San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

CAFTA Ratified, Start Date Uncertain

DESPITE stiff opposition and sometimes-violent protests, the free-trade agreement between the United States, Central America and the Dominican Republic (CAFTA) was ratified this year by all participating countries except for Costa Rica, which is still deliberating (see Tico Times).

The trade pact, which is expected to favor Central American textile and sugar industries while potentially presenting problems for several other agricultural and sensitive economic sectors, was initially scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, 2006, though that s now looking doubtful.

The reason: the United States is demanding that the Central American countries each have modern intellectual property rights laws a legislative stipulation that Central American governments are claiming wasn t clear during negotiations.

As it stands in late December, only El Salvador and the United States will enter into the free-trade pact on Jan. 1. The other countries will be allowed in later on a rolling basis, after complying with the requirements.

Of the other Central American countries, Nicaragua is reportedly the closest to compliance and will be allowed in as soon as it passes a new intellectual property rights law. The Dominican Republic, according to CAFTA insiders, is nowhere close to being ready.

The uncertain start date is the latest question mark in a free-trade agreement that this year mobilized hundreds of thousands of protesters throughout the region. In some cases, specifically in Guatemala, the protests quickly turned violent, with demonstrators clashing with riot police.

There were also several pro-CAFTA marches staged this year in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where employees of textile plants and other free-trade enthusiasts rallied for the trade pact.

Much of the participation in both the pro and anti-CAFTA marches was manufactured by interest groups either the free-trade zones instructing employees to go outside and cheer for their jobs, or left-of-center political parties and unions that bused people to the anti-rallies.

With free trade coming, polls indicate that many Central Americans are still unclear what CAFTA is all about, regardless if they placard they carried in the march said CAFTA SÍ or CAFTA NO.


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