Walraven said after the speech –echoing Arias, who said Monday thatCAFTA’s defeat in the United States wouldhave negative effects for the economicfuture of Central America and the world.CAFTA opponents risk sending “amessage that would be very damaging forthe world,” Arias said. “They’re playingwith fire.”

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